My 2016 has been…interesting so far, so in the end it was no surprise that the 2016 West Highland Way Race ended up being a bit of a strange one for me. I decided quite quickly after my own West Highland Way Race in 2015 that I didn’t want to come back for a second attempt in 2016, so I hoped that I would be able to support someone else to achieve their goals at the race this year instead. When the time came to put crews together, I agreed to support my friend Jemma in her first attempt to claim the goblet. As it happened, 2016 was not to be her West Highland Way Race year, so in May I found myself potentially missing the race for the first time in 5 years. It was around then that a Jury summons arrived in the mail for Kynon, messing up any potential plans for this most important of annual events even more. If selected, his presence would be required in Aberdeen High Court at 8:30am the morning after the race and of course the way the UK judicial system works, you call up the court the night before you are required to find out if the case is still scheduled to start on time. Hugely frustrating, but we wouldn’t even be certain if he would need to attend court until the very last minute. Everything was up in the air.
Enter Steve. Steve comes from Los Angeles and was heading over to Scotland for his second attempt at the West Highland Way Race, after DNFing with hypothermia at the same point in last year’s race which nearly ruined me. Steve needed a crew and put out a shout in the West Highland Way Race Family Facebook group, asking for some local assistance. I was more than happy to help and put myself in touch with him immediately to see if we could work something out.
It took quite an exchange of emails before the final plan was made, but the important thing was; at around 8pm on Friday the 17th June, Steve’s team assembled in Milngavie to start a big adventure. There was myself, Jemma, Patrick, and an Astra hatchback stuffed full of supplies, ready for the journey ahead.
In short, we had a (dreadful) meal at the Milngavie West Highland Gate Beefeater (they’ve changed the menu since last year and the service was a horror show) before heading to Tesco to stock up on food. Next was registration, then the usual dance of hellos, hugs and well-wishes before we put Steve to bed in the car to rest for a bit and joined Mike, Jeni, and Sharon (David Scott’s crew) to chill out and chat in the last hour before the off.
It was amazing to be back at the race, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t harbouring a few nerves. Whilst I have supported twice before, I’ve never been 100% in charge of a crew, and indeed, someone’s race. Jemma and Patrick were newbies to the race – which is no impediment if you’re smart, committed, and in possession of an enduring spirit – but in general everyone will do better if there’s someone in your crew who knows what they’re doing and can take the lead.
At 12.30am we got Steve to the start and joined the Midnight hubbub of activity. Alongside the crowd of around 500 people there was the usual confused amazement of those alighting from the last train back from Glasgow, and an assortment of local neds scooting around getting in everyone’s way. I caught up with the Stonehaven Running Club crew and wished them all well, and managed to get around most other friends to deliver hugs and well wishes. It brought a lot of memories back. It was hard to believe that I was one of the runners 365 days before, but it was not the time to dwell on those meandering thoughts.
After the briefing we said our final goodbyes and took up a good position on the High Street in Milngavie to shout and cheer our loudest for the runners. It was the most perfect night – about 15C, clear skies, and with a full moon hanging above the hills. If you’re going to pick a night to run though – this was it.
A ripple of cheers flowed up from down the street as the runners came towards us. Headlights dancing, eyes bright and faces stretched with smiles. They were doing it! It was actually happening! As my eyes brimmed with tears and I screamed and hollered for them, for a moment I was one of them again. Running up a Scottish high street on Midsummer’s eve into the darkness, and towards the hills.
But, this isn’t about me. This is about Steve who came to Scotland from California to avenge the demons he left behind on the Lhairig Mhor in 2015. Steve wasn’t sure how fast he was going to run, which made it challenging to work out how best we could crew for him. He declined any assistance until Balmaha at 19 miles which was very useful – it allowed us to drive straight there and attempt to get a little sleep. Together we had previously estimated his arrival at 5am, and alarms were set accordingly…imagine our surprise when the agreed ’10 minute warning’ phone call came at 4am!
This was a little miracle – we had agreed that Steve would call at the top of Conic Hill and my phone was placed on the dashboard in full signal, ready. Except it didn’t ring. I woke up about 4:05am and decided to check the time, only to see a message received from Steve only minutes before. Had my sixth sense not been on the ball that morning them we would have been in trouble, but some things you just can’t explain I guess.
Balmaha at 4am was oddly devoid of midges. No nets were needed and the air was calm and moist – it didn’t make sense at all, but we just got on with the job. For those who had been standing still it was cold, but the runners all came in dripping with sweat. Steve was running fine and with nothing to report, so we just refilled his pockets with gels and his Camelbak with TailWind and off he went. There was one thing which made crewing infinitely easier, which was Steve’s choice of nutrition. Coming from the school of ‘stick with what works’, with a side of ‘keep it simple’ he just eats gels – one GU every 30 minutes and that’s it. No really – that’s really it.
After we saw Steve off, we drove up North for some more sleep after a hot drink and a breakfast roll at the Oak Tree Inn. Here’s where the insider knowledge comes in handy – there is a public car park half way between Balmaha and Beinglas where you can park and rest in peace until you need to meet your runner hours later at Beinglas. No slamming doors, no engines, no chat – just silence. We arrived before 6am and clocked up another chunk of rest, before arriving at Beinglas in glorious sunshine before 8am.
