Wednesday, 3 July 2013

West Highland Race 2013

The journey to the WHW race 2013 started immediately after last year’s ‘Fling’. Previously I’d always decided I would leave it for a few years before applying for the big one, y’know get a few Flings under my belt first. My thinking changed soon after completing my first Fling in 2012, after coming to the conclusion if I can run 53 miles then I should be able to grind out another 40 odd. In this sport of ours, injuries can be just round the corner and I figured why leave it for a few years when anything could happen injury wise, strike while the iron is hot as they say.

In November, entries opened and I eagerly completed my application form and awaited the ballot result. One early December evening Tommy phones, ‘Did you get in then?’ Quickly I fired up my phone in excitement to check my emails, seconds later my heart sinks, I was one of 15 people polled out due to an over subscription. I was gutted. However, I tried to console myself with the fact I had next year and was still going to be part of Tommy’s support crew so I wasn’t completely missing out. Ian Beattie called me the next day to say he realised how disappointed I would be which I thought was a really nice gesture. 

Over the months leading up to June, I kept training hard including many big hill runs including the Pentland’s Skyline. In March and May I completed both the D33 and Fling again respectively. About 3 weeks before the WHW, the mobile rings late on Fri night (this is getting a habit!). It’s Ian Beattie the WHW Race Director, who tells me due to a considerable number of people pulling out he could now offer me a place but appreciated as it was only a few weeks away I may not be prepared. I asked Ian if I could have until the morning to think about it. I immediately phoned Tommy and his response was ‘You’re definitely doing it, you would only regret it if you didn’t’, a point I found hard to disagree with. That was it; I was in, with 3 weeks to prepare!

Needless to say, every waking second was spent thinking about the task that lay ahead.
Tommy’s crew was to be Roy and Jamie (Tommy’s son) with Ian and Paul supporting me. We had a final meet up a week before and knew what we had to do.

Before long Fri 21st arrived which I’d taken off work to try and grab some sleep before hand. Needless to say by time I had finished all my prep I had just a few hours before picking Ava (my daughter) up from a friend’s house.  Ian arrived at 9.30pm and after loading the car we set off for Milngavie meeting Roy, Tommy and Paul there.

As we neared Milngavie, as forecast a light rain started.  Before long we pulled into the railway station car park, spotted the lads and parked next to them. We all sat in Roy’s van for a bit, with plenty of light hearted banter keeping the mood happy. I was conscious of constantly yawning wondering how on earth I could run for 30+ hours feeling like this! I walked up to the church, registered and had a chat with a few of my friends and fellow runners before returning to the other lads to make my final preparations.

At 0.30 Ian Beattie read out the race details including a lovely verse by WHW veteran and lovely lady Fiona Rennie. Final preps made we bid our farewells to the lads telling them we would see them in about 4 hours at Balmaha.

At precisely 1am, the horn blew and we were off. It was wonderful running up through the centre of Milngavie with the streets lined with people all taking photos and shouting encouragement to the passing runners. It really seemed like the entire population of Milngavie including all the punters on their way home from the pubs had turned out to wave us off. It was lovely to hear Debbie Consani and Sharon Law scream encouragement to us all. I mean these 2 girls are world renowned athletes and here they were here to voice their support to everybody.

The first few miles were spent surrounded by other runners but before long the pack thinned and Tommy and I were running side by side with very few people around us. We chatted and just savoured the experience. As the rain got heavier I put up my hood and as I ran along following the beam of light it almost felt like I was inside some vehicle and was merely a passenger.

Before long we were climbing the grassy field towards Drymen 12 miles in. As we crossed the road we spotted the lads and shouted hello to them. We pushed on maintaining a steady pace being very careful not to go too fast. For me the WHW doesn’t really start until you’re on the path to Conic. By this time it was starting to get light of which we were very grateful. The climb up and over Conic passed without any problems. I have to say since they’ve laid paths and stairs down the other side it’s made it a bit easier. Some people argue it’s lost some of the charm and challenge but I see it as a good thing as it's now made it more accessible for people to climb and take in the beautiful views of the loch below.

