I’m still trying to work out if it was better to approach the start of The West Highland Way Race knowing what lay ahead, but knowing also that I had overcome adversity back in 2012 to finish despite apocalyptic weather conditions, extreme diarrhea, and projectile vomiting, or if it was better to approach the start line for the very first time, appreciating the concept of running the 95 miles, knowing the route, but, having run no more than 55 miles in one go, having no real idea what to expect.
The jury is still out on that one!
Knowing that I had finished previously, and in some pretty awful circumstances, offered some consolation. However, I was all too aware that, back in 2012, I had a good solid training regimen behind me, that had seen me build up from my first ultra in 2010, to what was, by the time I started the 2012 West Highland Way Race, my 13th ultra marathon start, with 12 finishes.
Despite the 2016 West Highland Way Race being my 23rd ultra marathon start, it was with considerably less training than desired/required and even I will admit to being shocked to find that, upon checking Movescount, the extent of my running amounted to approximately 400 miles for the 6 months preceding the race. What’s more, 88 of those miles were logged at the D33 and Hoka Highland Fling!
At least I don’t need to look too far to find reasons for this season not exactly having gone to plan. Perhaps I was overly optimistic when I returned to running ultra marathons after the 2 years of ‘parental leave’ I took following the birth of my son in February 2013.
There are most definitely lessons to be learned and the dark places that I often found myself in as I battled along are testament to just how difficult this lack of training made things over the course of that weekend. By the time I had reached the midway point of the race, I was all for pulling out, quite happy to accept a DNF and, what’s more, I was set on quitting running ultra marathons altogether. I will hasten to add that it’s not the first time I have said that and I doubt it will be the last!
In true ultra style, the excesses of those thoughts quickly subsided, giving way to how best to approach my two remaining ultra marathon events this year, the Devil O’ The Highlands, and Glenmore 24. However, I am still torn with regard to what is best for me with regard to 2017 and will likely continue to feel this way until I can determine if I am going to be able to turn around the training issues. Hopefully a couple of decent performances will put any doubts to rest. I can but hope!
Now on to the race weekend itself!
I was, at least, prepared when it came to packing both kit and fluids and nutrition, facilitating an early departure from Ellon on the Friday morning. Arriving in Glasgow around lunchtime, we checked in to the Premier Inn Milngavie before then heading off to the airport to pick up Carolyn Hare who, along with Allan Bruce, formed 1/2 of my support crew.
Two rooms were booked, a ‘family room’ for Leanne and Harris, and a ‘race room’ for myself, Carolyn, and Allan, the other half of my support crew, who arrived early evening having travelled from Newcastle. I have to say that the hotel was excellent and the staff were friendly and understanding of the mentalists about to attempt to run the full 95 miles of The West Highland Way, wishing us every success as we departed.
Thanks to the two room approach, I was able to split my time between race preparation and some last minute attempts at relaxation, and between ‘daddy duties’, putting Harris to bed and explaining that daddy was going for a very long run, possibly even until Sunday, all things going to plan! It was great to put race prep aside that evening and focus on being dad, if only for a couple of hours.
After a brief discussion, we decided on an early registration, heading over to the race HQ for just after 9pm. A brief Tesco visit and some attempts at last minute sleep followed, before I then embarked on my typical pre-race rituals, albeit at a completely unusual time of day. I have to admit that the 1am start takes some getting used to!
We made our way to the start in good time, catching the race briefing before Carolyn and Allan then headed up through the starting line/underpass to secure good vantage points from which to watch the start of the race. This left me alone with my thoughts for 10 minutes.
And then we were off.
Given that the nerves had long kicked in, it was a welcome relief. I just wanted to get on and run.
I was dressed in Salomon t-shirt and shorts, with my usual Altra Lone Peak 2.5 shoes, and Salomon S-LAB 12 Set race vest, the same setup that I would wear for the duration of the race, only adding layers after Glencoe to see me through the chilly second night of running.
As I passed the point at which I had endured the first of many toilet stops back in 2012, barely 5 miles into the race, it provided a massive psychological boost. Things were, at least, going better than back then!
