Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush (& Other WHW Race Tips)

I’ve had this post, ‘Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush (& Other WHW Race Tips)’, knocking around unpublished for some time now and, given that this time next week I, along with approx. 200 others, will (hopefully) be a good way into the 95 miles of The West Highland Way Race, I thought I had best get on and finish the post. I did have the best of intentions, but time has not been kind, either to blog publishing or training!

I didn’t even manage to finish this post when intended. The above introduction was written earlier this morning and, by this point, just after 10PM on Saturday evening, at least some of the field will have completed their 95 miles already! Personally, I will most likely be looking forward to running through another night, hopefully finishing some time in the ‘wee small hours’ of Sunday and, as long as I cross the finish line by Sunday 12 midday, I will be happy!

So, here goes with the best words of wisdom that I can think of, hopefully in some sort of cohesive fashion. Hopefully someone will take something from it and, failing that, it will at least serve to remind me of some of the things that I might encounter in less than 1 weeks time!

Edit: 13th June 2016. Mulling over my post, I thought the following edit was important, especially given that I have only ever attempted to complete The West Highland Way Race once, in 2012. What follows is mostly based on my particularly bad experiences at the 2012 West Highland Way Race, and, partially, on my other ultra marathon finishes, details of which are below.

Year/Finishes (Additional Notes)

2010: 3 (1 x DNF at Montane Highland Fling)
2011: 6
2012: 7 (Including The West Highland Way Race)
2013: 1 (‘parental leave’ starts)
2014: 0 (‘parental leave’ continues)
2015: 3
2016: 2 (2 down, 3 to go!)

Total: 21 finishes from 22 Starts

Lets start with possibly the most important one.

Have the talk – the dreaded Did Not Finish (DNF) one.

Assuming that you are not a DNS (Did Not Start), there’s only one thing between you and your West Highland Way Race goblet, and that is the dreaded DNF (well, that and the ‘small’ matter of 95 miles!)

Back in 2012 I had the talk with my crew beforehand. In fact, if memory serves correctly, it was quite a bit beforehand, so that we could get the negativity out of the way without having to think about it on the race weekend (There’s still time! Do it… NOW!)

With the benefit of hindsight, I can look back and have a laugh. I briefed my crew about expecting to see me at my worst, little realising that the events of that weekend were about to totally and utterly redefine my definition of ‘worst’. (Read ‘Against All Odds – The Quest For A West Highland Way Race Goblet’ if you want the back story!)

Anyway, suffice to say, the crew were briefed not to mention or consider the dreaded DNF and, even when I myself was contemplating quitting the race, having just experienced yet another bout of explosive diarrhea, quickly followed by projectile vomiting, they never once broached the subject.

Given the chain of events throughout the 50 miles up to this point, they were no doubt thinking it, but credit where credit is due, the prospect of a DNF was never mentioned.

Preparing your crew in advance of this type of scenario is definitely recommended. If truth be told, for as bad as you, the runner, feel, your crew, most likely close friends and family, will undoubtedly feel worse, seeing you, the person they care for, suffering and in pain, pushing yourself to your limits. Remind your crew in advance that there’s a fair chance that they will see you at your worst, but then remind them that you are here of your own free will, chasing your goals.

The following, from West Highland Way Race stalwart Fiona Rennie, puts this far more eloquently than I can:

“This week is a tough one where you can get bogged down with lists, splits and packing a truck load of gear, ok it will give you something to do. But when the word “Go” is shouted at Milngavie, take a deep breath, relax, the adventure has started, enjoy.

Keep it simple, we do this because we love to run, it’s not rocket science, don’t look too far ahead, if you must, no further than the next checkpoint and the culinary delight you’re going to have.

Live in the moment, enjoy the morning bird song along to Rowardennan, the dodgy, scary path along the Loch, the peace and beauty of the Angel’s Playground, the fun of the rollercoaster, the wide openness of Rannoch moor, the majestic brooding hills around Glencoe, if it isn’t hurting by now it soon will, remember you are here because you have the privilege of good health and had the ability to train for this whether it has gone according to plan or not. In xxxx hours it will be over when you slap your hands on the door of Leisure Centre. The pain and discomfort you will feel in this challenge of your own choosing will never come close to those fighting terminal illness.

Remember how lucky you are, the sense of achievement when you pick up your Goblet will never ever diminish and will enhance your life forever.” (first posted 2013)

Having prepared your crew with the DNF talk, you would be well advised to have your own internal dialogue. Prepare yourself, just as you have prepared your crew.

Most of us will consider throwing in the towel at some point. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that sometimes a ‘good day’ is simply one where the amount of time spent not considering quitting is greater than the time filled with thoughts of a DNF!

The reality of longer events, and especially events with such a small field, is that you will ultimately spend a lot of time alone with your thoughts. In the event that a DNF does cross your mind, try not to give in to those thoughts, and certainly not until you find yourself in a better place. Thoughts of a DNF at the 2012 West Highland Way Race, after explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting left me in the depths of despair, soon gave way to positive feelings and strong running just 3 miles later and ultimately saw me turn a potential DNF into not just a finish, but a finish with a great story of battling adversity (‘Against All Odds – The Quest For A West Highland Way Race Goblet’).

