West Highland Way Race 2014

Well it’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 4 weeks now since the biggest race of my life, but I’m so glad to finally find some time to write it up.  This is one that I knew I had to capture because there were so many great memories, and people.  And it’s an adventure I will remember fondly and with pride – for a long, long time to come.  For those familiar with my lengthy posts – this is no exception (sorry!).

The stunning view from over the crest of Devil's Staircase, in Glencoe
The stunning view to the North from over the crest of Devil’s Staircase, in Glencoe

WHW 2014 Race Overview

  • Distance: 95 miles (Western States qualifier; UTMB 3-pointer)
  • Elevation gain: 14,760ft (see chart below)
  • Terrain: Pretty much everything.  Flat runnable start.  Some serious scrambly sections early on.  Very hard and tricky cobbles for lots of the way later on – coupled with some severe climbs and seemingly more severe descents!  Tough to find softness underfoot.  A Hoka course for sure.
  • Noteworthy: Motorized support crew (2 persons) mandatory – no aid provided.  No pacers (unless you’re over 4 hrs back by halfway).  Mandatory gear: space blanket and cellphone.  Finishers get crystal goblet!  And a sweet journey home.
  • Winning time: 14 hrs 20 mins (Paul Giblin; course record)
  • My time: 17 hrs 31 mins (6th overall; 25th in event’s history – it seems!)
  • Race website: http://westhighlandwayrace.org

    WHW elevation profile
    WHW course elevation chart

The Story of My Race

It was a massive venture into the unknown for me – having only ever tackled a few 50 milers in the past.  All of those were Stateside, with generally perfect, predictable, sunny weather and pretty decently soft underfoot conditions (especially in California where I find myself these days).  I knew from having hiked the West Highland Way 17 years ago (at age 17!) – how rugged a path it was.  It’s actually made up of some super old coach and military roads, plus a few drovers’ roads too.  Gravel sections, comfortable terrain and occasional singletrack are all luxuries that must be savoured early on, because once you hit those old rocky roads – you’re on them for a LONG time!

The race went as well as I’d hoped overall – in terms of my finish time (17:20 was my rough target – so not far off, and no watch!).  The first 40 didn’t go well at all – I’ll be honest – due to a lot of sickness along the side of Loch Lomond.  Read on and I’ll happily elaborate on that! I fell to 14th place after that disaster. But then it ended up balancing out with a strong resurgence later on – and some surprisingly fast splits (only Paul Giblin was faster on the Bridge of Orchy stretch!).  Somehow I crept back up to 5th with 14 miles to go.  And then I managed to make a total pig’s ear of it with a last minute detour entering Fort William – essentially losing me my 5th place by 15 seconds (after a sprint finish!).  It was a shame to end on such a silly sour note, but I can’t pretend I wasn’t pissed off with myself.  On the other side of the coin – it’s all the more reason to come back and conquer it again – with hopefully no sickness, and a little more course savvy.

My main takeaway (apart from the fine crystal finisher’s goblet!) is the amount of lessons I learned – for future 100 mile jaunts in the wilderness.  And whilst it’s easy to focus on the couple of things I need to improve on, something of this stature definitely merits celebrating the many things that went absolutely amazingly too.  I’ll drink to that.  No seriously, I just did.  From a certain goblet..

My first WHW goblet! Do it 10 times and you get a decanter!! m into that
My first WHW finisher’s goblet! Do it 10 times and you get a decanter!! I’m so into that

Milngavie to Balmaha (18.9 miles)

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/129344060″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Song for the moment: Power Come Over Me, by Pigeonhed

Race start on Saturday morning was amazing.  Milngavie Train Station was awash with runners and their crew.  All sorts of gear was on display – every brand of race pack, headlamp, compression gear, etc, as you might imagine.  I was going pretty minimal with just shorts and a tee, headlamp, and a little belt to hold mandatory gear (space blanket and mobile phone).  My big foglight of a headlamp (Black Diamond Polar Icon) was possibly overkill on this Scottish midsummer night.  That headlamp was so bright I could see the eyes of sheep from half a mile away – which I’ll bear in mind if I’m ever looking for a flock of sheep in the night.  

