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Tag: paul giblin

West Highland Way Race 2014 – RACE REPORT

Looking back at my running year so far, it’s amusing to see how the start-of-season shorter ultras which take up the guts of a Saturday, have now morphed in to 4-day long epics. Last weekend was the West Highland Way Race 2014; which saw pretty much everyone in Scottish Ultrarunning, alongside plenty of others from around the world, descend on Milngavie to take on Scotland’s greatest running challenge. If you weren’t running you were crewing, if you weren’t crewing you were marshalling, if you weren’t marshalling you were cheering. If you weren’t any of those, then you were probably hanging out at the back with my gang – the sweep team.

Stonehaven Running Club once more assumed the duties of being the back markers of the race, and this year due to our fearless leader Neil breaking his ankle three weeks ago, I took over as team leader. This was to be my fourth year involved with the race – in 2011 I crewed for Mike Raffan, in 2012 I crewed for Vikki Shanks, and in 2013 I was on the Sweep Team.

west highland way race 20142013 Team Sweep

Sweeping can be a deceptively tough job. In this race it tends to be more walking than running, and never at your own comfortable pace. Whilst tremendously sleep-deprived, at its worst you will be dealing with angry runners who really don’t want to be near you, upset runners who are injured and are having to pull out, grown men in floods of tears and perhaps friends going through their own personal hell. Alternatively you get the satisfaction of seeing people finish after overcoming tremendous difficulty, you see the raw heart and soul that runners put in to this race and the true love and dedication of the crews to their runners. It is a difficult but truly rewarding way to spend a weekend.

west highland way race 2014

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – Momentumphotos.co.uk

So it was once again that I found myself in a car park in Milngavie at 12:30am on the Summer Solstice, standing amongst a huge crowd listening to Ian Beattie brief the runners of the 2014 West Highland Way Race.

west highland way race 2014

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – Momentumphotos.co.uk

After plenty of good luck hugs to everyone we knew that was running (especially Vikki and Nicola from our club) we took a good position up the High St to watch the start. I’ve never seen Milngavie High St in real life – I’ve only ever been there at either 6am as part of a snake of Highland Fling runners, or at 1am screaming my heart out at the start of this race.

west highland way race 2014

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – Momentumphotos.co.uk

This year I brought a cowbell and rang it as hard as I could whilst hollering and taking pictures for the duration of the 193 runners’ passing. Apparently there are people who live above the shops there… Well, sorry for disturbing you, residents; but if you were in bed you missed out on seeing the remarkable start of the greatest West Highland Way race yet. Paul Giblin had returned to defend his title and 15hr 07m course record from young Englishman Robbie Britton, who had come with a target of running under 15 hours and the two men set upon the course at suicide pace. The record was decimated by Paul in an incredible finish time of 14hr 20m with Robbie finishing in 14hr 47m. You can read more about their race HERE; for this blog is telling the tales from the back of the pack, and the runners who came home nearly 20 hours later.

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The team structure was a bit more splintered than last year. Firstly Mike and Karen would cover the first 18.5 miles from the start to Balmaha, then Mike would head back home and Karen would commence reverse-sweeping from further up the course with George. Myself, Kynon, Ali, Scott and Marc would cover the remaining 76.5 miles North between us in rolling shifts, but Marc and Ali weren’t coming down to join us until lunchtime on Saturday.

west highland way race 2014

After cheering Mike and Karen on as they trotted up the High Street behind the runners at 1am, Kynon, Scott and I headed for the car to make our way to Balmaha where the last runner would be expected at about 5.30am. Our first challenge was to successfully get some rest in the car park – three of us piled into an Audi A3 full of kit.

Kynon and I were in the front of the car in the upright seats with Scott in the back. Within moments the lads were asleep and breathing heavily, and I sat awake watching the car windows steam up gradually. Pulling my eyemask down over my eyes to block the breaking dawn and clutching a pillow to support my head, I chuckled at my life now. My Friday night fun could not have been more different from what I used to enjoy a few years ago, but I truly could not be happier.

west highland way race 2014

5am came and my alarm sprung in to life but I’d been awake for 15 minutes prior, listening to the mayhem outside as the race continued in full swing. I would have loved to have opened the car door to step out and join in but even after clearing the condensation off the window I could see how thick the clouds of midgies were outside. I treasured the last minutes of my weekend that would not be nibbled by these carnivorous little bastards until my bladder had other ideas and I was forced to make a run to the boot to find my midgie net. The smarter sweeper would have been prepared with it in her pocket and ready to go, but this East Coaster makes a point of blocking the insect memories every year and always forgets just quite how mercenary these little beasties are. Rummaging around in the boot I woke the sleeping gentlemen with a combination of thumps and swearing as the clouds of midgies swarmed into the hot vehicle. Sorry lads; time to get moving.

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Conic Hill at 5am

After a quick trip to the Oak Tree Inn for a comfort break, I spoke to the check point control and then ascertained with Mike that they were about 30 minutes out with a drop out. I returned to the car and made sure Scott was awake and alive, and grabbed my pre-prepared kit bag to head back to the Oak Tree to get changed. Scott and I were taking the next shift and would cover from Balmaha to Beinglas – 22 miles and roughly 7 hours – and it was shaping up to be an absolute stunner of a day. Light cloud and blue skies with warm air heralded a potential scorcher which begged the question – Which goes on first; suncream or midgie spray?

Mike came in and updated on us on our last customer, who was running very slowly but walking fast. After checking the rest of the cars left in the car park, Scott and I left for the trail, eating breakfast as we went.

west highland way race 2014

It was one of those mornings where I could not have been happier to have been alive. The breathtaking beauty of this area never fails to still my heart every single time I run through it and this gorgeous sunny morning was no different.

