Where do I begin with this one…
The West Highland Way Race is a 95 mile / 14,000 ft ultramarathon. The route (as the name suggests) follows the West Highland Way path along the East of Scotland from Milngavie to Fort William.
Me, Charlotte and Dan set off from Huddersfield at 10:30 on Friday morning. The car filled to the brim with kit and everything neatly packed away ready for the race. With a couple of coffee stops we arrived in Milngavie shortly after 4pm and checked into the Premier Inn.
After an attempt at some sleep. We went for some food in the pub next to the hotel. The pub was great and we spotted a few other runners. A falafel burger and chips was my preferred option. Probably not ideal nutrition but any calories were good calories at this time!
It was starting to get dark when we went over to registration but the night was clear, still and dry. At registration I received my timing chip and wristband with my number on. Also was the weigh in – 69kg. For medical purposes all the runners are weighed at a number of checkpoints during the race. We went back to the hotel to try and get another bit of rest, ready for the race and over to the start around midnight.
Sean Stone the race safety officer gave a prerace briefing at 00:30. The weather was predicted for some wind and a little rain (take note of this little detail!) Ian Beattie, the race director, said a few words of encouragement and set the race off bang on 1:00.
We were off! It felt surreal. All the time and training spent getting ready for the race and here we were at the start of a long journey and for me into the very unknown.
I started with the guys at the front. Under the tunnel; through Milngavie centre and off onto the Way. There was great support at the start and a drone flying around filming the event.
I knew not to go out hard and settled into a nice pace. A few runners were pushing the pace but I wanted to concentrate on my own race. A couple of guys took a wrong turn after a few miles, we tried to shout them but they were too far. One of the guys caught us back up and we chatted to him for a while (this turned out to be Rob Sinclair – more on him later!) The first 10 or so miles are fairly flat and I maintained around an 8 min mile pace. There was a guy I stuck to for a good few miles.
One thing I loved were all the head torches. This is the first proper night trail experience I have had. A couple of times I turned and saw a line of head torches bobbing along the trail behind me and it was a fantastic sight. All these runners setting out on the same journey through the darkness.
Steady going, comfortable and ticking the miles off. Without my heart rate monitor I was measuring my effort by my breathing rate and now and then checking my pulse on my neck. The first climb is around 17 miles up Conic Hill. I ran/walked up here but felt good passing two people. The other side was a great downhill to the first checkpoint. My legs felt fresh and I was enjoying running down the hill in the dark.
CP 1 – Balmaha (19.6 miles) – 2.45.01 – 5th
At the checkpoint I didn’t stop for long. Charlotte was there ready with a couple of filled water bottles and some food to shove in my vest. Dan came running out of the darkness with some electrolyte drink made up to fill up my other soft flask.
I noticed my back was getting wet and although it can get a bit sweaty under your vest this was soaking through my layers and even my shorts. I stopped to check my pack and it turned out one of the flasks had a hole in and was squirting water out. I decided to drink the water and put the empty flask back. I still had another full one to keep me going.
The route now started to follow along the side of Loch Lomond. It was getting lighter but as we were going through woods it was still fairly dark so I kept my head torch on for a while. The route was slowly getting more technical; with some steps and even a bit on the beach. At this point there were still runners around me. It wasn’t long before I saw Dan and Charlotte again.
MP1 – Rowardennan (26.5 miles) – 4.10.51 – 8th
Not a checkpoint but you dib your dibber/chip and either you can leave a drop bag here or your crew can meet you. I didn’t leave a drop bag so Dan and Charlotte were there. I grabbed a couple of gels topped up on water and got on my way.
This whole section along the side of Loch Lomond was very technical. The trail went through woods, dodging tree roots, scrambling over rocks and steep steps up and down. I felt like not much progress was being made and it got frustrating. I overtook one runner and then did not see anyone for a long time.
A couple of songs really cheered me up when I sung them in my head (maybe out loud?): Roxette – She’s Got The Look & Bon Jovi – You Give Love A Bad Name. Keeping your spirits up is important in a long race and songs take your mind off running – if only for a few minutes.
I went through the second drop bag point. Didn’t leave anything there but stopped to grab a bottle of water and fill up. The woman who gave me the water said “The technical section is next”, I though What! more technical than the last few miles? And it was. My pace was slowing but there was nothing I could do there were long stretches of unrunnable terrain. I used the opportunity to get some food in. As explained before my vest had got wet and in turn the rice burrito I had tucked away was also soggy. Honestly, it was lovely. The soggy wrap was so much easier to eat and I was starving!
After coming out of the woods alongside the Loch there was a nice bit of (finally) runnable terrain. It was starting to rain heavier as I reached the next checkpoint.