It was also noticeably lighter, unsurprising given the more favorable weather conditions.
Conic Hill came soon enough and, descending off of Conic and in to Balmaha, the first of the days checkpoints, I again felt a massive boost. That was, at least, one of the significant ascents of the race out of the way and some 18 of the 95 miles completed.
Carolyn and Allan were there waiting amidst the numerous race marshals and support crews and, unlike 2012, I most definitely hadn’t arrived in a ghost town! I was relieved to see that Balmaha was buzzing, and not just with midges!
An unexpected bacon roll and coffee, which went down an absolute treat, and I was on my way. I set off from Balmaha knowing that loch side awaited, with the unknown quantity of the low trail (which I actually really enjoyed), and also knowing that I wasn’t going to see my crew again until Beinglas, approx 41 miles into the race.
Loch side was as expected, with the technical sections proving to be just as difficult as always. Worst of all, however, was the terrible midge problem, with most runners claiming to have never seen them as bad as this.
I appeared to be as attractive to insect life as always and soon found myself coated in midges, all doing their best to annoy me in some way. It was, however, the inability to breathe without swallowing a mouthful of the little pests that was worst and I soon donned my midge head net. Far from ideal for eating and hydrating or, indeed, for running, breathing in the mesh with each breath. It was, however, the lesser of two evils and I kept the net on for over 20 miles.
The skies were black with midges in Rowardennan, which at least made for a quick checkpoint stop. On opening a pot of rice pudding it was almost instantly coated with midges, leaving me with little option other than to ‘enjoy’ the extra protein! It wasn’t, after all, the first time that I had eaten them that day.
As I ran along loch side, I soon found the temperature was rising, abandoning the (preferred) pleasantly low temperatures that had accompanied us through the night, giving way to something far hotter than I found myself comfortable running in. It did, however, make for some scenic photographs at least!
By the time I arrived at Beinglas I was feeling nauseous. I had requested a cheese and ham wrap be made up by my crew, conscious that conventional meal times were passing and I was still only ‘snacking’.
I almost ‘boaked’ when handed the wrap, more at the thought of trying to stomach it than anything else, but, eating as I left the checkpoint, the wrap went down a treat. So much so in fact, that I phoned my crew to pass on my thanks for the perfect combination of cheese and ham, and to apologise for my less than enthused response when they initially handed over the wrap.
My positivity was unfortunately short-lived and the next 10 miles turned out to be the first of my absolute low points.
Unfortunately, the heat from my body was transferring to the contents of my bladder, warming it to the point that I soon found myself unable to stomach the Tailwind mixture that constituted the majority of my potential fluids. After the problems encountered with my leaking soft flasks at the Fling, I had decided to once again use a bladder, filled to capacity with a water/Tailwind combination, hoping to cut down on the potential for issues and, also, on the time spent faffing at checkpoints refilling flasks.
With the heat still increasing, I found myself really toiling. As a larger runner, I’m no fan of running in the heat at the best of times, and this certainly didn’t fall in to that category. The heat was sapping the little energy that I had left and, as I finally approached the Auchtertyre checkpoint, I texted the support crew to warn them of my predicament.
I spent much of the time between Beinglas and Auchtertyre contemplating pulling out of the race and, in all honesty, would have happily accepted a DNF at that point. I was beat, feeling way below par, and was in no doubt that I didn’t have a further 40+ miles in me.
This was also the point when I had an epiphany, with the realisation that parenthood has somehow robbed me of the dogged mental determination that has seen me complete events when similarly faced with adversity in the past. In some respects that can only be seen as a good thing. I just don’t have the same need to test and prove myself that I once had. I also don’t have quite so many demons to slay. As far as dealing with the here and now was concerned, however, with a race scenario that was slowly imploding on itself, it was a realisation that was far from ideal!
Finally arriving at Auchtertyre, the 50 mile mark, I was weighed and found to be just under my lowest permissible weight. The acceptable scale was based on my pre-race weight, having been weighed at race registration on the Friday evening. Throughout the race, runners are weighed to ensure that they do not lose or add too much weight, which can be an indication of potentially serious issues.