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I really didn’t like these new path ‘improvements’ up the steeper hills though; endless stairs are not my friend.

west highland way race 2014

We arrived in Rowardennan and met the check point crew earlier than they were expecting. After swearing blind that we really were the sweepers and that everyone was ahead, our guy who we had swept out of Balmaha appeared behind us. Obviously he had stepped off the trail for a comfort break. We took some refreshments from the piles of abandoned drop bags and headed out after the final runner 10 minutes later.

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A few hours later I enjoyed arriving into Inversnaid and being able to take my time to enjoy the waterfalls without being in a race.

west highland way race 2014

west highland way race 2014west highland way race 2014

Again the check point crew were surprised to see us earlier than scheduled, but at this point the whole race was just moving quicker throughout the field than usual. Unfortunately the check point staff from the Trossachs SAR crew were unconvinced that we had everyone in and started quizzing us on names – some people had come through without taking their drop bags, or their time and number hadn’t been recorded. They had no times for about 20 people on their list – which was in fact the start list from a few days before the race, not the actual list of starters from several hours earlier. I knew several runners had DNSd at the last minute, but it was difficult trying to convince them that we had not in fact lost several runners along the way, and that they had missed manually recording the times of a few runners as they went through. It is really hard to keep communications open between these remote check points, but I was able to glean some 3G from somewhere and the Sport iDent Race App helped convince them that we had done our job.

Just as we were about to head out, news came through the radio that there had been a serious accident on the A82 which was blocking the race support crews from heading North from Auchtertyre (the next checkpoint up from Beinglas, at about 50 miles). The road was blocked both ways, which mean that Ali and Marc who were heading South on the A82 to take over from us at Beinglas  would be unable to reach that check point either. As the news sunk in we realised how absolutely terminal this could be for the race – this was peak time at Beinglas checkpoint which would mean the majority of race crews could not get further North without a 300 mile detour around the full circumference of Loch Lomond. Without support, the runners would be very limited in what they could do – they could only go so far on a finite amount of food. Stuck out in the races most remote check point with no phone signal or information my instinct was panic, but experience told me that I was a very, very small piece in a big race and the only thing I could was my own job, which was to bring up the rear of the race and get the runners to the next point safely and race control would take it from there. Scott and I decided to load our packs with as much fuel as we could in case we ended up in a situation with runners with no food, so the Trossachs gang loaded us up until nothing else could be crammed into our bags. Having spent ages at Inversnaid, our back marker was well ahead of us, so Scott and I put our feet on the pedals and for the first time I was able to hit the adventure playground of the Lochside with fresh legs and we  hit as hard as we could…which was for about 15 minutes before we caught up to the final runner.

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west highland way race 2014

Dario Melaragni’s memorial post

Time during the West Highland Way Weekend passes in a very odd way. At times hours slip by in seconds, sometimes they take twice as long as they ought to. It didn’t feel like 7 hours that Scott and I were out for, but after leaving at 5.45am we trundled into Beinglas 6hrs and 54 minutes later with our charge. About two hours after leaving Inversnaid we’d hear that the road had been cleared so there had been no real problems and the next pair of sweepers were waiting for us. Kynon and Ali took over and headed out, and I was grateful to get my trail shoes off and slip into some flip flops and a change of kit. It had been a warm morning so I changed everything and tied it up in a sealed bag ready for the washing machine when I made it back to real life on Monday.

west highland way race 2014

with Marc and Scott

Scott, Marc and myself then headed to the Green Welly for some food and spent the next couple of hours sitting outside our cars where the route passes Brodie’s store cheering on runners and catching up with our friends who were crewing. It was at this point we learned that the race had been won and the course record annihilated by Paul Giblin. It almost felt cruel to tell the result to those runners who asked, when they were only just over half way to the finish.

west highland way race 2014

The sweepers arrived, we swapped out Kynon for Marc and Team Sweep headed further up the course to Bridge Of Orchy. It was still an absolutely gorgeous day and I was enjoying wearing shorts and flip flops whilst sitting in a breeze at the midgie-free check point. This was unheard of – Bridge of Orchy is usually referred to as Midge of Orchy due to the thick clouds of insects the crews usually have to battle. Whilst chatting to the check point team I saw a speck of dirt on my ankle; I absent-mindedly tried to brush it off but it wouldn’t budge. Upon closer inspection it appeared to have legs and was burrowing deeply into my flesh. A tick! Gross!!!

Thankfully Sean the Race medic was at this check point and soon wielded a ‘tick pick’ and got the little bugger out of my foot quickly. I’ve never had a tick before and didn’t want to risk getting another so ran back to the car quickly to change into long tights, only to find a further two bigger and fatter ticks stuck into my calf. Sean worked his magic again and they were gone without any fuss other than Sean granting me the nickname Tick Lady for the rest of the weekend.

west highland way race 2014

west highland way race 2014

Most of Team Sweep 2014

Ali was replaced by Scott for the next stage to Glencoe and Marc continued on with him. The rest of us headed to Glencoe to rest up and prepare for the next overnight stint to Kinlochleven which would be covered by myself and Ali.

west highland way race 2014The majesty of Glencoe can never be underestimated.

Photo - Graeme Hewit - momentumphotos.co.uk

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – momentumphotos.co.uk

I had a coffee and some pizza and chips in the cafe before heading back to the car for a rest. I didn’t sleep but it was good to block everything out for half an hour or so and prepare for one of the more challenging sections of the course.

west highland way race 2014The Checkpoint, ran by the International Fire and Rescue Association

The last runner into Glencoe had actually been timed out before he reached the checkpoint and was in a very bad way. Whilst Ali and I set off into the darkness, the rest of the crew went back down the route to help get him in as he was almost incapable of movement.