That I was able to do this was ultimately down to the backing of an excellent support crew, a crew with whom I had ‘had the talk’, who knew not to mention DNF scenarios, and who did whatever was required to get me back running. In this particular case, my support runner joined me for the first time in the race, encouraging me to start small, walking for as long as necessary before getting back running and my support crew raced ahead to source the only thing that I wanted, which typically we did not have, a bottle of Orange Lucozade!

At the end of the day however, we all need to be sensible, especially where our health and well-being and that of others is at stake. If it’s a serious injury, then a DNF may be the only option and, at the end of the day, the race will be there for a future attempt.

If the problem is internal however, consider battling through it.

I have a single DNF from my 22 ultra marathon starts to date and, to this day, some 6 years later, it still haunts me.

It was at the 2010 Highland Fling. I was overweight, underfit, and ill-prepared in terms of both time on feet and specificity of training. It was unseasonably warm and sunny and I was suffering, sweating profusely, feeling the effects of a lack of hill training having just come off Conic Hill, and, just to make matters worse, I was conscious that the sweeper was snapping at my heels.

Most of all, however, my mind just wasn’t in it and it was the mind that ‘broke’ at approx. 27 miles, giving in far too easily when thoughts of a DNF entered my head and refused to leave.

I was particularly haunted by it for the year that followed, finally putting most of my demons to rest with a Fling finish the following year. However, that was not before I had wallowed in a good dose of self pity, having consumed each and every blog that I could find on the race.

So, basically, lets all be sensible. Lets not put ourselves or others at risk of harm, but lets also consider why we do what we do, and what finishing means to us.

Think contingency – ‘What if’ – in the lead up to the event. I’ve read how some runners like to visualise achieving their goals. I also believe that an element of visualising different situations can be useful and may make any race day mishaps easier to get on and deal with and ultimately overcome.

Lets finish the ‘serious stuff’ with something that I heard on the morning of the 2011 Fling, a gem of information that helped get me through that day, another unseasonably warm day (in true Fling style), and that helped me put my DNF demons to bed.

I overheard a conversation between a veteran Fling runner and a Fling newbie, with the veteran dispensing some information that is equally applicable to any event.

Don’t dwell on feelings of pain and discomfort at a particular point and assume that things will only get worse thereafter. Instead, know that you will feel just the same in the miles that follow but that, with each passing mile, you will be that little bit closer to finishing. Sound advice indeed, and advice that helped me through to my first Fling finish.

And now for some considerably more lighthearted suggestions that will hopefully go some way to making your 35 hours that bit better!

IKEA have an awesome selection of zip-lock bags that are perfect for compartmentalising the contents of your bag/waist pack/drop bags. I tend to use them to carry Imodium, Salt Tabs and baby wipes.

I only discovered baby wipes a few years back, when my son Harris was first born, but I honestly don’t know how I coped without them. There’s nothing better for cleaning up after a sticky checkpoint snack, for wiping salt from a sweaty face, and for generally enabling you to freshen up, something that can make an immense difference to how you feel over an event of this duration. It also goes without saying that baby wipes can’t be beaten when dealing with unexpected toilet trips (just remember to dispose of them with due consideration of the environment).

Talking of freshening up, don’t forget to bring toothpaste and a toothbrush, a tip that I first heard from Mike Raffan if memory serves me correctly. This applies equally to crew and runners. In any normal 24 hour period, you would likely brush your teeth twice (possibly more) so why wouldn’t you do the same out on the trail. If anything, with the constant eating, your mouth, and possibly even your overall disposition, will thank you for the feeling of relief and freshness that a good brush of the teeth can bring.

Think about your support crew. I’ve heard stories of crews being abused something rotten by their runners. Without your crew, you are nothing. Seriously, you can’t continue. They are ‘required items’ according to the rules. They also happen to be the people who have given up their weekend to support you, subjecting themselves to almost certain sleep deprivation, the best/worst weather that Scotland has to offer (depending on the year), and possibly even putting themselves out of pocket. What’s more, they don’t even get the glory of the finish! Be nice to them. If they make a mistake, it’s likely because they are tired as well. If they tell you to MTFU and get on with it, it’s because they know you are capable and that, ultimately, that’s what you would want them to say. Indeed, you should have briefed them to do just this beforehand!

Plan for eventualities. It’s great to have a target finish time, with associated checkpoint times. However, as with any race day, you might find yourself ahead of your predictions, or woefully behind them. There’s little point in stressing over a schedule that is slipping as a result of race day circumstance. Looking back at my 2012 splits, I still can’t believe just how long I spent on some sections, and, in particular, over those last few sections, when the miles in the legs were obviously taking their toll. Having considered A/B/C or Gold/Silver/Bronze scenarios is just one example of planning for eventualities and you just never know – you might find yourself switching between them as your condition worsens or improves.

As far as I am concerned, my 2016 West Highland Way Race goal is simple – a finish, ideally in a time that beats my 31 hour 2012 time. Training has not gone to plan. I have not logged the miles that I have done in previous years. My expectations reflect this. One day, I will toe the line in Milngavie having done the requisite training for a fast(er) finish. However, that day will not be in 2016!

One last thing. Enjoy it. I refer you back to the sage words of Fiona Rennie above. We are indeed blessed to have the opportunity to take part in this great event, running on some of Scotland’s finest trails, challenging our bodies (and minds) to carry us the 95 miles from Milngavie to Fort William. There will be times along the route when we lose sight of just how fortunate we are. Try to remember, as I will try to.

Here’s hoping for ultra marathon finish #22, West Highland Way Race finish #2.

Best of luck to you all.