We hit Balmaha at 4.23, quickly spotted the crew then sat down for some food. I had some hot pasta, cup of tea and yoghurt which went down very well. With 10 mins gone, Tommy and I set off back on the trail. The climb from Balmaha is always quite tough though nothing compared to what lies ahead!!

As we weaved our way along towards Rowardennan, we caught up with about 8 other runners and all took it upon ourselves to take a turn at being leader. As we ran along there was a tourist tour boat travelling in the same direction. At one point the tourist guide commented on the ‘runners running in the West Highland Way Race’ followed by cheers and waves from the passengers. We all returned the cheers, whoops and waves! Following about a dozen ‘Someone must have stolen Rowardennan’ comments from Tommy we reached Rowardennan in 6.37 and fuelled up from our drops bags. Again we kept the stop to a minimum and set off again.

The climbing and descending along the banks of Loch Lomond is quite tough especially as you have to watch each and every step to avoid falling into the water. We dug deep and kept the running all flat and downhills and walking uphills strategy going eventually arriving at the second and final unsupported checkpoint, Inversnaid. As I fuelled up I was set upon by a billion midges so we decided to make our stay short once again and walk while eating. 

We made good progress, passing Dario’s post reaching Beinglas Farm in 11.01. The only downer was the lads had been unable to park close to the CP meaning we had a couple of hundred yards walk to the supply vehicles. Both Tommy and I had decided as we approached Beinglas we were going to ditch the jackets as the last few hours had turned quite warm with the rain subsiding.  As luck would have it as soon as we sat down the rain started back up very heavily! At this point I should note one of the other support teams asked if we could jump start his vehicle which Ian duly obliged. Later a second vehicle asked for the same favour, Ian duly obliged. When Ian went to start the car the battery was dead and required Roy to jump start him. Hydrated and fed with the jackets still on, we set off towards Crianlarich. 

As we hit Derrydarroch Farm I was surprised at how clean the area was. This is known to runners as ‘Cowpat Valley’ due to the huge amount of cow dung due to this part of the way going through a working farm. During the Fling the month before this area was knee deep in mud and whatnot which made it very heavy underfoot. After negotiating this we were soon under the small tunnel and on our way towards Ewich forest. which although very pretty and soft underfoot, there are a lot of very steep climbs most of which seem to go on and on. Running the flats and downhill and walking uphills it wasn’t long before we hit Auchentyre Farm. 

This is one of 3 times each runner is weighed to ensure he / she does not suffer any dramatic weight loss or gain. I had lost 1.2 kg and Tommy a bit more. We made our goodbyes and set off towards Tyndrum. 

As I neared Tyndrum thoughts turned to thinking had this been the Fling I would have only a few minutes left to run but today this would still be another 40 plus miles. As we headed up the hill and across the road and past the little shop on the left, Paul our support runner joined us. Both Tommy and I were feeling pretty good at this stage but were glad to have someone else for company as conversation between Tommy and I had disintegrated into merely complaing about our ailments!

This is quite a pleasant, very runnable section and it wasn’t long before we began the long descent into Bridge of Orchy. Paul remarked how surprised he was given the running pace we were maintaining. When we arrived the crew were no-where to be seen. Shortly after the guys appeared with nothing prepared. Apparently when Paul had phoned ahead to make them aware of our impending arrival we had arrived sooner than they anticipated. We decided we didn’t want to hang around so set off up the hill and would meet the guys on the other side. Ian confirmed he would see us in ’20 minutes or so’, Tommy quipped ’20 minutes, it’s a f****n mountain we’ve got to climb first!!”

We set off up the hill. After what seemed like an hour or so of running / walking we began our descent downhill and could see the lads parked up below in the distance. Paul ran ahead to make them aware of our soon arrival. This was the first time since starting out that I think both Tommy and I started to become aware of really sore feet, blisters etc. Before long we were down from the hill and sat down for a welcome 10 minute break / food session. 