We really had no idea when Steve would arrive, but given his accelerated performance in the first 20 miles I didn’t want to take any risks. It became immediately obvious where all the Balmaha midges were hanging out when we reached the checkpoint area at Beinglas and were instantly swarmed with bugs. Jemma and I wrapped up to defend ourselves whilst we left Patrick to sleep in the car.
Steve came blasting through at about 9:20am looking and feeling well. He had really struggled over the Lochside section in 2015 so getting through that was a big mental hurdle for him. I was very pleased to see how ok he was and began preparing for him to reach the quicker end of his projected potential finish time.
By now it was really shaping up to be the most glorious day – clear skies and hot sun. Glorious if you are a Southern Californian perhaps, but all of our Scottish compatriots were having to seriously consider their options and ration their water in between check points. Not something we’re usually used to doing, but the West Highland Way Race has been well over-due a scorcher for several years. A race in June in Scotland, does not guarantee good weather; in case that was ever in doubt.
So we fast forward another 12 miles to Auchtertyre, and the half way point. We arrived around 10:30 and enjoyed catching up with the other crews with runners around Steve’s pace who were now becoming familiar. We basked in the sunshine and I got ready to run the first support segment, although it would be touch and go whether I would be able leave with him to due to race regulations. The revised criteria for 2016 state that runners may have a support runner after Auchertyre after 11:30am only – with Steve going at the speed he was he would be faced with waiting until 11:30, or pushing on for the next 10 miles to Bridge of Orchy alone.
However. Right on target I received a phone call from Steve, calmly reporting that he’d cracked his head off the sheep tunnel about 5 miles out from Auchtertyre and it ‘looks a lot worse than it is’. Right then. I had a quick chat with the medics to forewarn them and spoke to a runner who arrived who had been with him when he did it. When our warrior turned up, it was obvious he was right; it did look a bit drastic, but once the blood was wiped off it was just a soft tissue scrape. Steve passed the medical test despite having lost a chunk of weight, but we weren’t too worried as it was 11:31am and we were allowed to leave the checkpoint together.
Off we trotted and I got the chance to gauge how he was really doing. All in all he was fine and he even managed to cope with my dreadful chat which I was pumping out just to pass the time and keep him distracted. I soaked up the sunshine and couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be out there enjoying it.
It goes without saying that the weather was basically Scotland turned up to 11 and the run could not have been more beautiful. This section remains one of my favourite parts of the route.
At Bridge of Orchy, Jemma took over pacing duties. Everything was going perfectly so I have nothing else to report other than we refilled his fluids, took his litter, and gave him more gels, before kicking him out on his way. F1-standard ultrarunning at its finest.
Next stop: Glencoe. On the road this is a short journey so we arrived a good couple of hours before Steve would arrive and allowed us to enjoy the breath-taking beauty of Glencoe in perfect summer. There were parasailers circling high up above us, having launched themselves off the ski slopes, and if we weren’t surrounded by scorched heather there would have almost been an alpine feel to the day. I’ve never seen Glencoe look like that before; we arrived at 2pm and enjoyed an afternoon in the sun at one of Scotland’s ski resorts – when can you ever say that?
Steve arrived at 4:30pm and we sent him off with Patrick, who would then take him though to Lundavra. I then drove Patrick’s car along the road to Altnafeadh which blew my mind; despite my own car also being an Astra, it is ten years older than his and from an era when electronic handbrakes, clutches, and lights on the dashboard telling you what to do were not a thing. I can think of fewer times when I have been more anxious than when I was trying to negotiate Patrick’s car in and out of the hilly boulder field which passes for a road at Altnafeadh, with nothing but an electric handbrake for support. If this is the future of driving then I am not impressed at all.
Jemma and I then headed to Kinlochleven where we basked in the last of the evening sunlight. It was clear that barring disaster, Steve was going to really smash it. His vague goals or expectations had been, maybe around 24 hours, 21 on a really good day, but maybe 30 if things aren’t ok. Parking the car at Kinlochleven, we were expecting him around 8pm, with a potential 22 hour finish on the cards.
I wasn’t due to run until Lundavra and had a raging craving for some hot food, so I went to the chip shop and enjoyed a portion of hot salty chips. It came as a little bit of a surprise when our support runner rang on time as expected, but letting us know that he didn’t want to run any further because he was tired. He also offered a suggestion that we might not bother going to Lundavra and just go straight to Fort William, for a sleep. The less said about that the better, but unsurprisingly I found myself saddling up to run another 14 miles with a belly recently stuffed full of fried food.
Before long I found myself back on the trail which I both love and hate the most. I have never managed to enjoy a crossing of the Lharig Mhor; it’s always at the end of something – a race, a support stint, a big back-to-back. I want to love the desolate beauty, but every step I take there is always full of wishes that I could traverse it more quickly.