Glencoe – Kinlochleven is only 11 miles, but for slower runners still on the course at the back of the field it is covered in their second night of running. The impact of the darkness can have a lot of negative effects as the body attempts to shut down to go to sleep whilst the runner battles onwards. This section last year was very challenging for all concerned, but this year sadly we had three DNFs at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase as the runners realised there was no way they’d be able to get up the 1,000ft of climbing to the top of the hill, or the 1,500ft of decent from the top down to Kinlochleven at sea level. This left us with a very lucid and capable runner to look after who was moving well and was mentally fine, and running with his son as support. He was well ahead of us up the Devil’s Staircase so in total contrast to last year I was stomping up the hill with sweat pouring off me – I really didn’t need that second fleece, nor my thermal tracksuit bottoms.

west highland way race 2014!There were frogs everywhere this year – even up the Devil’s Staircase!

We were out for only 4 hours and 14 minutes this year and came into Kinlochleven feeling happy and positive.

The check point at Kinlochleven was the usual disaster zone however. In the gym hall there were several bodies comatose on gym mats, Dr Chris Ellis was attending to several patients with their feet elevated and iced, an exhausted support crew were arguing with their runner insisting that he was fine and needed to get on his way whilst he wanted to quit, and other sleeping figures were dotted around the area catching some precious rest before the checkpoint closed. I grabbed some snacks from our supplies and let the rest of the team take over. All I needed to do now was get in to the car for some sleep before I completed the journey to Fort William.

As the check point began to close, the sleeping runners were being woken so that they could decide if they could carry on or not. Most of them got on the move eventually, but one sad figure was the last to slowly leave the hall in floods of tears with her face contorted in pain as she could barely move herself forwards. She could hardly breath without coughing as she apologised profusely and needlessly to the checkpoint staff and her crew, it was clear there was absolutely nothing left in her and she had truly reached the end of her race. My heart broke; I’ve seen her at other races and saw on her blog and the facebook group how much this race meant to her, but it just was not to be this year. Ali was crashed out on the ground next to me and shook his head; “Why do we even do this to ourselves?!” he mused quietly. It is so sad to see a race come to an end like that, and so undeserving.

I gave Kynon a kiss goodbye as he and the other lads headed out to cover the last 14 miles. Scott had decided he wanted to go along too as it was obvious all Ali and I were going to do was fall asleep in our cars. I grabbed some ice in a bag for one of my ankles which was creaking, and set to making a nest in the reclined passenger seat of the car. Assisted by pillows and a blanket I could not have been more comfortable and drifted away from the early morning mayhem of the checkpoint into deep, exhausted sleep.

Two hours later a horrendous beeping noise was pulling me from slumber. Pushing my eyemask off my face I slowly took stock of what was going on and deduced that the beeping was coming from my phone. An alarm. How cunning. It was telling me that it was 7am and that it was time to drive to Fort William. Looking out the window I could see no signs of life at all coming from Ali’s car parked across the deserted car park, and the only signs that the race had happened at all was the slowly melting pile of ice chips next to the door which Dr Chris had discarded after he left. After assessing the situation I decided I was in no hurry to get to Fort William and that we could go when Ali wanted to go, and that he could wake me up whenever that was. The front seat of an Audi has never been so comfortable.

It was an hour later that he was chapping on my window as he was keen to find some comfort facilities that weren’t under a bush, so we got our cars back on the road and made the sleepy drive to the finish at Fort William by about 9am. After a shower, a massage and some food, the next few hours were spent catching up with various friends and welcoming our exhausted later finishers home. It was wonderful to see the guys that we had swept at the back at various points of the course arrive at the finish, but it was the final runner who made the greatest impression. Ali and I ran out to meet the sweepers at about 11am to run in as a team, and Fritz from Holland was on his last legs in front of them with his wife by his side cajoling him along the road step by step. There aren’t many hills in Holland and the last time we’d seen him was at Kinlochleven when he was trying to quit; nobody would let him as he still was clearly ok and had hours to crawl it in to the finish. With plenty of comedy false kicks up the back side from his wife and several cigarettes on the way, he’d finally made it to Fort William and crossed the finish line victoriously in a time of 34 hours 19 minutes and 50 seconds.

When everyone was showered and fed we made it across to the Nevis Centre for the Prizegiving at 12.30pm.

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There were standing ovations for both Paul Giblin and his incredible finish, and the very emotional presentation of Fiona Rennie’s 10th Goblet which has been fought and strived for harder than any of us can imagine.

west highland way race 2014 PAUL GIBLIN

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – momentumphotos.co.uk

west highland way race 2014

Happily, Fritz van der Lubben made it to the presentation and gleefully accepted his goblet from Paul Giblin in a continuation of one of the traditions which makes the West Highland Way Race so special.

west highland way race 2014

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – momentumphotos.co.uk

And so another year in the WHW Race cycle has come to a close. Team Sweep definitely got an easier ride this year, but no two races are the same and we were no less tired when it came to crashing out on Sunday afternoon before heading for a curry. I covered nearly 34 miles over the two days which for the most part barely registered in my legs, apart from the aforementioned creaky ankle muscle. This will hopefully take me neatly to the start of the Great Glen Ultra for a good race when I return to Fort William this Friday.

