Monday, July 8, 2013

West Highland Way

This is my  story of my biggest run challenge . I am now 50 years old , have done 5 x 100km, 1x85k, 2x 73km , 3x60 k , 3 x52k trail ultra  and 1x 56 k road last in the last 5 years.

A clan gathering of my wife's family  for a 90th birthday celebration planned from a year ago, saw me searching for a suitable ultra, dated a couple of weeks either side of early July .  To my delight the calendar listed the WHW race. This came to represent an obsessive and sentimental journey for me and my wife to where we had roamed, climbed, ski-ed and lived 20+  years ago before we emigrated to the other side of the world, New Zealand.

My training was  taken from a Google search of how to train for a 100 miler. I found one which advised running 5 days per week, and advised back to back runs for each weekend for the last 16 weeks of a 24 week programme. This went well until the 5th B2B, when I got lost running through unmarked hilly tussock to cover 22kms on a grueling 6 hour expedition.  This demoralised and exhausted me such that my B2B runs became B2B runs but with a day between. John Kynaston's podcasts extolled the virtue of B2B's, especially on hallowed WHW trail, and what was I , a novice at this race , doing  by breaking this holy commandment - "All thy long and longer runs shouldst be Back To Back".  Would my lack of spine be revealed on race day?

That said , I consoled myself with the knowledge that All Runs had been Faithfully Completed, even if not in the Proscribed Order. Personal bests in a 52 k ( Bedrock 50) race in February and a mountain marathon ( Arrowsmith Thee) in April were counterbalanced with a personal worst and last place in the Tarawera 100 k race in March. I had seriously doubted if could imagine continuing for a further 53km to match the WHW distance, as I crossed (with walking poles) that finish line. I was however uninjured and had run more miles ( 1276miles in 24 weeks) than I had ever done before in preparation for an ultra.

Our Airbus 320 touched down 111 hours before  the start in Milngavie.  Groggy runs from jet lag and sleeping tablets of 30-60 mins length were taken at 105, 89 and 65 hours  to countdown. A camper van was hired , visits to my schoolfriend Tim , and brother Robin were made to discuss tactics for Rannoch Moor and the Devils Staircase respectively. My son Alasdair was advised about nutrition, pace and topics for conversation from Kinlochleven to Fort William.  Alcohol remained off limits.

Thursday saw us  drive to look at parking spots beween Tyndrum and  Balmaha. We walked  a bit of the WHW round Balmaha  and slept fitfully that night. Friday saw a longish lie in, a shop round the supermarket but NO BREAKFAST MILK DRINKS? Plan B changed to include chocolate and lemon mini muffins and mini sausage rolls. Half hourly.

Registration was low key but probably the classiest goody bag I have yet to encounter with a fluoro  running top and a magenta buff. Weigh in 79 kg.

The next 3 hours was the most important part of my race. I slept and snored soundly. 12.15 am saw a rapid check of my list and dressing for action. 3 minutes late for the briefing. Ian Beattie said something about it being signposted near Fort William and to either ignore it or not ignore it.  I do not remember which it was.

The excitement mounted. Jacket on, then off , then on again.  Go.

My aim for Balmaha was to get there in 4 and a half hours. My regular training route had me at 4h45min  for 32 km with 700 metres of ascent so I was a bit apprehensive on unknown territory in the dark . I felt if I could make the Balmaha cut off I could be less concerned about the rest of the cut offs which are more generous. I ran with Keith Hughes for a bit who said our pace was on for 22-23 hours. This sounded good and bad as this was faster than I had planned. I relished my super grippy trail shoes as  I let myself drop down from Conic Hill , passing a few , and mostly avoided braking too much on the descent. Balmaha 3hrs 50mins. Excellent. Support team only just awake.

The route to Beinn Glas saw my only race low and the first of several highs. The rain and cold past Rowardennan took its toll and I felt some self pity as several overtook me on the climb through the forest. However as I was self sufficient there was no need to stop for a drop bag so I regained a few places as others stopped. I regained my spirits too , as I passed a few runners round the slippery loch side. This is the sort of trail I love as I  like rock hopping. It's fun.