Positive tension at the start at 1am with Allison! That's not a medal - it's a timing chip!
Positive tension at the start at 1am with Allison! That’s not a medal – it’s a timing chip!

The start chute through Milngavie town center was lined with cheering crew and supporters and I was just totally gobsmacked.  I hadn’t expected a send-off like that at all.

I ran with a great pack of 4 chaps til about Drymen – all helping each other out – taking turns to hold open the various gates along the way.  David Gardner (4th overall; 16hr 39) was setting a pace for a 16hr 30 attempt, way beyond all of our targets, but still – we all tucked in behind him quite happily til the climb to Conic.  Then we spread out fast.  David took the bull by the horns and ran the entire hill – passing me as I hiked up.  I’d got bored and ventured ahead earlier, and quickly got my wrists slapped by the trail running gods – when I plunged my Hokas into a deep bog in a field at 12 miles in!  Change of shoes at Balmaha I figured.

Sunrise was set for 4.30am, but I learned from David that by the time we reached Balmaha (3:45am-ish), we could definitely dump headlamps there.  This was a huge relief I remember – because I was having a minor headlamp dumping logistics dilemma (I didn’t want to have to run all the way to CP2 at mile 40 with it).

I arrived at Balmaha CP in 6th (my ultimate finish position FYI; let the rollercoaster ride begin!) in a time of 2:37 – 10 mins inside my plans – which Gary was diligently keeping tabs on for me (I ran with no watch).  Balmaha was my crew’s very first engagement – in their very first ultra (except Allison)- so it was very much a learning experience for them too!  They were there for me with all my boxes, my Ultimate Direction SJ hydration vest, and had my Altra Lone Peaks sitting waiting for me (after I’d passed instructions along at a meet point in Drymen).  I was liking the Hoka Rapa Nui‘s so much though, and was feeling nothing in the way of blister potential, so I continued with them – with just a change of socks and insoles to nullify the risk of blisters after the bog-dipping incident earlier.  For the upcoming jaunt along the rocky, rooty technical edge of Loch Lomond – you really don’t want your feet slipping around in wet socks.  There were lots of nasty bitey midges at Balmaha (and right up to perhaps mile 60 in fact) feasting on my salty flesh, and my crew’s!  Not pleasant at all and I was desperate to get back on the trail!  My poor poor support crew battled with these buggers right through the day.  Which is why crewing is so much harder than running – I say!

Balmaha to Beinglas Farm (40.5 miles)

Here began the long 22 miles up the east side of Loch Lomond – teetering around the edge of Ben Lomond and then over some pretty up and down technical terrain to Inversnaid and beyond.  The Hokas held up well here, but unfortunately my stomach did not.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/45738546″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Song for the moment: Hurricane by MSMR.  “Welcome to the inner workings of my mind”.  This was to be my first big mental battle of the day.

Just short of Rowardennan (26 miles), I found myself feeling pretty queasy and let’s just say “volatile” in the stomach area.  I plodded on in the hope it would pass, but it just got worse and worse, and I really slowed down here a lot.  A quick poop in the woods (one of two!) didn’t resolve matters. Nor did my first puke (of three).  But I recall seeing Hugh McInnes (who I’d been running with earlier) pass me as I squatted in the bushes!  I made it to Rowardennan where I regret not leaving a drop bag, as I felt in need of some electrolytes – which I’d missed out on at Balmaha.  I was massively thankful for the water they had available here though – as it allowed me to dump the Nuun I had and replace it with water.  The Nuun just wasn’t sitting well at all, and I abandoned it completely from here on. 

Leaving Rowardennan, I caught up with Hugh on the road section and we ran in close proximity for a while after that.  I was really worried we were on the wrong path as we climbed a largely unmarked, seemingly endless forest road, but Hugh was adamant it was right – and that was all I needed to hear!

