Angus’s West Highland Way Race 2019

Photograph courtesy of Monument photos

West Highland Way Race 2019

Back in December, I received my notification that I had, once again, been accepted into this iconic race. I was so delighted to be fortunate enough to gain a place again. Not quite the same sense of sheer panic and excitement I had the previous years (which incrementally increased towards the actual race day), nevertheless, absolutely thrilling; and what a goal to have for the year ahead.

I’m not one for structured training plans and simply set my self a few key tasks to complete before race day to ensure I was that bit more prepared than last year:

1) Lose some weight

2) Do a triple Ben Lomond training session

3) A stronger and faster Highland Fling time

4) A forty mile night run followed next day by a back to back 15 mile run

5) Aim to do my fastest commute run .

6) Target time for 2019 race of 22 hrs; a big ask given I was 24hrs 45 mins last year.

So, 6 months later, 12 kilos lost, a comfortable 3 times up Ben Lomond, an hour and three quarters off my Highland Fling time, a good strong back to back night run, and a 50 minute 7.3 mile PB run to work; overall, much stronger than last year, much of which I put down to item 1.

So, all set for 2019….

Having the previous years race under my belt, meant the whole build up was far less fraught, meaning I followed much of the same routine, revising my old race plan from the previous year, hire of the crew bus, same packing, etc.

My race crew consisted of Jamie Stewart, Janice (my wonderful wife), Billy Reid and Dougie Harvey. I was so looking forward to having Janice with me this year so that she could experience the whole event and the camaraderie associated with it. So, Jamie driving and general support, Billy running with me from Auchtertyre to Glencoe Ski Centre , Janice support crewing and doing a wee running stint through Glencoe to foot of Devils Staircase, and then Dougie support running from there to the finish.

Race day and evening

Unfortunately, I had an extremely busy day from 7:00am. Driving to meetings all round the central belt of Scotland was not the best start to the day, but at least I was sitting in the car rather than walking.

Janice and I registered at 9:00pm, which was hours earlier than last year. However, my aim was not to get caught up in standing around chatting (taking John Ks advice of basically not wasting energy). So, back home (very handy being only a 10min walk from start line) for a chill out, supper, and then a lie down after a large dram to help me get 40 winks.

Shortly after midnight, I wandered down with the aim of being at the qstart line just before the pre-race briefing meeting at 12:30am. All was going well until I got to the start area and saw people carrying carrier bags… feck, feck, feck… I forgot my drop bags !!!! A quick run back up the road and then back down again wasn’t the best start to the race!

The start line had the familiarity of last year with all the smiles, laughs, hugs and general nervous energy buzzing in the air. It was much warmer than the previous year with a ‘t’ shirt being perfectly adequate. It was amazing just how many spectators and well wishers were at the start and throughout Milngavie Precinct to support us.

1:00am and we were off !

I set off with Murray Ratcliffe and Roderick Brown (see photo of the three of us at start above) and we had a good bleather as we ran through Mugdock and down towards the Beechtree Inn. It was perfect weather …cool, but not cold, dry, and I never felt it got completely dark on this summer solstice. I love running through the night with the head-torch and occasionally turning back and seeing the lights trailing off into the distance.

Drymnen – 10 miles

I pushed on ahead of the others around 10 miles in and had a good steady pace set, ticking off the miles. Shortly after Drymen, it began to get light enough to switch off my head torch. This was long before others did, but I like running in the dawn light and know the path well enough to avoid the big holes and rocks.

Up and over Connic hill and down into Balmaha (19 miles) to meet meet Jamie and Janice for the first time – estimated time for arrival 4:35, actual 4:34 …not bad pacing so far! A quick cram down of a roll with double Lorna sausage and a cup of tea and off I went.

Further up the road Jamie and Janice passed me on their way to Rowardennan and thought it was a good idea to toot their horn; Don’t worry, I reprimanded them for this later, given that it was near the camp site and it was 5am in the morning!