The 1am start and 73 mile length of the Great Glen Ultra makes it an excellent warm up for the West Highland Way race. Since everyone has been asking; yes, it is definitely my intention to run in next years West Highland Way Race, so everything between now and the 20th of June 2015 is a countdown to Milngavie. I’m thinking differently about it all already – it’s no longer a distant dream but a tangible goal on the horizon, and under a year away. There’s a lot of work to do, starting with this weekend…

West Highland Way Race 2013 – RACE REPORT

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.

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

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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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

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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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013Here’s where George and Karen had been camping out with a flag until we called them.

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013A 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.

West highland way race 2013I 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.

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013It 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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013I 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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013He’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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013The 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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013We 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!

West highland way race 2013

He quite contentedly wandered around the support vehicles, cheekily asking for snacks and gently taking them from hands.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The West Highland Way Race 2012 – RACE REPORT

West highland way race 2012

The West Highland Way Race 2012
95 Miles in 35 Hours

It was this time last year that I had my first experience of the unique warmth of the West Highland Way Race family. I was on Mike Raffan‘s support crew as he completed his first West Highland Way Race in 21 hours and 30 minutes; supported by his fiance Annette, Vikki Shanks and myself. You can read about that adventure HERE. For the 2012 race I returned to Milngavie as support crew again, however this time it was for Vikki’s first attempt at the Blue Riband of Scottish Ultramarathon racing. With a crew led by her husband Iain, Vikki knew that she’d be taking quite a bit longer than Mike did and she’d be needing support runners from half way, so myself and my boyfriend Kynon joined the team to help her get that prized crystal goblet.

Last year for me the race was cloaked in mystery. I had never seen such feats of endurance on display before and as a newcomer to the sport of ultramarathons, I was captivated and awed by the runners and the race itself. Inspired by this, I took my own running to the next level and completed my first Ultra in March at the D33 and since then have continued to look ahead to longer distances. I was delighted to return to experience the West Highland Way Race again and see many of my ultramarathon friends from around the country as they descended upon Milngavie, and even more delighted to once more support a dear friend as she strived to reach her ultimate running goal.

Before I had even reached the start of the race there were some minor hurdles to overcome. Work commitments saw me in Poland for the week before the race, accompanying one of the University choirs as they toured the Krakow area. Great fun, but my flight home arrived into Edinburgh at 1935 on the eve of the race; after being collected from the airport by Kynon, it was a race across the Central belt and through Glasgow to reach Milngavie on time to meet up with Vikki and Iain before the start of race at 1am. Thankfully my travel plans could not have gone smoother and we arrived in Milngavie exactly as scheduled around 9.30pm. Vikki and Iain had arrived at the same time and we even were able to park next to each other in the station car park. Everyone was in the right country, all team members were present, our runner was healthy – Team Vikki was GO!

West highland way race 2012

L – R: Kynon, Vikki, Iain and Me

Our first task was to get Vikki registered for the race, weighed and to collect her race goodies. We went up to the Church Hall which by 9.30pm was already a hub of excitement and filled with runners; some with drawn, nervous faces, others full of energy and hyper with excitement. We saw John Kynaston who was on Race Control duty for the weekend and caught up with him; George Reid and Karen Donoghue who were supporting John Duncan; Paul Giblin and Team Pyllon, Sandra, and many other friends and familiar faces.

After Vikki was all registered she and Iain headed back to their car for some pre-race rest and Kynon and I headed to Tesco’s to purchase our supplies for the weekend. At this point I feel I should make the first reference to the Weather. I’ve capitalised that as there was so much Weather throughout the whole race I feel I ought to give the word a bit more grandeur. The Weather on the West Coast for the previous 24 hours had consisted of heavy, tropical rain, thunder and lightning. This had continued into the evening and showed no signs of abating as the runners and support darted in between support vehicles and registration under golf umbrellas and rain jackets. In the interests of keeping as dry as possible we decided to take our car from the Station car park to Tesco! Either way it was just as well as we bought a lot of supplies…

West highland way race 2012

Ultrafuel clockwise from bottom left: Water, chocolate cake mini-rolls, vegetarian butteries (AKA the Aberdeen Death Roll; comprising mainly salt, fat and dough. Ultrafuel of champions), Irn Bru, dried apricots, flapjacks, mars chocolate milk, generic brand red bull, blue Powerade, fruit smoothies, lucozade sport, bananas, salty crisps. I also purchased some comfy cropped trousers as all my other trousers were too long and getting dragged through puddles. We had fun playing the ‘spot the runner’ game, especially when we overheard a Belgian competitor frantically trying to explain to a staff member that he was looking for a map of the West Highland Way…

We returned to the station car park and organised our car before eating some dinner. This was the calm before the storm; there was an eerie air of anticipation floating around the car park as runners took last minute naps, support crews talked quietly and camera flashes punctuated the creeping darkness. The rain continued to fall.

West highland way race 2012

West highland way race 2012

Time slipped by quickly though and soon it was time for the race briefing at 12:30am. Standing amongst the runners and crews my heart was thumping with excitement, the air was thick with the smell of bodyglide and midgie repellant and the crowd fell silent and turned to face Race Director Ian Beattie, and Sean ‘Lord of the Bridge’ Stone as they delivered their advice.

West highland way race 2012

At this point the rain had mercifully decided to cease, however Sean advised that the runners ‘Might get a bit wet‘, so advised to remain prepared for some Weather throughout the race.

West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012

We took a couple of photos and wished Vikki luck before heading up to the bridge and the High Street to get the best possible view of the race start.

West highland way race 2012

We could hear the countdown start as 1am approached, and when the sound of an klaxon broke the night air; the 2012 West Highland Way Race was off!