Tommy at this point was feeling quite sickly and took a couple of paracetamol to try and settle himself. I asked Paul to take a look at my feet. Upon removing my shoes, I could see the formation of quite a few large blisters. Paul dried my feet off, applied talcum powder and a few blister plasters. I also decided to swap from my road shoes to the trails. We set off once again and I was delighted to report my feet felt a bit better. Tommy in the meantime seemed to have recovered from feeling quite unwell and had become what I can only describe as a coiled spring full of running!!

We were now on the Rannoch Moor section which is an old military road which seems to go on for miles. Underfoot wise it doesn’t seem too bad but on sore feet the little stones make for quite a painful journey. The only respite is trying to run along the odd little patch of grass at the side.  This section seemed to take a particularly long time probably given it seems very straight and very long. The weather though at this point was quite pleasant which was a bonus as this area is normally quite hostile on a cold day given how high up and exposed it is. As we neared our checkpoint at Glencoe, Paul once again took off to make the guys aware of our impending arrival. 

Before long we reached the chair lift car park in Glencoe. As I made my way to the vehicles my feet were really getting sorer by the minute. At this point it was getting dark and I knew within ½ hour I would be entering my second night of running in the dark. I had been warned by various people who had ran the race before that this is where it gets really tough mentally for those still running. Oddly this aspect never really bothered me as I still knew the task in hand and was determined to get there by hook or by crook. Fed and watered we started on down back onto the road to make our way to the Kinghouse Hotel. 

As we trotted down Paul made us aware there was a runner John who had asked if he could run with us as his support runner was struggling.  Paul had agreed albeit making him aware he had to stick with our pace. Tommy, Paul, John and I kicked on and before long we reached the foot of the ‘Devil’s Staircase’. This ascent is famously the most dreaded section of the WHW though friends who know the route reckon it’s hard but not the hardest section. I believe you start the climb at 800 feet above sea level and climb about another 1000 feet to the top where it flattens out before eventually dropping you into Kinlochleven.

As we began our ascent the darkness had completely enveloped us and it was indeed quite surreal climbing a mountain in the heavy rain at midnight with only a beam of light for company. Tommy at this point, still possessing more energy than Tigger the Tiger had pressed on and disappeared from sight. As we continued the climb we passed a couple of runners, one guy had ran out of steam and was just re-charging. It struck me then how I was grateful to have Paul and John with me as this was a dangerous place to be alone, a slip, trip, fall or anything else up here on your own and you probably wouldn’t survive the night. It is a stunningly beautiful but ultimately deadly landscape if you don’t give it the utmost respect.

Finally reaching the top we continued along the top until eventually beginning a long descent along a forest trail which winds it’s way down into Kinlochleven.  As we neared the leisure centre I was relieved as I now knew the next checkpoint was the finish.

On arrival I was weighed then sat down for some food and cup of tea. Tommy had arrived about 10 minutes before having got a bit lost coming towards Kinlochleven. He was set to go and asked if I could hurry as he wanted away. I told him I wanted to take 10 minutes and said that due to the blisters on my feet there was probably going to be no more running by myself and if he wanted to go on himself (with Jamie and Roy supporting) he could. He decided that was for the best so he, Jamie and Roy left for their final stage. As I sat whilst Paul and Ian sorted some stuff, I was feeling very relaxed knowing I only had one more section left and didn’t feel in any rush to get going. I realised though that the quicker we set out the quicker we would reach Fort William. I wakened John who had taken an opportunity to close his eyes. Bidding farewell to Ian who was now on his own, we left the centre and made our way towards the steep climb out of Kinlochleven. 

Sprits were high with a lot of chatting helping to take our mind away from the task in hand. The climb itself wasn’t too bad but once you’re at the top you’re met with a very rough trail littered with streams, boulders, stones etc making for a very painful walk / run. As we continued on, a gap started to appear between us, John in front, me in the middle and Paul taking up the rear. As John had already completed the race 10 times previously it was difficult to not want to keep asking how far was left. As we marched on, I was aware of Paul lagging behind a little. I stopped and shouted back asking if he was ok. He replied he was feeling awful. I slowed up and let him catch up. He said he didn’t think he could get to Fort William and did I mind if he hitched a lift back to Fort William when we met John’s crew at Lundavra. Both John and I said this wouldn’t be a problem.