After this, a nice steady pace through to Rowardennan (27 miles) and still bang on my target timing. Well-refreshed, off I went up Loch Lomond side. The morning was just perfect … sun coming up, not too many midges, and dead calm waters made for a beautiful run. This is called the technical section with about 10 miles of staircases, big boulders, roots, mud, everything to slow you down, but I got in to a good rhythm and was really enjoying my time taking lots of photographs along the way.

One of the things about ultra running for hour after hour is that beforehand you have to carb-load food, and there is the inevitability at some point, that you will then have to have, what Murray and l now refer to (after last year’s race) as a “Bridge of Orchy Moment” .. basically a massive 💩… This ”BoOM” moment came behind a bush just after Rowardennan and I thought that’s great, that’s that out of the way… how wrong that turned out to be!

So, nice steady pace and loving the trail; at this stage I began to wonder if I would write up a race report and thought “what will I be able to say that’s much different from last year where it was all one positive moment after another? “. I needn’t have worried!

It’s a long stretch through to Inversnaid, Beinglass and then to Auchtertyre .. about 23 miles in total and the slowest section. I really missed not being able to meet up with my crew. However, I kept pretty much to my target time, which was just keeping out-with the pace within which a support runner is no longer allowed. By the time I got to what’s called the Roller Coaster (no explanation required), just before Auchtertyre, I was now feeling really quite tired and was pretty desperate, after some 5 hours, to meet with my Crew who were a very welcome sight when I got there!

Auchtertyre 51 miles

Refreshed, fed, a BoOM 💩 moment again (strange… something not quite right?!) and then it was off, now with Billy as my support runner for the next 20 miles. It was great to have some company and we chatted away from Tyndrum down to Bridge of Orchy (62 miles). I was starting to feel less comfortable and it was difficult to tell whether it was just tiredness or whether something was going a bit array; it took just that bit more focus to keep a reasonable pace and I began to have niggling negative thoughts that I’d blown things by setting off too fast.

Next stop Bridge of Orchy (60 miles) and it was good to get a hug from Gillian Irvine who was marshalling at the road crossing, see lots of other friendly faces (Noanie and Lorna) and then sit down with Jamie and Janice for refreshments. I was struggling to have much of an appetite and took soup again, which in hindsight wasn’t perhaps the best idea due to all its roughage and fibre; the first real signs were setting in that all was not rosey in the garden.

We set off and this time I was beginning to feel really pretty nauseous … and worried. The next stretch was to Glencoe over Jelly Baby Hill where once again (for his last time after 10 years of doing it), Murdo was waiting with our token Jelly baby!

From then on it was over Rannoch more and down to Inveroran Hotel (and yet another BoOM moment!). It was extremely tough. Eventually, I was suffering so much that I couldn’t hold a conversation with Billy. He had to run behind me so that I could just focus on simply putting one foot in front of the other. I have not suffered from nausea for a long time and always prided myself on being able to shovel anything in my mouth to keep my energy levels up. This however, was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. After yet another BoOM moment along the way I was now having serious doubts about what I could achieve on this race; there was no question I would do it, but my target time was just flying out the window with every runner that sailed passed me. I kept thinking “this is all to do with me going out too fast and I’ve blown it for everyone”. I became so conscious of letting down my crew as it would suddenly turn from being a fun positive experience into a miserable slog to the finish. You try so hard to battle the negative thoughts and turn them into positives, but at times, it’s almost impossible. To top it all, the sun was well and truly out and the temperature had risen dramatically, leaving Billy and I with insufficient water and me badly dehydrated. Luckily, Billy was able to top up from several burns, but a real lesson for the future.

I kept comparing the run with last year, when I had gloried in every moment, on a complete high with all the fabulous scenery, however this year I just looked around and could get nothing from it….. “ why do I do this?” and “never again” kept going through my mind. The heat just added to my nausea and dehydration issues.

I struggled into Glencoe (71 miles) after 3 hrs of feeling like sh*t and now 40 mins behind my target time. I could see my crew looking at me and thinking …. “he is in bad shape, how is this all going to turn out?”.