West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012

Stonehaven Running Club (Vikki’s club) were providing the sweepers for the race, who would cover the back end of the race in shifts to make sure no runner was left behind. We watched their bright yellow jackets make their way up the street and then wandered back to the car park. For many it was essential to get out of the car park as quickly as possible to make it to the first checkpoint in time to meet their runner so there was a mass exodus of the vans, cars, and motorhomes which had previously packed out the car park. Suddenly, everything was deadly silent…apart from the rain which continued to pour down loudly on the car roofs.

Team Vikki were in no hurry to get moving as our first agreed meeting point with Vikki was at Drymen around 3am. We’d planned to split into two cars for the first half of the race, with Kynon and I heading to Tyndrum to park up and try and rest whilst Iain met Vicki at Drymen and Balmaha. We would then reconvene and condense the team into one car for the rest of the race with at least one person always out on the course with Vikki from Auchtertyre onwards.

Kynon and I began to navigate along the A82 to Tyndrum in the horrendous weather. The rain was coming down in sheets – I had never seen anything like it in this country. It was thick, wet, heavy tropical-style rain which relentlessly pounded the roads, turning them into rivers. I furiously refreshed the #whwrace hashtag on twitter for updates as Kynon drove, results filtered through of the leaders going through Beech Tree but it was too dark and rainy to tell who they were. Mike and the leaders went through Drymen in 1hr 37m and reports coming from the course were apocalyptic. I could not fathom how it must have felt to be starting a 95 mile race in these conditions. The ascent and descent of Conic hill was likened to gorge-walking – the entire trail was a shin-deep river. Tweets from Iain told us that Vikki was sticking with another runner through the night (Dave Kiddell) and they had passed through Drymen in 2hrs 17m.

By now it was 0345am and we had reached Tyndrum and were parked up in Kynon’s mum’s Skoda. Sadly his rather more spacious Audi had to be taken to the garage earlier in the week, so we had to perform some interesting gymnastics to get positioned for some rest (oi, quiet in the cheap seats!). Kynon wedged himself on the backseat and I reclined the front passenger seat a bit and was able to curl up on my side. The rain was deafening as we lay there wide awake in the semi-darkness – despite the thick cloud-cover it was already getting light. I briefly entertained thoughts in the back of my mind – if the rain continues like this, could the race even continue? Would it be safe? These were conditions which would be difficult for even the most hardened bad-weather runners; there would be massively increased risks of hypothermia, tripping injuries, waterlogged skin, blisters and trench foot. I couldn’t stop worrying, but reassured myself that these were the toughest runners in the UK and if anyone could handle this – it was them.

I awoke from a doze every half hour or so as various parts of my anatomy went to sleep. I gave up on sleep around 7 and grabbed my phone to look for news on Twitter. The race was still going, which was a good start! Various results had been trickling in and I was pleased to see that Mike and Pyllon were running strong right up at the front, but also saddened to hear that races were already over for many. Predictably, people were being pulled from the course due to hypothermia and there had been many injuries through falls including one an agonising 1.5miles in, and even the great Mimi Anderson had taken a critical DNF tumble as well.

Support crews were beginning to make their way into Tyndrum and once I was out of the car I had a chat with George, Karen and Lorna and saw that Iain had made his way safely to Tyndrum as well for a rest. We got washed up at the Green Welly Stop and I changed into running gear as I would be joining Vikki when she arrived. There followed a few long and slow dead hours whilst she made her way through the remote checkpoints where there is no crew access. We settled ourselves in the Green Welly with food, hydration and phone chargers and got talking to some other support crews.

West highland way race 2012

I decided a vegetarian fry-up was the best option, washed down with my favourite blue powerade and a fruit smoothie. We were expecting Vikki at Auchtertyre (50 miles) at 1.30pm at the earliest but it looked like she was running a bit later than planned, so there really was quite a bit of sitting around. Again twitter was a godsend when it came to keeping up with the race – I couldn’t access the race website to view the official splits through the checkpoint but any request for information on a specific runner through the hashtag #whwrace was quickly answered by those elsewhere sitting in front of a computer. We marveled at the performance unleashed by Terry Conway and Pyllon who were by now through 60 miles of the race and looked as though on course to break the male course record.

Finally it was time to get moving and Team Vikki piled into the Shanksi Bus and headed to Auchtertyre. We discovered that due to flooding, the runners were being diverted along the A82 at Tyndrum rather than the river path, and we passed several drenched runners leaning into the driving rain working hard to keep moving forward. The Weather was still not co-operating with wild wind now added to the mix – there was no escaping the rain, if you were outside you were going to get wet.

West highland way race 2012

Time for waterproofs

West highland way race 2012

Insane amounts of water in the rivers

West highland way race 2012

Runners arriving at Auchtertyre

We only had a short period to wait outside for Vicki as she was able to phone ahead. She requested a change of shoes and clothes and a pot noodle to be prepared. Iain sorted those things out whilst Kynon and I waited for her to come in. When she arrived she was smiling and chatting and looked happy, which, after 13 hours of running is a good sign! We got her weighed and checked in and took her to the car where she spent about 15 minutes. We agreed that Iain would go with her until the Brodie’s Store meeting point to test out his legs (he had been having some pain earlier in the week) and if he was ok then he’d continue with her until Bridge of Orchy, then Kynon and I would take over support runner duties to Glencoe.

West highland way race 2012

Still smiling at Brodie’s Store!

I was happy to be able to update people via facebook and twitter that all was going well. Messages of support started flooding in for Vicki and I was able to relay them which she really enjoyed. Iain’s leg was feeling fine so he continued on with Vicki and we said we’d see them in an hour at Bridge of Orchy.

West highland way race 2012

West highland way race 2012

Spot the tiny runners on the right

West highland way race 2012

the Weather.