In my case, it was fairly obviously down to dehydration but, for as bad as I felt, I mustn’t have presented myself too badly as I was sent packing with the instruction to drink more. A lucky escape as my race could have been ended there and then. If truth be told, there was a part of me that secretly wanted to be pulled from the race, with the decision taken by someone other than myself.
Retrospectively however, I can look back and appreciate that the checkpoint staff made an informed decision, based on the circumstances of the day, rather than ending my race prematurely.
Carolyn and Allan had, by now, been joined by Claire MacAskill, who had expressed an interest in helping with my support and, also, in helping to ensure that my support did not find themselves in need.
Carolyn had managed to convince a shop in Tyndrum to sell their last bag of ice, despite the bag being ripped. This single act quite possibly saved the day. My support crew soon had me sitting in the little shade offered by the SEAT Alhambra, passing me a most welcome ice lolly, and packing Buffs full of ice to place on my head and back.
When I arrived at Auchtertyre, I had not in all honesty expected to leave that checkpoint still in the race.
As it was, I found myself heading out of Auchtertyre with ice filled Buffs still working their magic, with plenty fresh water to drink, and feeling significantly better than when I arrived.
Auchtertyre is the first point that a support runner is permitted to join their runner, and I left accompanied by Carolyn, which helped immensely to lift my mood. In discussions with the crew, I had left it up to them who would join me and where, but I will admit to being particularly glad to have left with good company. Whilst I had the support of Ian Minty from this same point back in 2012, I hadn’t actually envisaged being joined by a support runner this time around.
By the time I arrived in Tyndrum, some 3 miles later, my mood was significantly lifted, and I felt that my core temperature was back in a much better place.
Carolyn accompanied me as far as Bridge of Orchy, where I received an unexpected and most welcome visit from Leanne and Harris. Again, this helped to lift my mood. Allan took over support runner duties at this point, joining me for the ascent out of Bridge of Orchy, stopping for one of Murdo’s Jelly Babies at the top of the hill, having been ‘serenaded’ up the final ascent to the sound of the Star Wars theme tune, played on some kind of whistle!
After a quick refueling stop on the other side of the hill, Allan and myself set off in the direction of Rannoch Moor. We actually arrived in Glencoe some 45 minutes ahead of our expected arrival time, catching our support unaware. We decided to rendezvous with Carolyn and Claire at the Kings House Hotel, leaving them just enough time to pick up some hot food from the Glencoe Ski Area cafe.
Unfortunately, the promise of hot food didn’t transpire. Whilst the cafe itself was open late to accommodate runners and support crew, the kitchen was closed! My longed for baked potato would just have to wait. I wasn’t actually all that phased by this and Carolyn and Claire had managed to source coffee and what has to be one of the best filled rolls I have ever had!
We made the mistake of sitting in to the Alhambra to eat our rolls and, whilst it was most definitely a very welcome seat, the joy was short-lived. Stepping out of the car into the cold night air, I was soon shivering and shaking. Conscious that an ascent of The Devil’s Staircase lay ahead, I layered up to see me through what was obviously turning into a very cold night.
Allan again accompanied me on my run.
Unfortunately, with darkness descending and running with heads down due to the wind and cold, we somehow managed to miss the turning off onto the path. It wasn’t until we reached the main road that we realised our mistake, retracing our path to find the correct route. Just what we didn’t need – extra distance!
There’s no other way to describe The Devil’s Staircase than a slog. At least in daylight it affords some amazing views. In sheer darkness however, it’s about little more than the not inconsiderable ascent, and the corresponding, never ending, descent into Kinlochleven. By this point, the rocky nature of the path is testing, to say the least, on feet that have already covered many, many miles. The agony is further compounded by seeing the lights of Kinlochleven but knowing all too well that there’s a considerable amount of running before finally arriving in the town.
It was at this point that I experienced my second major low of the race.
Energy levels were low, which didn’t help. The main issue, however, was the pain I found myself in. Both feet felt like the skin on each sole had completely separated from its respective foot, and the pain experienced with each step was further exaggerated by the ridiculously rocky nature of the trail.