I paused at the top of the forest road and let Hugh pass again (I wouldn’t see him again for a long long time).  I proceeded to poop a second time whilst it was quiet, then after that I puked again.  I could see at this point that it was my earlier dinner that was coming up – exactly as it went in.  Lovely!  Please do read on 🙂

Losing a lot of liquids, I had to glug a load of my water just to satisfy my thirst – and this lack of remaining water led to a real slow, weak slog along the remaining few miles to Inversnaid – all the while staring wistfully at the vast undrinkable body of water to my left.  I was hopeful however that Inversnaid Hotel would let me use their bathroom to sort myself out – so it was just a matter of getting there really.  Such small achievable targets were the name of the game that day.

Upon arrival at Inversnaid, I did indeed visit said bathroom and proceeded to completely void myself of any remaining toxicity from my tummy.  I then filled up on water once more – so that’s two full rehydrations in just a few miles.  Now all I needed was electrolytes and fuel.  Trouble was, the next aid station was Beinglas Farm – a grueling 6.5 miles on.  OK – that sounds like nothing right?  Well I’d reccied this part of the race a couple of days before, so I knew how technical it was – and how grim it was going to be for me in that state.  Oh well, I thought, best just get frickin’ moving and get it over with.

I lost a lot of places during my toilet trip, and I recall starting out with two chaps who were running together, in Hokas (Andrew Horrobin and Gregor Heron; I wouldn’t see them again for over 30 miles).  In the proper spirit of the race, they asked if I was OK, and I tried to put on a brave face.  I was feeling sorry for myself, and weak from lack of fuel, and wasn’t able to keep them in sight for very long.  I kept chastising myself for not using drop bags for stashing fuel.  More people passed me.  Morale was dwindling fast.  At one point I remember finding a nice flat rock looking out to a gorgeous view of the loch, and I just sat there staring across towards the A82 – wondering if my crew were motoring up there at that very point. 

I took out the mobile phone and texted my sis, “CAN COKE!”.  With about 2 miles to go, I called her too – to advise the crew of my ill predicament.  I was picturing myself getting to Beinglas and just lying down on a blanket for 10 mins with my Coke in hand – maybe even taking a little nap!  It was a pleasant thought, and kept me pushing on 🙂

When I did arrive, it was such a huge relief to see Allison and the gang waiting for me with a bottle of cold Pepsi!  I glugged it down so fast that my sister rightly told me to slow down or I’d be sick!  I whined for a bit about how my top 5 goal was kaput, and Gary updated me on present status – over half an hour off target, and outside even my slowest estimations.  Bad news, after being well inside at Balmaha.  I was now just content to get through the race and maybe finish sub 20 hours.  I desperately tried to keep any further negativity out of my head – but it was tough in the circumstances.

Grudgingly piecing myself back together at Beinglas - after a lie down on the back seat!
Grudgingly piecing myself back together at Beinglas – after a lie down on the back seat!

I had a lie down on the back seat and was force fed strawberries, Pedialyte, Pepsi, maybe tried to eat a guacamole sandwich, before the crew motivated me to gear up and get back out there.  

I recall seeing the pathetic “challenge” support station out there too – and thought how ripped off those runners were.  As a brief aside, the WHW “Challenge” is a disorganized, rushed, and very unsafe parallel WHW race put on at the exact same time as the real WHW race – by a disgruntled previous participant who’d failed to make the cut-off times and was rightly DQ’d.  It doesn’t even merit this much of a mention in all honesty, so… moving on!

Beinglas to Auchtertyre (50 miles)

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/371375″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Song for the moment: Something Good, by Utah Saints.  Time to run like a ravin’ lunatic!  Pump those fists!

Things took a miracle turnaround from this point on.  With that fuel in my belly, I was rejuvenated and beginning to run strong again.  There were a few hills that still needed a powerhike – on the way up to Bogle Glen (after crossing under the A82) and towards Auchtertyre Farm and CP3 –  but I was running most of it.   I was surprised and happy to come up to a couple of other runners along the way.  One turned out to be the fastest girl – Fiona Ross – and it felt nice to have somebody to talk to, brief as it was. I presume they both must have passed me while I was taking advantage of the facilities at Inversnaid.

Just before entering the Bogle woods – I remember greeting a group of three hardcore cheer girls who were standing on the hillside there – covered head-to-toe, midgie nets and all.  I naturally commented, “You guys are nuts!” – because, well, they were.  They laughed heartily and came back with, “We’re nuts?!!”.  Fair point ladies!  We’re all nuts out here.