At this point the rain had been intermittent, at times almost stopped, and there was even the odd shaft of sunlight! This of course meant that the midges were out in force and it was time to bring out the very attractive midgey net when we got to Bridge of Itchy (Orchy).

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We waited a short while and spoke to Sean, Lord of the Bridge, catching up on race gossip. We were delighted to hear that the course record had been smashed by Terry Conway in 15hrs 39min 15s and that Pyllon had come second in 17hrs.

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Vikki arrived and changed shoes again. Iain got on the road in the car to Glencoe and Kynon and I were on the Way again with Vicki at 17:40 and marching swiftly up the hills.

West highland way race 2012

I was impressed by how awake, happy and chatty Vicki was! I don’t know how I expected her to be but she was certainly on great form. There followed about 3 and a half hours of walking as we traversed the hills leading to Rannoch Moor, the lonely and desolate Moor itself, and the seemingly never-ending climb up to the Glencoe Ski Resort checkpoint. Thankfully it had stopped raining, and wind was no longer an issue. I found it awkward to exert myself with the midgey net on and felt very claustrophobic with the net right next to my face, but without it I would have been eaten alive. The little bastards were even nipping me through my running tights! When we got on to the Moor I could finally free my face however and enjoy the views.

West highland way race 2012

Climbing out of Bridge of Orchy

West highland way race 2012

Wrapped up to keep warm. Is this June?!

West highland way race 2012

Above you can see Vicki approaching former WHW Race Director Murdo McEwan, who had parked up with a Scotland flag at the top of this hill handing out jelly babies. What an exposed place to sit! He told us that as we passed the small cairn he had made that we were passing a crucial point – the 2/3 way mark. It was a nice surprise to find a supporter in such a strange place – I’m told he was up there for 10 hours in total!

West highland way race 2012

West highland way race 2012

Those hills in the distance were were we were going over

West highland way race 2012

A lot of rainfall…

West highland way race 2012

West highland way race 2012

Vikki leading the way strongly

West highland way race 2012

Shaft of sunlight in the distance!

West highland way race 2012

On Rannoch Moor, looking back to the bad weather we’d come through

West highland way race 2012

Finally, sunlight!

West highland way race 2012

Desolate Rannoch Moor

West highland way race 2012

Rannoch Moor

West highland way race 2012

Redwinerunner on Rannoch.

West highland way race 2012

The long and winding Way to Glencoe

We weren’t totally alone. Every hundred meters or so was another runner with his or her support runner making their way towards Fort William. Everyone was so glad of the respite from the rain and as we passed people or were passed, we shared stories of the race so far and who was doing what. Near Glencoe we discovered that Mike was nearly finished and we anxiously awaited a text message from his support crew with his result. Eventually we hear that he’d finished in an incredible 19hr 24min 40s and in 8th place. Almost exactly 2 hours off last year’s time!

West highland way race 2012

Glencoe finally came into sight, with this cruel signpost taunting me. Iain had parked up and come back along the trail to meet us so the whole of Team Vicki were together at this point.

West highland way race 2012

Picture by Iain

West highland way race 2012

Glencoe Checkpoint

Here we were doing another crew switch. I was ravenous and wanted some proper food, Kynon had finished his stint as support runner and was taking over as driver, and Iain was rejoining Vicki. Vicki stayed at Glencoe long enough to order some salty, vinegary chips and skipped off down the path in delight with them and Iain in hand. I refueled with our supplies – I hoovered a banana, a mars chocolate milk drink, a buttery, several flapjacks and half a tube of Pringles washed down with Irn Bru. Kynon ordered a burger at the Glencoe cafe and I stole some chips as well and felt right back to normal shortly after. We knew we had about an hour before they would get to Altnafeadh and the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase where I would rejoin Vicki for the rest of the race, so after we finished eating we headed straight to Altnafeadh where after 10 minutes they arrived at 10:15pm. I kissed Kynon goodbye and grabbed a head torch and my rucksack – I knew this would be a long stint and probably where the wheels might start to come off for Vicki. It was beginning to get dark again and my body was crying out for sleep – with no option for rest for at least 14 more hours it was time to face our game and play it. Time to dig deep.

West highland way race 2012

I was actually quite excited to be ascending the Devil’s Staircase for the very first time. The view back down towards Buachaillie Etive Mor was breathtaking even though darkness was falling. There were still many runners with their support runner near us, including Silke and Thomas Loehndorf who are in the picture above.

Vicki handled the climb well but I could tell she was getting tired. We switched our head torches on as we crested the top of the Devil and looking ahead took my breath away; for miles and miles down into the Glen ahead all you could see were little pairs of light pinpricks bobbing away into the distance. Far, far FAR away on a hill in the distance I could see some orange light which seemed to be flickering – I wondered if that might be the bonfire at Lundavra, but Iain said that was impossible.

We began the descent to Kinlochleven; long, steep, technical and winding. It was treacherous in the dark and very wet with all the water pouring off the hills. Iain was leading the way and I tried to stay behind Vicki if I could, so that she had someone both in front and behind. The jagged stones were beginning to bother her a lot and she was picking her way carefully down, so I tried to keep my light shining ahead of her so that she could see better where to put her feet. The trail was continuous switchbacks and it felt like we were descending for hours, but finally after about 2 hours we reached the Fire Road and some easier terrain. I turned around and looked back – still so many little pairs of pinpoints of light behind us. I wondered if the runners up above were looking down and taking the same comfort in seeing my light as I did from seeing the lights of others ahead of me two hours prior. It was like a message: “It’s ok, we’re here too. You’re not alone in this!”