Fortunately, Janice had packed some Imodium, despite my original skepticism and I was now appreciative of these. I felt so nauseous, I could barely refuel myself (despite Billy’s best intentions the Pork Pie was a stomach churner when he hovered it in front of my face, saying it was the perfect food for me!).

A couple of bananas later and off I went with Janice this time. I thought I felt slightly better until half way down the ski road I had to suddenly find a ditch for yet another BoOM moment ….. Sorry janice, your first experience of ultra running had warts and all!

Things started to pick up a bit (thanks to the Imodium) and we kept an OK pace. I was still concious of runners overtaking me (which is demoralising), but at least Janice and I could start to enjoy the scenery as we ran into Glencoe.

We got to the foot of the Devils Staircase (75 miles) and at this point Dougie took over from Janice. I was already beginning to feel slightly better but Dougie took complete control and forced me to guzzle the best part of a bottle of flat coke and some Baby Bells.

I hadn’t actually realised that it was sugar and hydration I so badly needed and all of a sudden I was feeling great, marching up the Devils and finally starting to overtake some people. By the time we got to the top Dougie and I were flying and I was back to the feeling of elation I get when running in this beautiful country. The views in every direction we’re just stunning.

And then it was all the way down to Kinkochleven (81 miles) when I suddenly found myself only about 25 mins behind my target time! I surprised my crew by coming in earlier than expected and looking so fresh…81 miles down, 14 to go.

A chip butty stuffed down (this felt good at the time, but not such a good idea as I found out later)

Dougie and I set off again for the final stretch, back up the hill from sea level to the Lahrig Mhor pass. Dougie was very efficient at pushing one drink after another at me; coke, then electrolyte, then water (in rotation). We ran well again, overtaking a few runners and got to top of the pass where Jeff, with his Montain Wilderness Response truck, was once again waiting with the usual table of fizzy delights. Unfortunately, once again I started to feel the nausea set in and couldn’t take anything, resulting in yet another BoH moment a few miles down, in the old derelict cottage.

After this point, I felt a bit better and it was downhill to the Landavra check Point which once again was, due to a fabulous effort by the Marshalls, such a delight to reach.

89 miles – The landavra Marshalls.. stars 🌟

The final stretch now … the scenery was just to die for; the warm red glow of the sun setting and casting over Ben Nevis…wow!

After this, we made great pace and finally got to the Fire Track where it’s downhill all the way to Fort William. What a great feeling again to see the lights of Fort William, and yet, it was also still light enough not to need a head torch.

We ran into Fort William where janice took over for the last mile. She tried to chat to me but I had to say just to leave me to it as all I could do was my repeated counting to 10 to get me to to the finish line

And that was it over… 95.5 miles in 22hrs 13 mins…13 mins behind my target time ..not bad considering …

So much of what I achieved I have to put down to my crew: Billy, for being so supportive during my low period and actually being capable of not saying anything (no mean feet for Billy!🤐😂) in order to leave me ‘in my zone’; Dougie for his discipline, attention to my needs and effort to drive me on; Janice who I was so excited to have with me to experience this whole event; and of course Jamie once again, for giving up his weekend to be at my beck and call.

And the prize giving

So, fully recovered now (well almost and minus 2 toe nails ) what are my thoughts for next year? …. ABSOLUTELY !… I can’t wait to have another shot! .. You don’t learn from success and having an non eventful race. You learn from your mistakes. I’m already thinking how I can deal with the issues I encountered and make for a stronger faster run next year …..

THE END

Dedicated to my support crew – Janice, Billy, Jamie and Dougie 👏🏻🙏🏻.

Angus’s West Highland Way Race 2018

After a year and a half’s wait  (I did’t  get through ballot for 2017) and 7 months of hard training, the day (night!)  had finally come !

The cut-off time to complete the race is 35 hours and I set my target at 27hrs as a ‘gold’, 29 as a silver and basically bronze was just to complete. Having only completed 53 mile ultras before I had very little idea just how I’d cope so I just had to make a best guess based on comments and stories from other runners.