We pressed on as quickly as we could with the only talking being Paul enquiring as to how far John’s crew would be. At one point it was ‘Just behind these trees over there’ followed by ‘no just behind that hill then round the corner’half an hour later. Further on we could make out the dark shape of someone coming towards us. When he reached us it was a chap called ‘Jeff’ I believe from the mountain rescue. He insisted on taken our photo as has become a tradition with him in every WHW race.. Paul enquired how far to Lundavra, Jeff reckoned about a mile and a half. We continued on for what seemed like an hour with Paul remarking ‘It’s the f*****g longest mile and a half I’ve ever done’. Eventually we spied what looked like a couple of people ahead. As we neared we reached the point known as Lundavra. Two marshals had built what was earlier a fire and had been blasting out tunes for passing runners. Obviously by time we reached them the fire was now just a pile of ashes and the batteries in their ghetto blaster long dead.

John updated his crew about giving Paul a lift back to Fort William. We made our goodbyes then carried on with yet another big climb. I noticed at this point if I stopped and stood still I felt a little off balance and tired but was fine if I kept moving. I also noticed my hands were so swollen to the point I was unable to make a fist as the skin was pulled so tight. They resembled hands from a long dead corpse.

We pressed on and after an hour or so reached a forest not entirely dissimilar to Ewich with plenty of ups and downs.John is a teacher and has been running for many years and I was grateful and very interested in listening to all his advice and stories which helped take my mind off the hot needles being pushed into my feet in every step.

At long last we reached the top of Glen Nevis, a section I remember very well from 2 years previous when I acted as a support runner for Mike Raffan in his first ever WHW Race.  It’s a trail of hard packed clay, and stone and is very runnable though sadly my feet weren’t in any shape to take advantage of this. The track winds round and round gradually descending into Fort William. It seemed every turn was followed by yet another long straight and another turn. As I looked to the right I could see Fort William looming closer and closer. Eventually we reached the bottom turning left towards the Braveheart car park.  I knew then the challenge was soon to be over. 

The road leading into Fort William was considerably longer than I had remembered but then 2 years ago I was running at this point and never had broken feet. Before too long we saw the sign into the left for the Leisure Centre. I told John we would ‘sprint’ to the end. As we turned left we picked up the pace and kicked on to the end crossing under the finishing post. 

I’d done it finishing in 31 hours and 42 minutes.

In all the excitement talking to Ian Beattie I'd forgotten to clock off until Ian reminded me to do so, adding a few minutes to my finishing time. Once I'd clocked off off I stood under the WHW Race map for a photo and promptly broke down, the emotions of the last 6 months and especially the last 2 days had taken their toll. It was part relief and part joy at finishing. I entered the centre and was greeted by all the lads. Tommy finished in 31 hours and 3 minutes.

After a very painful shower due to the inability to walk down to all the blisters, we made our way to McDonalds for a spot of breakfast before going to the award ceremony to pick up the coveted goblet.

It was fantastic getting to see all your running friends and people you recognise from Facebook etc collecting their own goblet. Special mention must go to Paul Giblin who smashed the course record by over 30 minutes I believe. Just astonishing running. Having legends like Ritchie Cunningham congratulate you makes you feel very special to be part of this community.

The weekend was sealed having a curry followed by recounting stories with all the other runners in the pub across the road, a fitting end to a fantastic weekend.

2 weeks on, I’ve already started making plans how to get a couple of hours off next year’s time (pending me being lucky to get in). 

I must thank Ian Beattie and every one of his amazing team of people. The support we get along the route from people really does help and without such we wouldn't be able to enjoy this experience.

Special thanks to all the lads, Ian, Paul, Roy and Jamie, I couldn't have done it without you lot. Finally, thanks to Tommy, you said we would do it and we did.

Finally I would like to mention that as a lovely sideline I managed to raise over £400 for a little care centre in Livingston (Sunndach),

This centre provides care and support for terminally ill kids and their families and I just know this will help make a small difference. Thanks to all my generous friends and family who dug deep for this. You lot rock!