Iain said that at some point soon we would see the lights of Kinlochleven, Vicki was desperate to see them – the relentless downhill had destroyed her legs and she was really starting to hurt. When the lights of civilisation came into view around a corner she was delighted; however we were still quite high up above Kinlochleven and there was something about the descent into Kinlochleven which stuck in my mind from last year’s race blogs…something about it being endless, and something about Kinlochleven being like Brigadoon in that you see it then it disappears for another few miles and then it pops up again, and then disappears, only to finally reappear for good when you least expect it. I texted Kynon to say we were about a half hour away – I thought that was a conservative estimate, but when he spoke to Julie who was on marshal duty at KLL; she shook her head and said we’d be another half hour. Experience has taught her that every runner that *thinks* they are close to KLL is actually a good half hour further away than they think. She was, of course, spot on.

Team Vicki stumbled into Kinlochleven at 01:14am. I had never been so relieved to see friendly faces, and fell into Kynon’s arms for a cuddle. The darkness of the trail and the tiredness and mental exhaustion  of the race was beginning to warp my mind. It was now after 1am on Sunday morning and I’d been awake since 9am on Friday morning, with the exception of the Skodasnooze on Saturday morning. I didn’t even contemplate entertaining the feeling of tiredness as it wasn’t worth it – 14 miles to go and my job was to get Vicki to the finish.

West highland way race 2012

Kinlochleven – Picture by Carolyn Simpson

In the interim period Kynon had blossomed from UltraNewbie to seasoned support crew professional. He’d had a nap in one of the Doctor’s bunks in the KLL sports hall so he was raring to go. He had all the kit and fuel we could possibly need laid out in crates and within moments of arriving we all had beverages and snacks in hand. Vicki was weighed first, but before she had removed outer layers, so there was a bit of confusion as to why her weight had gone up (alarm bells!), but it was ok in the end.

The Team left Kinlochleven at about 01:50am and it was strange going from the warm welcoming normality of the checkpoint, back into the creeping, lonely darkness. The climb out of KLL was steep and slippery but we had left around the same time as a few other runners, so there was a steady stream of people up ahead. Iain commented that it looked like a scene from Tron, what with the head torches illuminating the reflective strips on the runner’s clothing!

We climbed higher and higher until we could look back down towards KLL and the clouds which hung in the Glen. We finally reached the empty desolation of Lairig Mor and continued on on the sharp, jagged rocks which were ruining everyone’s feet. Vicki was really, really cross at the trail and how it was hurting her! We rounded a corner and suddenly in the distance we saw the funny orange lights that we’d seen so long ago, but now much closer and clearer. Suddenly it clicked – it was the Wilderness Response Team! They had manned a couple of campsites over the Lairig Mor to make sure that people were doing ok and had water, encouraging words and even cute dogs! When we approached they had a couple of their friendly rescue dogs running around; they were gorgeous Border Collies and I got a quick cuddle from one of them. They took our picture and cheered us on, we left with our spirits lifted as we plodded on once more into the darkness.

West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012

  Although light was coming again, it felt like spirits were darkening. The path was never-ending, and whilst we tried to work out how far to the check point at Lundavra was using my garmin it never seemed to get any closer. I remember feeling like I was on a travellator – the path was moving under me but the scenery remained the same. We were moving very slowly now as Vicki was in so much pain – 25 – 30 minute miles – and I was getting colder and colder. I was wearing thermal tights, shorts, baselayer, vest, l/s top, t-shirt, a light hoody and a weatherproof jacket teamed with buff and gloves; but we still weren’t moving enough to generate sufficient body heat. I had begun hallucinating as well – I was sure I kept on seeing peacocks by the trail and dogs running along side me. It was of course just patterns in the rocks and plants, but every time I ‘saw’ one I got a fright.

West highland way race 2012West highland way race 2012The above was our never-ending view once daylight came for the second time in the race. We passed another Wilderness Response camp but this time I was scared – they had a red emergency light blinking which you could see for miles, I was scared a runner had fallen and needed help and we weren’t getting to them quick enough, but of course it turned out to be a cheerful Mountain Rescue man. I don’t think any of us had the energy left to do much more than smile and groan. That man must have seen some sights that night/morning.

It was about 5am when the team as a whole reached the lowest point. Vicki was in so much pain and had a stone stuck in her shoe, the noises she made getting that shoe off and on were horrendous and there was just nothing we could do to help relieve her agony. After we got moving again she snapped; shouting at the ground, the rocks, and the endless water on the path; screaming at Lundavra and asking it why it wasn’t here yet and in general, she was just desperate for the pain and the race to end. Iain was in the best state of all of us and he was able to help Vicki walk on and was talking to her; I was shivering uncontrollably and hallucinating that Kynon was standing up in the road in front of me, but of course he wasn’t. I used the last of my lucid thought to figure out what to do; continue with Vicki and Iain and become a liability which might risk her race, or leave with Kynon at Lundavra and be useful in another way. I said to Iain I thought it might be best if I didn’t continue and he agreed.

We reached Lundavra at around 05:30am and Kynon came to ask if we needed anything but he was met with a speechless silence and shaking heads, no-one could articulate anything worth saying. Iain and Vicki walked slowly up the hill and on through the checkpoint, I walked over to Kynon and said “I’m coming with you”. I got into the car and pulled off my midgey net and fell into Kynon’s arms sobbing. I felt so helpless being unable to help Vicki and make her feel better; it’s so, so hard to see your friends going through such extreme pain and to be able to do nothing. I also felt like such a failure by not being able to see her the last 7 miles right through the the finish line. The fact I’d been awake for 44 hours, on my feet for 12 hours, covered 28 miles overnight and was hypothermic was moot as far as I was concerned; it’s the West Highland Way Race, all that is part of the package and in my tired mind I had failed in my job. I’m still not entirely sure whether I did the right thing or not.

