Against All Odds – The Quest For A West Highland Way Race Goblet

New post at The Running Bug, ‘Against All Odds‘.

Warning: the following blog post is quite a graphic account of my quest for a WHW Race goblet.

I travelled down to Glasgow on Thursday evening, leaving straight from work, in the hope that this earlier than previously planned departure would provide a more relaxed day in the build up to the race start, in Milngavie, at 01:00 am on Saturday 23rd June.

Arriving at the house of Leanne’s aunt and uncle, Sandra and John Donnelly, I discovered that my support team had ‘branded’ themselves, team Jonathong, based on a nickname that I was christened with by my wife’s brother. A 6 berth motor home had been hired for the weekend which provided my support crew of Sandra, John, my wife Leanne, and my support runner Ian Minty, with a little bit of comfort and a place to rest up if and when time permitted.

The weather in Glasgow on the Friday afternoon was something else. Torrential rain accompanied by some pretty loud and dramatic thunder and lightning cast a cloud over proceedings (no pun intended). Anyone familiar with Glasgow will know that Glasgow is no stranger to rain. As such, a weather warning that accompanied the forecast was more than a bit concerning and I was worried, more than anything else, that the race would be cancelled.

Fortunately, the thunder and lightning stopped. Unfortunately, the rain did not and the challenge of running 95 miles was further compounded by the atrocious weather conditions.

I had hoped to get some additional sleep throughout the day on the Friday but the combination of a John Bannerman concert soundcheck and then the concert itself taking place next to us on Glasgow Green, interspersed with the aforementioned thunder and lightning, meant that sleep was not on the agenda. By the time I finished the race I had been awake for some 50 hours approx.

We departed for registration in Milngavie around 10:15 pm. I introduced Minty to Sandra and John for the first time and got myself weighed and registered for the race.

Around 12:30 am the race briefing took place in the car park at Milngavie railway station, just next to the underpass which is the start line for the event. From an initial high of 230, we were now down to a field of 172 runners. The race briefing included the following:

“Weather. There will be some. When the sun shines, it’ll be hot. When it’s raining, it’ll be cold and wet. If it’s windy, there’ll be less midges.”

At this point, it was obvious to all that the rain would be hugely significant this weekend and, just in time for the start, the heavens once more opened up with heavy rain.

Despite the weather, there was an excellent turnout with people lining the streets from the start line at the underpass to the turnoff that takes you off Milngavie high street and on to the West Highland Way route itself. The weather certainly didn’t dampen the spirits of the runners, support crews and spectators and this was a real standout high point for me.

Unfortunately, this high was short lived.

By the time I first met with my support crew, 12 miles into the race in Drymen, I had already had to make a few additional stops in the area surrounding the trail as explosive diarrhoea threatened to derail my quest for a WHW Race goblet. By mile 17, I was again suffering an unexpected stop and I was thoroughly demoralised as the torchlights of runners once again moved past my hidden position. I was already contemplating a DNF (Did Not Finish) and was in turmoil.

Meeting my crew in Balmaha, having ascended and descended Conic Hill, the first big hill of the day, I took some Immodium in the hope that this would help settle the stomach. This appeared to work, at least for a while.

The lochside section, from Balmaha to Rowardennan went OK but I was concerned that my unplanned pitstops had put me way back in the field and, it crossed my mind, might even have left me in last position. I didn’t see any runners for a while and, as such, was delighted to finally come across fellow runners.

I met up with Sue Walker in this section and enjoyed catching up with Sue in the run in to Rowardennan. This helped take my mind off the problems I had been having.

Arriving at Rowardennan, I was conscious that this would be my last meeting with my support crew for some time as both Inversnaid and Beinglas Farm were, for one reason or another, inaccessible to support crews. I decided to change my socks as they were soaked through and I was concerned that this would impact negatively on my feet. Large parts of the trail throughout the whole of the West Highland Way resembled streams and even rivers rather than the trail that we had expected to run on. Waterfalls along the trail side bore testimony to the extent of the rainfall as their waters and ferocity were swelled to impressive levels. One of the negatives from this was that the majority of water crossings, normally dealt with by some strategically placed stepping stones, now involved wading through the water. Two minutes after changing into fresh socks, they were once again soaked through.

Approximately 40 miles in, I experienced another low and it stayed with me for the next 10 miles, compounded by the ‘never ending’ forest between Crianlarich and the Auchtertyre Farm checkpoint.

I was looking forward to my support runner, Minty, joining me at Auchtertyre farm. I met Minty on various training runs and, having run almost the entire 55 miles of the 2011 Cateran Trail Ultramarathon with him, I could think of no one that I would rather run the remaing 45 miles of the West Highland Way Race with. Minty had travelled hundreds of miles to support me and I had made assurances earlier in the year that I would most definitely make it past this point and require the services of a support runner.

At this point, things went from bad to worse.

