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