I knew I needed to bring my strongest self for this section as I could see Steve start to flag in places. He still had a lot of fight in him but it was getting to the point where he was going to benefit from a secondary mind working on his behalf. I told him when to run, when to walk, and when to eat. I mostly ran a few steps ahead of him, setting the pace and willing him on behind me; pulling him on in the obscene cat and mouse chase which is ultramarathon pacing. We worked well together and didn’t need to say much; I gave him walking rests when he needed them but kept the relentless forward progress ongoing. All with a belly bursting full of chips.
My early concern in this section was the temperature. There was a cold wind rushing down the glen which chilled my sweaty, sunburned skin to the bone. I was concerned that Steve might not have enough clothes on and kept in contact by text message with Jemma, asking her to run back towards us from Lundavra when arrived, with a thicker jacket for Steve. My main concern, as was his, was getting him past the milepost of Lundavra and on to the final 7 miles. There is a reason why there are Wilderness Medics out on Lharig Mhor; it is a cruel and barren place where the weather can turn on a sixpence, ending the strongest of races without mercy.
Despite Steve’s physical strength he was beginning to give me clues that things were beginning to get tough. He constantly asked how far we were away until the next checkpoint and other than that, the chat had dried up. There was an unspoken knowledge that the time had come to dig in and work together to move onwards as efficiently as possible as a pair.
When Jemma came into view there was less than a mile to go to Lundavra. Knowing this seemed to fire up Steve into another gear and he shifted his position to be in front of us with us chasing behind. Chasing is the right word; when he reached Lundavra, he blasted right through and on up the hill at speed. I paused for a cup of red bull, thinking I’d be able to catch him up quickly, until I saw him rapidly disappearing into the distance as he RAN up the hill.
Jemma and I hastily chased after him and for the next few miles we had to work really hard to keep pace. Steve was pausing for no-one; even when I tripped over my own feet and ended up tumbling off the path and smashing my elbow on a rock with a yelp, he gave nothing more than a cursory glance behind him as he continued onwards without pause.
Just before the final ascent up towards the fire road, we took a walking break for one last gel as I talked Steve through the final couple of miles of the course and what he had left to cover. Moments after he summited the hill Steve took off again, and we began the quad-juddering descent into Fort William at a comfortable but swift pace.
Upon reaching Braveheart car park we took a final walking break to catch our breath before the final push. As a group we locked into a solid pace and covered the last mile towards the leisure centre in just over ten minutes. It doesn’t matter whether you are running, crewing, or sweeping, making that final turn into the car park is very special and my heart leapt when I was finally able to tell Steve “Go on – it’s all yours” as we peeled away from him to give him his moment of glory sprinting towards the finishing arch and the end of the race.
Everyone is happy when they finish a race, but Steve had to be one of the most ecstatic finishers I’ve ever seen. He seemed genuinely surprised and delighted to have achieved his goal – as if it were ever in doubt! Steve completed the race in 22hrs 39m 17s. He didn’t want to hang around at the finish line, so within half an hour we had checked into our hotel and Steve was getting ready to have some well earned rest. I was certainly tired, but having a runner that finishes well under 24 hours makes a massive difference, so Jemma and I spent some time reflecting on the weekend in our room before we went to sleep, drinking warm beer and eating cheese and chocolate.
The next morning, after checking on Steve and eating some breakfast, we went back to the finish line to cheer in the final finishers. It was as emotional as it always is, and seeing those final warriors come in to reach the finish after 33 or 34 hours is amazing. Cheering Norma (the oldest female finisher ever) and Adrian (achieving his 15th goblet!) reduced me to a blubbering wreck of happy tears.
We then headed to the goblet ceremony and cheered all 159 finishers until our voices cracked and our hands hurt from clapping. I got the chance to catch up with most of my friends before we parted ways, but Steve had booked us an extra night in the hotel so I still had the after-party with lots of peole to look forward to later on that evening. We both went back to the hotel for lunch and then to rest for a little bit, but I ended up taking a little walk back down the course in the rain to see one last runner cover his last miles of the day…
Whilst the race was officially over, Keith was still out on the course. He had a legitimate excuse though, as he had started his run on Thursday evening in Fort William. Having ran 95 miles to the start in Milngavie, he turned around and came right back again, just because he could. After shooting the breeze with Lucy, Dod and Karen, a very tired looking figure came into sight as he entered Braveheart carpark. He stopped to say hello before his support runners chided him for not moving, so we quickly drove back to the Leisure Centre to be there when he finished.
In the pouring rain and devoid of any gantries or ceremony at all, the finish of this run looked quite different to the official race finish a couple of hours earlier, but the small group of supporters cheered like banshees when he inexplicably sprinted into the carpark after finding one last burst of energy. The amazing accomplishment was complete when Keith slapped his hands on the Leisure Centre doors in traditional ceremonial style, much to the surprise of the staff inside. A lady came out and disapprovingly wiped the doors clean of his hand prints – quickly erasing any lasting visual evidence of the 190 miles of hard work which had been clocked. A sobering reminder that not everyone ‘gets’ it.
Wrapped in an embrace of warm, happy running feelings, I went back for another nap before the party. I finally got to my bed at 4am after the after-after party and drinking champagne with a bunch of friends including esteemed guest, Hal Koerner, but that’s perhaps another story for another day.