Onwards to Auchtertyre, and an amazed looking crew – who were absolutely not expecting to see me in such a healthy state!  A quick pit stop here, where I learned I was in 13th place. I ditched the hydration vest in favour of bottle, for the “short” 3 miles on to Tyndrum – where I’d see the crew again.  (Note to self: that is not a short 3 miles!)

Auchtertyre to Bridge of Orchy (59.3 miles)

Tyndrum came, and again my crew was blown away to see me arrive so quickly.  I think we could all see that things were definitely on the mend and I was hitting a good spell.  Their positivity definitely rubbed off on me and strengthened me.

Arriving at Tyndrum in decent shape!
Arriving at Tyndrum in decent shape!

I’d been leapfrogging another racer on the way from Auchtertyre to Tyndrum, and at Tyndrum I told me crew I thought it must be Matt Moroz.  Matt was 5th the previous year – in 17 hrs – and was the guy I’d modeled my estimated split times around, so I was chuffed to just be near him.  He ploughed right through Tyndrum without stopping, clearly looking to establish a gap on me.  I took on a bit more fuel (after scrimping at Auchtertyre) and re-burdened myself with the fully loaded hydration vest whilst watching Matt disappear over the hill, en route to Bridge of Orchy – another 6.5 miles away.  I think it took me all of 5 minutes to catch and pass him.  I assured him a second wind would bring him back to me eventually, but he was looking quite grim – much like how I’d been earlier.

The run to Bridge of Orchy was glorious – with gentle rolling hills as you hug the edge of two large peaks, closely following the route of the West Highland Railway Line (as featured in Harry Potter!).

Although I reached Bridge of Orchy CP in 13th place – the same as I’d started at the last CP in Auchtertyre – I knew I was flying.  The main indicator of this being that I got there and couldn’t find my crew anywhere!  Again, in the true spirit of trail racing – and the West Highland Way Race in particular – people were only too willing to help out.  Another crew (crewing for Patagonia ambassador Hiroki Ishikawa) loaded me up with Lucozade Sport, water and some crisps – and I’m so grateful for that.  My crew did arrive hurriedly a minute later, so I was able to say hello and head off up the hill!

Turns out only Paul Giblin ran faster than me on that section, and although I arrived in 13th place, I passed 4 more people on my way out of the checkpoint.  That felt like I’d hit the jackpot I have to say!  And from here on, I was tracking my position more closely – knowing that a top 10 finish was reachable now.

Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe (70.1 miles)

The long climb up and over the hill to Inveroran begins immediately after the CP.  Like I said, after a reasonably fast turnaround here, I banked a few places as I left – passing some more of the guys who’d clearly passed me during the sick stretch earlier.  I put on a brave face and ran as much as I could up this hill – in the hopes it might quash any intentions those guys had of trying to catch me.  Check me oot getting all competitive now 🙂

As I got to the crest of the hill, I noticed a large Scotland flag billowing in the wind, and then what I think was a Finland flag (??).  There were people gathered here, and as I passed them a kind chap offered me a jelly baby!  A yellow one – specifically – to go with my t-shirt.  And at that point I realized this must by the infamous “Jelly Baby Hill” that I’d heard so much about on the race’s facebook page!  Finally, I was in the know 😉   The jelly baby giver told me I was the fastest looking guy coming over that hill – which gave me massive encouragement!  Though another jelly baby might have given me more..

Again, Hiroki’s crew helped me out at Inveroran Hotel – a sneaky, little known access point for crew – and gave me a glug of cold Coca Cola, which was a godsend!  Hugh’s girlfriend was here too – suggesting he wasn’t too far behind me, I thought.  

After this began a short flat road section, followed by the long arduous climb towards and across Rannoch Moor.  This was the toughest section of the race mentally, and I’d been warned about it.  It’s along an old horse-and-carriage road – all rocky and uneven, and treacherous for weak ankles – and it continues for what seems like an eternity.  What’s worse is that you can see exactly where you’re heading, and it just doesn’t seem to get any closer!  It’s a good opportunity to see ahead – for potential racers ahead of you – but most of the time it turned out to be hikers (and in my condition – even catching hikers was slow going!).