Why the West Highland Way Race?
I love the Scottish hills and scenery with a passion, but somehow despite always having a desire to do it and living in the town of the start point, I had never walked the West Highland Way.   When I started increasing my running training  I became more aware of events and heard that this race existed and just thought… “that’s absolutely impossible, how can that be run in a day?” ..10 years or so later,  with stepping stones from 1/2 Marathon to Ultra, to Highland Fling race, I began to think, why not, and everyone appears to have so much fun….. so, that was me,  I had to do it…

Before I start though I must give a mention to my wonderfully supportive wife, Janice . Now just in case you hadn’t heard the story – on the day that The WHW race 2018 race-day was announced, we were invited to attend a close friends daughters wedding in Liverpool, on the same day as the race this year. To cut a long story short, I still managed my race and she went without me (daughter Catriona standing in for me) . In the end all had a fab time, but I think Janice deserves the first picture…

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Milngavie

11:30am – David arrived at house with crew bus, loaded up and off to Registration where we met with rest of the team. My crew,  the backbone of the challenge, David Hogg, Jamie Stewart (drivers & support/ logistics), Billy Reid and Murray Ratcliffe (runners)… and what a team !

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00:30am –  quick cup of coffee and race briefing; Milngavie station carpark was packed with runners, support vehicles and crew.. what a sight and a buzz in the air.
I was quite surprised that all I felt was excitement with no nerves for what was ahead. It was just ….Bring it on !

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1:00am-  and we are off !  (239 runners)

Milngavie precinct was amazingly busy with people cheering us on. I suppose when you think of each runner having approx 4 crew each then it quickly adds up, plus the pubs spilling out.

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Milngavie to Balmana –   I kept as slow and steady pace as I could to keep the energy levels up.  I was Running with Lorna and Dougie at first, but felt I was getting pulled along by their faster pace so had to let them run on.
Its a strange feeling running through the night although, time passed really quickly and before  I knew it  I was meeting up with Jamie and David at Gardabhar Forest just north of Drymen (14 miles in),  quick top up of hydration bottles,   PB&J potato scone sandwich and off I went over Conic Hill just as dawn was breaking.

It was amazing to look back and see all the head-torches way into the distance

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Balmaha
19 miles; 3hrs 50, 149th overall position

As became the norm, Jamie was waiting for me and rushed me over for my circa 4 min pit stop; this time I had the joys of a roll and sausage and sweet tea courtesy of Oak Tree Inn (open from 2am, with all proceeds to charity… good on them!) .   Every pit-stop was about the same time, where Jamie and David had my refuel down to a fine art with bottles ready to be swapped over, food ready to be shoveled down and pockets filled again with nibbles.

Balmaha to Rowardennan…. The dreaded Midges were out !  Luckily  a combination of Smidge and sweat drowned the we fekers !

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Rowardennan
26 miles; 5hrs, 40 mins, 141st position

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And off again for  the long slowest and  toughest section, to Inversnaid then on to Beinglass,  and by this time the race was opening up and I was already running alone for long stretches… plenty of time to enjoy the view and let your mind wander.
This section is what is called ‘technical’ in trail running terms, which just means its bloody hard work, incredibly slow and  extremely challenging with huge boulders, sudden drops, roots to trip you up, ladders to ascend, etc . This section lasts circa 14 miles…. how on earth the elite runners keep their pace up over this I will never know.
One of the most poignant parts of the West Highland Way is Darrios Post, about  2 miles south of Beinglas. This is a post erected  in memory of Darrio Melaragini who was the previous WHW  race director and sadly died of a heart attack in 2009. The tradition is to hold the post as you go past.

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Beinglas Farm-
40 miles : 9hrs 40, 134th position and 114th fastest runner over stage

41 miles and I reached Beinlglas, which was exciting as I was meeting up with my crew for the first time in circa 4 hours.  Billy and Murray (my support runners) had also got up earlier than expected (neither could sleep from excitement!) and were there also to meet with me, so that was us all together –  “5 go on a adventure together”!