Arriving at the checkpoint in Kinlochleven, I was a definite DNF. ‘Only’ 15 miles from the finish, but 15 miles that I knew were going to take far longer than they would on a normal day. I was beat once again, absolutely empty, devoid of energy, and in a lot of pain with every step.
My weigh in revealed that I was now back in the lower regions of my acceptable weight scale. No chance of being pulled from the race then! That was something at least, though again, admittedly, it didn’t feel positive right at that moment in time.
There was little doubt that I wanted to stop. Fortunately my crew were sticking to the content of the pre-race briefing where we discussed ‘no DNF under any circumstances’! We did, however, reach a compromise. It was suggested that I sleep for 45 minutes before making a final decision on whether to continue or not. Sleeping mid race is not something that I would ever have dreamed of doing previously but, at that point, all I wanted to do was stop and a sleep break was as close as I was getting to achieving that!
I fell asleep almost instantly.
Carolyn and Claire woke me, setting to work almost immediately with rehydrating fluid before then checking on the condition of my feet.
Whilst if felt like I had slept for days, I had actually only been asleep for 20 minutes (they lied to me!!!) It was, however, sufficiently replenishing to convince me to get back out there and finish the last 15 miles – after all, I had come this far. Now that’s what I call a power nap!
Quite surprisingly, my feet were in far better condition than expected. The skin on my feet wasn’t detached as feared and, in fact, there wasn’t even a blister to be found. However, the top 1/3 of both feet was fairly badly bruised which at least explains the pain.
Some padding was applied to the bottom of both feet and, for as thin as it appeared, it made a considerable difference. With that, Carolyn and myself left the Kinlochleven checkpoint, bound for Fort William, with ‘only’ the small matter of the steep ascent out of Kinlochleven and the Lairig Mor to negotiate.
It has to be said that this is one of the most scenic parts of the West Highland Way, at least to my mind, and I am looking forward to running this part again in a few weeks at the Devil O’ The Highlands, which should hopefully see me complete my 2016 Triple Crown (Hoka Highland Fling, West Highland Way Race, Devil O’ The Highlands).
As we neared Fort William, I actually found myself picking up the pace, something that I think was responsible for lessening the DOMS in the days after the race, stretching out muscles in a way that they hadn’t been used since the earliest stages of the race. Despite running 95 miles, I actually experienced less leg pain post-race than I have for most other ultras, although the bruising on the feet continued to give me grief for a good few days and negated at least some of the benefits of the better than expected DOMS.
I finally crossed the line in a time of 32:26:09, considerably slower than I had hoped for, and slower even than my problematic 2012 finish, where I battled explosive diarrhoea, projectile vomiting and apocalyptic weather conditions. If anything, this merely serves to illustrate the failures of my training and, further, just how badly I fare in hot conditions.
However, any disappointment with my time is more than offset by my delight at finishing and even more so when I consider that at both the 50 mile and 80 mile checkpoints, I was more than ready to pick up only my second DNF.
That I didn’t add to my one and only DNF is undoubtedly down to my crew who, quite simply, refused to let me quit. Carolyn, Allan and Claire did an excellent job of ensuring ‘relentless forward progress’ and, to this effect, I owe them a debt of gratitude.
One of the best parts of the weekend was running those final few hundred yards accompanied by Harris and, thankfully, Allan was on hand with his camera to capture this with some excellent photographs, including a particular favourite that will soon be adorning the wall at home.
After a quick massage all I wanted was a full cooked breakfast. I didn’t even change. Still clad in my (by now very smelly) running attire, I was accompanied to breakfast by Leanne and Harris, with Carolyn, Allan and Claire heading back to the accommodation for some rest and recuperation.
We all attended the prize giving, one of the highlights of the West Highland Way Race weekend, where each finisher collects their crystal goblet individually in the order that they finished.
Following this, Claire had to leave, followed not too long after by Allan. Carolyn and myself had every intention of making an appearance at the post race get together that night but, once back in the accommodation, we soon settled and found ourselves too tired to move.
A hugely long blog post but, given the length of the race, it was always going to be!
Next up: Devil O’ The Highlands on 6th August followed by Glenmore 24 on 3rd September.