I tried to run as much as I could in the short patches of uneven grass or heather that randomly appeared, but it was slow grueling work getting across to Glencoe.  My quads and shins and feet were burning because of the rocky path and I remember feeling sorry for poor Peter – my friend who was probably just getting started on his leg (the first leg) of the Midsummer Relay.  This was a parallel relay race that started at 12pm from Tyndrum to Fort William – so effectively the last 45 miles of the West Highland Way.  He drew the short straw and got the section involving this rocky road through Rannoch Moor.

I remember laying down at one point in the soft heather and elevating my legs on a mossy rock – in the hopes that it might help in some way!  An American hiker passed me and said, “I presume you are OK sir?” and I said yes and promptly got up and started shuffling along again.

The sight of the car park at Glencoe Ski Center was perhaps the greatest sight of the entire day!  Here I got to see my cousin Thomas (he was leg 2 of the relay) and my good friend Denis (leg 3) for the first time that day.  Denis came all the way over from the US just to be part of my first 100 (ish) miler, and I’d hoped he could run with me (i.e. pace me) for the last half.  But the rules over here in Europe are much different to the US – and a racer can only have a support runner if he or she is deemed to be in need of one.  In this race, you have to 4 hours behind the leader at halfway – and that for sure wasn’t going to be me.  So instead we signed Denis, Thomas and Peter up for the relay – giving them all a chance to experience some of the course, whilst also helping out with crewing wherever they could.  Worked out kinda well.  A great idea from race director Ian Beattie.

Oh man. Sheer relief at hooking up with the crew - at Glencoe Ski Center!
Oh man. Sheer relief at hooking up with the crew – at Glencoe Ski Center!

I learned I was 8th or 9th at this point, and filled up my water for the long section that was to come.  Glencoe was a pivotal aid station in my mind.  The monotony of the long water section and the long rocky section was over.  I remember telling my crew there were now only three more tiny little sections we had to get through – 10.5 miles to Kinlochleven, 7.5 milers to Lundavra, then 7 miles to the finish.  A doddle right?  Breaking it down like this – as I’d been doing since halfway – made the distance seem much less daunting.  One section at a time…   

The crew was starting to realize how much liquid I now needed for certain distances, and loaded me up on water, with a bit of Pedialyte in the back of my pack (for the top of Devil’s Staircase).  As I refueled and chatted with my crew, there was a friendly exchange with the two Hoka-wearing runners who’d passed me earlier during my ill spell.  They were leaving as I was just arriving and we knew they were going to get eaten up pretty quickly – the way I was running at that point – and this got me all excited about potentially moving into 6th place!!  The game was well and truly back on.

Glencoe to Kinlochleven (80.7 miles)

Denis ran the quarter mile with me – down to the road intersection – and I wished him the best for the relay and plodded on after the Hoka chappies.  We all congratulated each other as I made my way towards them, and we briefly chatted about how thankful we were to have the Hokas on – for that god-awful Rannoch Moor stretch.

For the next few miles, I was rubbernecking most of the way – trying to gauge of the two of them were gaining on me or getting further.  I’d hoped to charge ahead and put them out of sight, but I could tell they were not willing to give up and make it easy for me!

On the approach to Devil’s Staircase – an 800-900 ft ascent over about 1 mile – I ran all of the approach sections, and even some of the steeper parts, in the hope that it may dishearten them to see me so far up the hill.  I hiked the really steep parts, and finally took a little break at the top to look down and eat a sandwich and drink some electrolyte drink.  I chatted with a girl who used to work with my mum at the dentist, and was out hiking.  Turns out it was she who had delayed my sister and crew at Tyndrum!  And that’s why they were late getting to Bridge of Orchy CP.  She told her little boy, “Guess where this man has ran from today?  All the way from Milngavie!!  And there’s two men coming up the hill chasing him”.  He wasn’t too impressed.  But he gave me a Chewit sweet, and I moved on.

This next section I had also reccied, so I knew how amazing it was.  Fast flowing downhills pretty much all the way down to Kinlochleven (see pic at the top of the post).  I could still see Mr and Mr Hoka whenever I glanced back during an open section, but felt I had a safe distance for the time being.