50 miles into the race, the weather finally brightened up but I found myself again ravaged by explosive diarrhoea. I hit a new low. Knowing that I had to get back out there and keep on running, I made a move to leave the motorhome. At this point I suffered projectile vomitting, literally painting the walls and toilet bowl of the small motorhome with the contents of my stomach. Looking back at this point on the drive home today, Leanne and I both agreed that the Family Guy ‘Who Wants Chowder’ scene came closest to describing the events:

There was no way I could run another 45 miles. However, there was also no way that I could let my support runner and crew down. (Just for the record, I made every attempt to clean up the mess I made before departing the motorhome. No support crew deserves to have to clean that up! As I was informed today, I wasn’t quite as thorough as I thought I was).

I don’t know where I summoned any reserves from as I don’t remember feeling quite so low in the entirety of my 40 years, but I made it back out the door, shivering furiously and running on empty.

Minty coaxed me into a brisk walk and arranged for my support crew to meet me in Tyndrum, some 3 miles ahead – just in case.

To everyone’s surprise, none more so than me, I picked up!

There is a saying “If you feel good during an ultra, don’t worry, you will soon get over it.” I would like to add that this can also work in reverse. Checking Facebook this morning, I saw that someone had posted the following message: “To the kind marshall at Bein Glas who strongly suggested I give it until Auchtertyre to decide whether to pull out – thank you”. I know exactly what they mean. What a difference a few miles can make, especially in a race of this length.

The next 45 miles saw me expertly coaxed between running, hiking and, where necessary, shuffling, as Minty kept me moving forward. When we neared checkpoints, Minty would phone in my ‘order’ for food and drink and my excellent support crew made sure that it was ready for my arrival, regardless of the location and/or time of night. This even included sourcing things that I had never even considered (fizzy orange Lucozade) which helped to lift my mood in the aftermath of my projectile vomit session.

Towards the end of the race, and especially in the forest just before the final descent into Fort William, I started to suffer from hallucinations which I can only put down to sleep deprivation. I was certain that I saw a guinea pig on the trail, which turned out to be a rock, and was equally as certain about the presence of both white and brown rabbits along the trail (more rocks!) which refused to move as we ran through them. For a while, everything that I looked at appeared to have hidden depths and shapes.

Getting up and over the Devil’s Staircase and then the long climb out of Kinlochleven, I started to turn my thoughts to the finish.

By this point, my feet felt like they had blisters forming on top of existing blisters. I didn’t want to remove my socks and trainers for fear of the condition of my feet and kept shuffling on. The skin on the soles of my feet felt separated from the feet themselves and I found the rocky terrain underfoot particularly difficult. Each stray stone that jarred my foot ripped at the skin leaving me in pain.

I was also increasingly bothered by pain in my right hip and feared that I had somehow done some real damage to the area. As I found out on finishing, the pain was related to an ITB issue and I also found out that the left ITB was almost equally as tight so I have no doubt that the left hip would also have started to give me grief had I been required to run any further.

Minty and I finally arrived in Fort William at around 08:00 am Sunday morning and I crossed the finish line in a time of 31 hours 1 minute and 51 seconds.

We were 4 hours before the cut off and the start of the presentation of the well earned goblets where each finisher received their goblet in time order.

In that time I had a massage provided by Athletes Angels. This was both heavenly and painful in equal measure but I was glad of the opportunity to give the legs some much needed TLC. Further, the ITB issue was diagnosed at this point so at least I knew then that I had not created a greater problem with the hip.

I slept solidly for 2 hours in the motorhome, possibly the best 2 hours of sleep I have ever had, awakening just in time to grab a bacon butty before heading to the presentation.

Of the 172 starters, 119 finished, an amazing number given the adverse weather conditions.

I am sure that I have left heaps out of the above blog post. However, given that I am still suffering from sleep deprivation and still haven’t really got my head in the game yet, I wanted to get at least some of the weekends events down as a constant reminder of an excellent weekend.

Leanne tweeted my progress over the weekend and I will catch up with everyone over the next couple of days. Thanks to everyone who sent tweets and messages. Hopefully the above will serve as an insight into the toughest weekend I have experienced to date!

So, finally, down to the thanks.

A huge thanks to my support crew of Leanne, Sandra and John, who so willingly gave up their weekend to follow me about as I pursued my goal of joining the WHW Race Family. Little did I realise when I warned you that it is not uncommon for support crews to see their runners at their worst, that it would happen to me. Thanks for getting me through it.

Minty, thanks for agreeing to travel so far to act as my support runner. Thanks also for suggesting that you join me at Auchtertyre Farm, the earliest point at which a support runner is permitted. Given the events that took place there, I doubt I would have made it out of the motorhome had you not been due to join me. Your experience kept me moving forward and ultimately saw me achieve my goal of WHW Race Family membership. I owe you big style!

Huge thanks also to Race Director Ian Beattie, to the doctors, crew, Marshals and members of The Wilderness Response Team who gave up their time so that we could chase our goals in safety.

To all my fellow runners, well done on an outstanding achievement, especially given the weather conditions. I hope that you are not as blistered and immobile as I feel today. Any advice on cankles would be much appreciated!