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…
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 !
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 !
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.
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
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 !
26 miles; 5hrs, 40 mins, 141st position
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.
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”!
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!
50 miles – 12 hrs 7 mins, 119th position and 87th fastest runner
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.
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.
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!)
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 !
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.
81 miles – 20 hrs 45; 104th position, 90th fastest runner over section
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 !
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!
This was tough going and we thought it would never end, then we came to Lundavra … wow what an oasis !
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.
And to top it all there was a photo booth !
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.
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.
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 …
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.
And finally, back home, sit in the garden and relax, with my prized Goblet !
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! 😜