The leading relay racers came storming past on the steep descent into Kinlochleven, and I recall thinking that they might break their legs if they keep on at that pace!  They had bibs on their front and back – making it easy to determine that they were relay racers and not just ridiculously late surgers in the long race (which was a regular concern as I looked back and saw any runner homing in on me).

The Kinlochleven descent was just brutal.  I remember this being the one section where I was just grimacing and not smiling at all.  Long and crazy steep, and all on hard surface.  I remember looking up at where I’d ran from, and thinking that they could definitely set up a zip line there.  Or a funicular railway.  The quads were blazing by the end, and I knew I’d suffer later.   

Seeing Allison standing on the bridge and hearing her shout out my name with glee put a real smile on my face – as I approached the residential area where the CP was. I weighed in here (they were weighing us to ensure no excessive gain of weight from overhydration), and got to the car for a sit down.  My quads were in agony, but I was in good spirits.  Mainly because I’d packed a couple of Red Stripes in the cooler.  I absolutely demanded one here!  Truth is I’d been thinking about it for a couple of miles.  I felt it might take the edge off the pain.  It certainly felt super-refreshing that’s for sure.

Gary told me I was 6th, and that 5th place guy was still in the CP and had came in 10 minutes earlier.  And that was me – woken up, replenished, and ready for one more battle!  I saw him leave the CP, and I knew from the weigh-in sheet that he was Marc Casey – 4th in 2013 and another target runner that I’d hoped to be close to.

Kinlochleven to Fort William (95.3 miles)

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/12704757″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Song for the moment: The Quiet Life, by Dirty Gold.  I’m coming home!

I passed Marc just as we entered the forest section after the stretch of road from the CP.  Now this was proper racing!  There were switchbacks all the way up a steep ascent – with varying lengths of opportunity to see the runner ahead.  I would try to run as hard as I could whenever I rounded a corner – in the hope that when Marc got round that same corner, I’d be out of sight.  It wasn’t that easy though.  Marc was tired – yes – but he wasn’t for giving up 5th very easily.  I’m intrigued to know what was going on his his head at that point.

Again, I was rubbernecking all the way up this stretch and across the Lairig Mor pass – trying to walk only when I knew Marc couldn’t see me!  As with Rannoch Moor, these old military and drovers roads were harsh with uneven cobbled stones – making progress all the more agonizing on tired legs.  I had no concept of distance whatsoever, so it was guesswork as to how far the next aid station was.  Even the numbers from passing relay runners would fluctuate wildly!  I saw lots of sheep in this stretch to Lundavra, and I thought of Denis.  I knew how excited he was to see the sheep and the highland cows, and I was pleased this was the relay section he’d be doing.  The scenery here was just awesome.  The weather had become more overcast than it was in Glencoe – making the Mamore Mountains look dark and formidable.  Out there somewhere, I knew Ben Nevis was towering in the clouds, but I had no idea what direction was even North!  I’d see it soon enough though.

Arriving at Lundavra - to the "Rocky Theme"! Yaaas!
Arriving at Lundavra – to the “Rocky Theme”! Yaaas!

Reaching Lundavra was an absolute joy.  I knew John Kynaston was volunteering here, and I was looking forward to saying hello.  John’s the host of the entertaining and educational West Highland Way Race podcast, and also a key member of the race organization.  My crew had made the tricky drive down there too – and were cheering as I approached.  John cranked up the ghetto blaster and the “Rocky Theme” serenaded me as I arrived!  A nice touch indeed at that point in the race 🙂  

I told them that Marc was super close and I had to press on or he’d get me.  We decided to ditch the hydration pack and finish nice and loose with just a water bottle.  I could have eaten more here, and taken on some electrolytes, but instead I just got back on the trail.  Maybe that was a bad decision – in retrospect.