CP2 – Beniglas Farm (42 miles) – 7.04.24 – 7th
Here I swapped my wet base layer and Harriers vest for a dry t-shirt and stuck my waterproof on (Dan actually gave me his t-shirt as my spare was in the car parked a while away).
I had heard you go through highs and lows throughout a race this distance and I was experiencing this already. Spending time making sure if any negativity was in my head, quickly thinking about something else. A good bit of advice I had read was when you are in a low, stop/walk and have something to eat. I found having a gel gave me the boost to get going again.
There was a section another runner called the ‘rollercoaster’, as for a few miles the route goes climb, descent, climb, descent over and over through the woods until you come out near the main road and over to a farm.
CP3 – Auchteryre (50 miles) – 9.03.41 – 7th
When asked if I was feeling OK at the checkpoint weigh in I replied ‘Good, apart from all my body is in pain’, with a smile on my face. One of my prerace thoughts was to stay positive and every time I got to a checkpoint and saw Dan & Charlotte it certainly perked me up. In some ways you have to laugh at yourself as running 95 miles doesn’t sound like the most sane of ideas!
I had some flapjacks, maybe a few too many as I felt sick when I started running again. It took a good mile of very easy running to get back moving properly. Everything all starts to blur into one around here. I had been having pain on and off in my Achilles from about 20 miles in. The pain was worse on uphills and long climbs were causing real discomfort. I was concentrating on making sure I was taking in regular calories and drinking plenty of water.
One runner came past me and then it was a drag on my own to the next checkpoint. I don’t know if it was because I was dazed, exhausted or sleep deprived but crossing the busy road at Bridge of Orchy was a treacherous experience.
CP4 – Bridge of Orchy (60 miles) – 10.55.49 – 8th
At the last checkpoint I had asked Dan for a coffee at the next one and there he was ready with a brew ready to go! It was bliss. At this checkpoint was a osteopath. The guys had mentioned to him before I came in about having achillies troubles so he offered to apply some strategic rock tape to assist. Not only did he have to clean and dry my leg for the tape to stick he shaved my calf! At the time I could not of cared less and was welcome for the short break off my feet.
I was back on the move but slowly. Out of this checkpoint is a long winding uphill path. The cup of coffee I had just finished was not sitting well. This was the first time I came across James and Martin. I had passed/been passed by other runners and the majority would say hello or ask how you were but these guys seemed genuine when they spoke to you. At the time I thought I was going to throw up from the coffee and must of looked like it too. The two of them were moving well and I could tell instantly there was some comradery between them as they carried on up the hill. I ate a bag of salted crisps, felt instantly better and got moving again.
I caught up with these guys on the downhill section from Jelly Baby Hill. Although I went past them, they caught up with me and we ran together for a while. This was some of the best miles of the race. I had been running for so long on my own to have some people to talk to while grinding out these later stages really made the time pass. I am happy to come across these two friendly Scotsmen.
The path carried on over rolling hills with the wind picking up and the occasional shower. Starting to feel a tad sleepy I shuffled into the next checkpoint.
CP5 – Glencoe (70 miles) – 13.30.19 – 10th
I took a seat and restocked on food and water. A lemon and ginger tea settled my stomach. I was still in good spirits but everything physically was in bits. Instead of stopping to eat I wanted to be moving in the right direction at all times so walked on down the road eating on the way.
So about an hour or so into the race the guy I was running with said – “The race doesn’t starts until Glencoe”.
The race doesn’t start until Glencoe…
He was right. The race got nothing but harder from Glencoe onwards. There was more climb and the weather worsened. Although the rain was holding off. We were in an open valley and the wind was ripping though. Dan and Charlotte said it was hard to stand; never mind run. It felt to get stronger and stronger and I was back to head down and shuffling forward.
After a couple of miles along the road we hit the infamous Devils Staircase. On fresh legs this would of been a good challenging hill, but at this point I was happy to just hike up to the top and think about running when I got there.
Earlier my Garmin watch had somehow got a bit confused and was no longer accurately tracking my miles. This left me in the dark with how long was left to go between each checkpoint. This was demoralising. Earlier in the race I was counting down the miles to the next point but now I was running blind. Hoping over each hill or around the next bend would be the checkpoint.
I heard some gulls. This meant I was not far away from the town and the next checkpoint. Off the hills, through the town and into a sports centre.
CP6 – Kinlochleven (80 miles) – 16.20.32 – 11th
At this checkpoint I was weighed again – 70kg. The people at this checkpoint were great. I sat down for a few minutes drank some Coke and had a bagel. Plus more lemon and ginger tea.
Out of the sports centre and off I went. It was still and dry in the town centre and looked like good conditions. The finish was not far away. When you leave Kinlochleven you start to climb, and climb, and climb. Not too steep but relentless. Taking my time and making sure I just kept moving in the right direction.