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Then from Beinglas on to my next stop which was Auchtertyre,  just short of Tyndrum, which was a milestone in that it was 50 miles (approaching furthest distance I’d ever run) but more importantly it was the check point where we’re then allowed a support runner alongside.  I was so excited by this prospect as had had nearly 13 hours of running, some of it with fellow runners and chatting away, but also long periods of being by myself.

Prior to this though, I had the steep long ascent from Beinglass to Crainlarach  & Tyndrum in which I had to encounter ‘Cow Poo Alley’ and ‘The Roller Coaster’ … I’ll let you work out why they are so named!

Auchtertyre Farm
50 miles – 12 hrs 7 mins, 119th position and 87th fastest runner

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So  welcome to the race, Murray!

It was like coming into a mini festival at Auchtertyre,  sun was out and all the crew were having picnics and sitting around on camp chairs.
After being weighed (all good no great loss or gain of weight) we were off  running to Bridge of Orchy.  So, leaving Tyndrum,  which is the finish of the Highland Fling Race (53 mile), this was me into a whole new territory, going beyond what I’d ever done before.  I felt good as new since I had company all the way from now on, plus I love this section where the whole route opens up into the genuine wilderness of the highlands.

Murray got off to  great start supporting me by taking a wrong turning within half a mile of leaving. We found our way back to the trail again though and had a laugh! Murray then continued to entertain me by tripping over rocks all the time – it was supposed to be me that had heavy feet !
The run to Bridge of Orchy is fairly easy-going with a good path mostly downhill and flat.  My only challenge was I seriously began to need to make a large deposit, but being on open wilderness with not a tree in sight, I decided to push through with my only focus being the toilet at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel !… I made it, just in time…… ahh, bliss…and that turned out to be the only time in over the 25 hours that I ever sat down !  too much information I know …

Bridge of Orchy
60 miles – 14hrs 39, 118th position,103rd fastest runner over that section

From Bridge of Orchy it was up to Jelly Baby Hill, which is a famous spot on the WHW race where in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of Rannoch moor,  the tradition is that you are offered one jelly baby.  Yes, just one ….and mine was red !  to make it even more surreal there was one chap playing a tune on the penny whistle.

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So, it was over Rannoch Moor,  which is just a stunning wilderness. The path went on as far as the eye could see, but as we got within 5 miles of the Glencoe Ski Centre, and as became the norm in the second part of the race, the adrenaline started to kick in and I found myself flying over the path overtaking  several runners,  and into Glencoe Ski Centre.

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Glencoe Ski Centre
71 miles – 17hrs,31 mins; 107th position and 90th fastest runner over section

From there again it was a short pit stop, wolfing down food and topping up bottles (and  lubrication !), and this time heading out down into Glencoe, over the infamous Devils Staircase.  This also marked the changeover from Murray to Billy for support Running  (check runnning pack for ..water, fuel,  nibbles….. ear plugs!)

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So, off Billy and I went down towards the old Kingshouse Hotel… what an extraordinary feeling it was to have set off earlier in that day running from Milngavie and now be in the iconic Glencoe !

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This is a tough section as you have the Devils Staircase, a rapid ascent from circa 850 ft up to 1850 ft,  then a long, long path taking you through more wilderness and down a steep descent all the way to Kinlochleven at sea level again.   Billy and I passed the time though with a good old blether, plus continually remarking how extraordinarily lucky we were to have the privilege of being fit & able to do this in such remarkable scenery.

By now the excitement was building as I knew I was well ahead of schedule and even if i walked the rest,  I would have done it.

Kinlochleven
81 miles – 20 hrs 45; 104th position, 90th fastest runner over section

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Last weigh in & pit-stop…a bit longer this time as it was a change to warmer clothes, plus a recharge of head torches then back on again, approaching our second night.  Jamie and David once again excelling in their attention to me… though I did resist the chip butty they had offered to get me from the chip shop… by now I was struggling to force too much more heavy food down.