Leaving Lundavra, Allison wailed at me to get running again! Eventually I did - til I was out of sight of her ;)
Leaving Lundavra, Allison wailed at me to get running again! Eventually I did – til I was out of sight of her 😉

As I reached to top of a little hill out of Lundavra, I could hear the crowds cheering again – and I knew Marc was close.  Those final 7 or so miles were just the worst!  My neck was hurting from looking back all the time!  I knew we had 3 miles of solid downhill at the end, so I just had to endure 4 more miles of up and down, run-walk-run, relentless… forward… progress.  Relay racers would pass me regularly – sometimes terrifying me (being awake for 24 hours makes you jumpy!) – but most often I’d see them coming as I peered back in search of Marc chasing me.

Eventually we hit the downhill and I did the best I could to grind it down to Fort William.  It seemed like the longest forest road ever.  I think dog walkers might have passed me on some sections!  Towards the end of the road, almost at Braveheart Car Park – things took a decisively nasty twist.  I saw one of the standard West Highland Way wooden waymarkers directing you to the right – and I followed it – into a wooded section of switchbacks that ultimately popped me out on the main road, where I turned left  – knowing that the finish line was just a mile or so along.  As I approached the Braveheart Car Park, I saw some bright yellow race wardens, along with a very familiar-looking runner emerging onto the main road ahead of me.  My heart absolutely sank.  As I approached the wardens, I asked desperately if it had been a relay runner and they said, “Naw mate, he’s in the race”.  BAM – 5th place gone.  I asked them why he came through the car park and not the trail, and they told me there’d been spray paint on the road to direct racers straight ahead at the particular junction I’d went right at.  I was fuming!  They told me it happens every year, which didn’t do much for my fume levels!  How could I be so daft?  

In hindsight, I should have bypassed the warden chat completely – and just started gunning it after my 5th place guy – because in the end I almost caught him!  Finishing 15 seconds ahead of me, I can only imagine the shock he must have got when he heard my crew fervently shouting my name after he crossed the line.  I’m fairly sure I was on sub-6 minute mile pace for that last section of road – little did he know!

Crossing the line at Fort William. Look at the shock on 5th place man's face to see me behind him!
Crossing the line at Fort William. Look at the shock on 5th place man’s face to see me behind him now!

It was a real shame that the race ended on such a disappointing note.  It took a lot of kind words from my crew to block it out mentally and focus on the fact that I’d still pulled off an amazing race.  And Jeez, I was 95 miles from Milngavie – on the same day I left!  95 miles from home.  Get me a beer, some fish and chips, and a cozy bed please 🙂

Freshly showered and smiling again - with my "Piss Drunk Crew" relay boys
Freshly showered and smiling again – with my “Piss Drunk Crew” relay boys

Thanks so much for reading (an endurance activity on it’s own!), and bring on WHW 2015!  The next biggie for me is a nice flat Rocky Raccoon 100, in Texas, in January.  Canny wait.

Lessons Learned

A lot went very well for me, and my crew did a damn fine job – which I am immensely grateful for.  None of the crew parts below are criticism at all.  I’d like to just call out a few learnings  – which might help my own or someone else’s future attempts at this race.  Some of these we managed, some not!

  • Don’t venture into bogs!  Wet feet will cost you.
  • Start slow and reign in your pace.  Temptation to run faster early because it seems easy is the forbidden fruit of ultras!
  • Be patient and work through the field, rather than staying near the front from the start (unless you are Paul Giblin or Robbie Britton).  I suppose I kind of inadvertently did this.
  • Never walk in the last 5K.  Finish strong, or risk being caught by someone who does.
  • Use drop bags when given the opportunity.  You might just need that extra energy boost if something unexpected happens.
  • Check for day-of-race course markings.  Don’t just rely on permanent trail markers – they may be overridden.
  • Run a happy race and stay positive.  Enjoy yourself and show your love for all the people out there volunteering and wishing you well. Now you’re just doing a whole 1 or 2 weeks of mileage in one day.  Smile!  🙂
  • Crew – get there well in advance of runner expected arrival time!  Miracle bursts of speed occasionally happen 😉
  • Crew – have a big car or van.  It’s amazing how much stuff a runner thinks they need!  And if you’re all overnighting it afterwards – factor in all those bags too.
  • Crew – plan based on section distance.  Distance to next aid station determines amount of hydration and food needed.  Runner needs to clearly brief on this.