After this section of climbing you come out for a few miles along a valley. This was when the weather took a real turn. It was blowing a gale and raining hard. There were rivers coming down off the mountains and cutting across the path. The path itself had turned into a stream in places. I was trying desperately to keep my feet out of the water. All I had on were my short shorts, a t-shirt and a thin waterproof jacket. I was very wet and very cold. Actually shivering when I was running. I tried my hardest to keep running to try and stay warm. I was falling apart. This was by far the hardest part of the race and it felt like it went on forever. I was shouting at the weather – cursing the Scottish Summer. All I could think about was getting to the checkpoint and getting out of these conditions for a few minutes.
Through some woods and up to the next stop. Not a proper checkpoint but another station to dib in with my timing chip. I was broken.
MP2 – Lundavra (88 miles) – 18.36.02 – 13th
I had to stop. Freezing cold and soaked to the bone. After dibbing in and stumbling around the only words I could get out to Dan and Charlotte was “So cold” and “Where is the car?” This was the longest stop I had to make during the race. We put the blowers on in the car I changed out of my wet kit and got some food. I must of stopped for 15/20 minutes it took a lot to get going again but I was so close! If Dan and Charlotte had not of met me here I don’t know if I would of continued. The stop cost me some time and a few places but it had to be done and at the time I didn’t care at all.
After a little bit of climb it was all downhill to the finish. Sounds great! Well not if you have already been running for 19 hours… Running down the hill was so painful; my feet hurt; my quads were writhing with every impact. Usually I see myself as a good downhill runner but I was shuffling. One gear – slow.
The winding downhill path goes to the end of the West Highland Way and the main road at Fort William. To a T-junction.
I honestly had no idea to go left or right!? I started running right, but pulled out my phone to check where the Leisure Centre was to find out I was going the wrong way! Luckily not too far and set off back the other way.
I wasn’t sure exactly how far the finish was from here, but I wanted to get this done. I was on the road so opened up my legs as best I could; forgot about the pain and ran as fast as possible. What felt like a sprint must not of been so quick as Dan and Charlotte jogged behind me towards the finish.
I was very glad to see the big blue finish arch outside the Leisure Centre!
FINISH – FORT WILLIAM (95 MILES) – 20.31.02 – 18TH
I dibbed in, stopped the watch and squatted down to take a minute to be grateful I didn’t have to run any further. What a journey.
Final weigh in – 70.2kg. How can you run nearly 100 miles and gain weight! I think this was from the extra kit I had on. My weight was consistent though out the race indicating my hydration and nutrition went well.
You learn an incredible amount about yourself during an ultramarathon. No matter what your level of athleticism, the event strips you down to nothing and asks what can you give. The last 40 miles of this race was run on pure will power, stubbornness and determination to get to the finish. You are constantly playing a psychological battle against yourself and I was very happy to see this out.
Unfortunately, the Garmin 920XT I used did not seem to track the run correctly. It ended up saying I had done 106 miles. Splits and distance were not being recorded properly. When I uploaded the data to Strava it came up as 106 miles at 7.30 per mile! Deleted straight away and added manually. It is a good watch but I don’t think I had the settings or calibration right.
After the race I was well and truly broken. Following a welcome shower we went to the hotel for a glass of bubbles and off to sleep. Well deserved for Charlotte and Dan. I didn’t sleep well… tossing and turning with throbbing feet. I got up to go to the toilet in the night and it took me a few attempts to stand up again!
We grabbed some food the next morning and went off to the prize giving ceremony at the Nevis Centre in Fort William. 209 people started the race and 159 finished. This statistic alone shows how tough the conditions were this year. Nearly a 25% drop out on the race.
The presentation is a nice touch and brings in the whole community spirit around this event. Every finisher is presented with their goblet during the ceremony. Everyone is celebrated for completing the event. A special mention for Rob Sinclair in first and a new course record of 13.41.08 – incredible! The final tradition of the ceremony is the winner presents the goblet to the last finisher (this lady finished 20 mins before the cut off – amazing to still be going after so long and a second night).
After getting checked into the Travel Lodge and after a nap we went to the Weatherspoons for beers. It turned out the Weatherspoons all the runners go to was directly underneath the hotel! Many of the runners were there and I got a chance to thank Ian Beattie for a fantastic job with the race.
As with every epic journey I am left with a feeling of relief but also an emptiness and longing for more adventure. Would I have another go? Without a doubt! Just maybe not next year…
To finish with one of my favourite quotes.
Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go – T.S.Eliot
As always any comments and corrections are welcome. If you have enjoyed this write up, please like and share. I try to credit all the photos where I can but apologies if I have missed any.
Thanks for reading. Sorry it was a bit of a long one!
Cover picture – L-R – James, Martin and Me. Found the picture on Facebook sorry didn’t get picture takers name.