Murray joined Billy and I again for the final push (Murray did his own ultra that day at 35 miles!) … by this time we were absolutely buzzing with excitement as the end was in sight . However, we weren’t there yet… not by a long shot !

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So we left  and headed up from KLL to Lairig Mhor…  it was at this point I heard one of my running buddies , Mark Hutchison had been forced to pull out due to illness .. I really felt for him then and it prayed on my mind as I knew how much effort had gone into getting to this point and how hard it would be for him.

So, back up 1500 ft and over what can only be described as brutal terrain. It’s an old Military road, which has completely broken up over the years so you are basically running  in the dark (with head torch) stumbling, twisting and stubbing your toes on rocks all the way for 7 miles. The expletives were flying from the three of us as we fought our way though it.  I think back now and chuckle at the conversations that we had over these hours….. all I can say is what’s said and done on the trail, stays on  the trail!

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This was tough going and we thought it would never end, then  we came to Lundavra … wow what an oasis !

Lundavra
88 miles –  23hrs 14 mins; 95th position, 72nd fastest runner 

This is the final check point and is genuinely in the middle of nowhere, but its a designated check point, so the fabulous marshalls make the most of it and have a campfire, music,  fairly lights & balloons.

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And to top it all there was a photo booth !

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Getting to this point was a huge boost and as soon as we left, I just had this huge rush of excitement and adrenaline so I put the foot down !   It was an amazing feeling as we overtook everyone on this stretch,  which for anyone who is a long distance runner knows, it gives the person overtaking a boost of confidence and it does the opposite to the person being overtaken. Unfortunately, Billy started to get cramps at this point so I had to abandon him. Despite feeling guilty as I wanted us all to finish together, I was at the same time so focused and running so well, that I just had to push on.

As we approached the final 4 miles , which comes to a lovely downhill all the way to the town, to see the lights of Fort William was just unbelievable. I had done it! One day to run from Milngavie to Fort William! I then just got stronger and stronger with Murray and I knocking off 10 min miles then down to 9 min miles for the last mile,  and then a full on sprint finish to the end… the doors of the Center Leisure Center.

Job Done!

Fort William
95 miles – 24hrs 46 mins, 87th position and 35th fastest runner over section ! 

what a feeling  to know I had done it, and so comfortably… not a single negative moment, and the fact that I went from 114th to 109th to 90th to 72nd to 35th fastest runner in each consecutive section shows how much stronger I was running as the race progressed.

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After this it was straight to campsite where we crashed out (well for 2 hours broken sleep),  and then up for a Weatherspoons Breakfast-  ahh the joys …

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And then the prize giving …. wow what an event … what a feeling of camaraderie and good-will in the room.  There is genuinely nothing like this anywhere else. With most races the awards to the winners are given out long before the slower runners come in, but not with The WHW race…. everyone is treated the same.  The highlight had to be the tradition of Elite Race winner giving the last runner in (just under 35 hours) their Goblet.   It just closed the circle of inclusivity for the whole event… The West Highland Way Race family.

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And finally, back home,  sit in the garden and relax,  with my prized Goblet !

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What did I learn from the race….

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail“..     I had pulled together an incredible detailed race plan and I felt it all came together perfectly.

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much“….. team work.  My team were just brilliant in every way…. enthusiasm you wouldn’t believe, thorough, focused, funny, tireless. Thank you Jamie, David, Murray and Billy, once again.

Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will“…..   I amazed myself at my capacity to keep going, and in actual fact got stronger and stronger as that goal got nearer.

what next…… rest…. then I have my final big race this year, the Devil of The Highlands, and by completing that I gain ‘The Triple Crown’ status (it sounds better than it is!).

After that who knows,  certainly I’ll be back next year at WHW race , whether running, support or marshalling,  I wouldn’t miss the event for the world. Well, unless we are invited to another wedding! 😜