I knew she would finish though; I estimated around 2 and a half hours for them to do the final 7 miles. It would be hell, but she would get there. After sitting in the car with the heating up and being cuddled by Kynon for half an hour I felt like I had got my shit together again and was ready to get back on it. When we reached the finish line and the leisure centre, we sorted out the car and made sure Vicki’s things were all readily available should she wish them. We then went in to join everyone at the finish and enjoyed some wonderful hot, sweet tea which was being churned out relentlessly by some wonderful volunteers. There were various sleeping bodies lying around on mats including some under spaceblankets – finishers or support who had come in and just had nothing left. There were plenty of anxious looking support crews awaiting their runner for the final time, and several runners who had just finished and were in the initial joyful stages of recovery.

John Kynaston, Ian Beattie and Sean ‘Lord of The Bridge’ Stone were all there welcoming each finisher in personally with a handshake and/or hug. There are no words to describe the relief etched on the faces of a finisher; just thinking about it now is still making me well up with emotion. The extraordinary displays of endurance this year were made even more remarkable by the atrocious conditions and each finisher this year will be able to count themselves as one who completed the race in ‘that’ year. Out of 177 starters, 55 were taken from the race for various reasons. This is a merciless course and only those who can demonstrate true grit and tenacity can complete it on a good day; this year’s finishers are truly remarkable.

At around 0745am I got a call from Vicki – they were on the outskirts of Fort William! Kynon and I put on our jackets and headed out up the course to meet them. I texted Mike just in case he was awake and wanted to come down too, I got a quick response as he was up and about – he jumped straight in his car and was ready to cheer her in within 10 minutes! We walked about a half mile up to the edge of town and waited. And waited. Jonathan and his support, Minty, went by and then we waited a little more… then finally..!

West highland way race 2012

Vicki was a different person from the lady I had left at Lundavra, but Iain was in bits. Not long after I had left Vicki had had a funny turn and wanted to go to sleep in he woods. Iain managed to keep her going but then not long before they saw us, it was his turn to go all funny. Vicki was back to normal by that point however and was able to get him to the finish line in one piece where he was swiftly seen to by Sean the Medic and promptly spent 45 minutes asleep under a space blanket as mild hypothermia had put him into shock. I imagine I would have been in a similar state had I continued with Vicki after Lundavra. Human endurance is an odd thing but eventually it has its limits…insert something about the blind leading the blind here…

West highland way race 2012

West highland way race 2012

Coming up to the finish – photo Carolyn Simpson

West highland way race 2012

Vicki finished the 95 Mile West Highland Way Race in 31 hours 6 minutes and 55 seconds. Her first words upon putting her hands on the Leisure Centre doors were “NEVER AGAIN!”

West highland way race 2012

West highland way race 2012

Photo by Carolyn Simpson

It was around 08:15 when Vicki finished, so we still had 4 hours to go before the presentation ceremony. As I was standing in the shower at the Leisure Centre, delighted to finally rinse away some of the filth of the past 48 hours, I remembered something I thought about last year. And I quote last year’s race recap: “It blew my mind that whilst I was lying on a sofa bed checking facebook 12 hours after Mike had finished, there were still some warriors out on the course making their way to the finish.“. Those at the front end of the field run a completely different race to those at the back, and for me it’s been a very eye-opening experience to be able to crew for two entirely differently paced runners. Last year Mike made it look easy, this year seeing Vicki hit rock bottom really brought it home to me what it means to endure in this race. I’m under no false impressions now – if and when I do this race I will be at the back end of the field just like Vicki, so this is what I’m to prepare myself for.

After a slap up feed in Morrison’s cafe, Team Vicki made our way to the Nevis Centre for the prize giving. I can truly say I’ve never known tiredness like I experienced that day! After each name was read out we clapped enthusiastically, but by the time Ian Beattie had finished reading out the time of the next finisher my head was on my chest again – I was like a nodding dog! Embarrassingly we were sitting in the front row; however I’m sure Ian, JK et al have seen it all before.West highland way race 2012

West highland way race 2012

Vicki receives her goblet from John Kynaston

As last year, it was a delight to watch all the finishers hobble their way to the front to be presented with their goblet. There were some heroic inspiring stories this year and every single runner is amazing.

After the presentation we made our way to the accommodation Vicki had booked and were all asleep within minutes. We had three glorious hours’ sleep and when we woke up at 6pm it was like a new day. It was hard to believe we were the same four people who were struggling excuses for human beings 12 hours earlier. The memories of crossing Lairig Mor were shady and dream-like already; had it really been real? One look at Vicki attempting to come down the stairs confirmed that I hadn’t dreamt it. I quickly grabbed my notebook to write down some blog notes – I wanted to remember everything!

We went to the pub to have some food and drinks with many of the other finishers and support crews and it was a great evening relaxing and hearing everyone’s stories from the race. At first glance, the Ben Nevis bar was just any other pub full of ordinary people having a drink on a Sunday night; dig a little deeper though (and look at their weeping, sandal-ed feet!) and you’d find a pub full of the most extraordinary, inspirational, warm-hearted and tenacious people you’re ever likely to meet and I am proud to know so many of them and count them as my friends.

It has been another extraordinary Ultramarathon weekend. There’s a saying in the Scottish Ultra community, that all roads lead to Milngavie. With another year of running under my belt this has never felt truer as I feel I inch closer to the starting line of this race month by month, race by race. Last year I said not this year or the year after, and that statement still stands, but after that? Well, perhaps by then I’ll find myself at the end of the road.

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