I was met by my well oiled support team at Beinn Glas. Dry socks, dry shirt, food restock. In and out in 10 minutes. 1 hour ahead of schedule. I caught up  with Keith Hughes again and we chatted about previous races, Australia/New Zealand, cricket, split national loyalties and  we soon passed an hour - at times in torrential rain. We approached halfway, I stopped to eat and Keith padded off to stay ahead of me for the rest of the race.

Things dried off by Auchtertyre to be fed and watered. It stayed dry and things improved   as I got to share a sunny down hill jog with Angus from Edinburgh, to Bridge of Orchy. Angus advised  that they used to determine the size of the stones for the old roads as being a size which should close off a small child's mouth. From Bridge of Orchy,  Tim supported me in a walk/ jog regime across Rannoch Moor  to save our energy for a proper run downhill to Glencoe.  Rannoch Moor was  fantastic as it was my first traverse across the moor, plus made  that much more special by being accompanied by Tim whom I had not seen for 12 years. Another change of top and warmer clothes at Glencoe as it was now cooling. My wife, Moira jogged down with me to the road from whence I went solo as far as the Devil's Staircase  to be joined by my brother.  A steady walk up the hill  enabled catch up on more family news and an appreciation of the cloud/light and rainbow display below us in Glencoe. A further farewell and we went our separate ways at the top. I found the downhill to Kinlochleven  very rough and began to be passed by a few other runners at this stage, but still managed to reach Kinlocheleven by 2148 as I was led down by my brother in law , Colin who had run up to meet me.

A longer stop than anticipated ( 25 mins) saw the 24 hour  threshold become less achievable but I was fortunately still fairly alert and had so far escaped any hallucinations ( apart from mistaking a rock for a goat). My son Alasdair accompanied me for this last leg as the drizzle and rain returned en route to Lundavra. Most of this was walked as  a blister on the sole of my left foot slowed progress.  Full darkness was encountered as we entered the forest. This was where spooky mind games set in. We backtracked a couple of times to the previous runner to ensure that we were going the right way. My memory from the map was mistaken as I had visualised that we should have been going down with the valley to the right much sooner. The following runners kept us right. Finally we hit the gently graded forest track and the downhill momentum carried us at a good pace to overtake 3 others. However this was of little gain as instead of following the forest track ahead we traced 2 sides of a triangle to follow the WHW thistle posts to the road. We hit the road wondering why there were no  other runners , but  soon saw headtorches converging with us from the true run route on our left. We  had a good head of steam by now  to overtake those that we had previously overtaken further up the forest track. Faster still we went as we saw a group of four  just before the roundabout. They sprinted.  We sprinted. Neck and neck in to the carpark, we  joined hands  and cheered as one to finish.

25 hours 2 minutes, 8 seconds.

And so this was my race. Better than my anticipated 27-28 hours. Not sub 24 - perhaps the price for not doing the back to back runs as advised. Although this event is not the most remote it is more varied in terms of terrain /track and weather than those I have done in New Zealand and Australia. Will I back? I would like to think so. One day.


  1. Thats an excellent time and so well done. I would not be so quick to blame lack of back to backs though for sub 24 , particularly on your first 100 miler and whw. Many 100 mile runners don't do them and do well and i could name a few with brilliant whw times who have done very few or none at all. Given a fair wind i suspect you'd break a whw 24 if you came back in the next couple of years. Excellent blog.

  2. Many thanks Flip for your kind words. The whole event is a landmark in my memory and the whole run was a total pleasure . I was also very relieved to escape any body fluid moments which seem to mark so many accounts of this type of distance ! It is so interesting to realise how much difference it makes having friends and family for company on the run and it was just great to pass the time of day with Keith and Angus on the way. The whole event just continues as a seamless montage of images and the shared joy of crossing the line with fellow runners was unrivalled.