West Highland Way Race: Milngavie to Beinglas

The West Highland Way Race (WHWR) is the jewel in the crown of the Scottish ultra marathons. It is that pinnacle that many of us aspire to. For me, rightly or wrongly, it was something that I felt I had to do to truly become a full card carrying member of the Scottish Ultra family. I had nothing to prove, I have over recent years more than proven myself as an endurance runner, but the West Highland Way lurked in my sub-conscious, nagging at me gently.

I have run in extreme races and environments and tested myself in many ways; and yet it is interesting how in the last week, several people have said to me that they have found my successful completion of the West Highland Way more impressive than my runs in the Antarctic, the Atacama and the Arctic: and do you know, I have a sneaky feeling they may be right.

Alasdair has said that he has never seen me so physically battered and indeed there has been a significant physical price to pay, but not quite in the way that I would have predicted. There has been, and is, the expected deep physical fatigue from both being without sleep for 65 hours straight and the physical effort of completing 95 miles. The swollen ankles, ‘cankles’ were very much expected. The minimal DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) was most unexpected and very surprising: can this be attributed to the CurraNZ supplement I take? The strained and sore tendons on my right foot/lower leg and the huge blood blister on my left heel fall into that unplanned, not really thought about, but not surprising category. The aches and pains of the bruises and grazes that I sustained from two very much unplanned, but perhaps to be expected, falls have been more troublesome than I would have thought.

My WHWR story began back in 2012 when two of my running friends completed the race. We all came to running quite late, and had first met early in our running journeys as we worked our way through 10k half and marathon distances. Like with some many of my running goals I had always said I was not WHWR material and not up to the task, but something about my friends achievements inspired me and for the first time I gave it serious thought especially as I was looking for a big challenge to mark my 50th birthday and to do some charity fundraising.

My aspiration was to be short lived. After some initial enquiries I knew that if I were to put an entry in for 2013 I would not make it into the ballot. Pride dented but determined to prove myself I went off to seek adventure elsewhere. Two years later: wiser, fitter and stronger, and with significantly more experience and confidence I found myself with a place and standing at the start line, knowing that I had done the work to earn the place.

The Plan

My crew, The Ultra Odyssey Diva Crew, named by Alasdair, and cannot think why he chose it, were assembled, ready, armed with the race plan and a boot full of bags within bags all carefully labelled. These were the friends who were going to get me through this, the friends that I had to trust absolutely and who would be able to deal with me at my best and worst diva strops.

We had worked out a daisy-chain plan where the crew would leap-frog up the route splitting the load and getting time to rest.  We had agreed who would be at each check-point and roughly when to expect me. There was a food/eating plan and an indication of when I might want or need to change clothing or footwear, and an indication of how long I wanted to stop at each check-point.  As requested, I also provided a list of checks to go through at each stop, a list of things not to do and things that might irritate me, (all adding to my diva status).

Alasdair was ‘team captain’, knowing the drill from previous races, knowing me like the back of his hand and totally unflappable; Alan to drive and provide general support along with enthusiasm and steady cheer; then Sarah, Andy and Katherine as my support runners, each of them strong, calm and positive. I had supported Sarah last year with Andy, and they were graciously returning the favour. Each member of the crew bringing something special to the team to whom I give credit for being able to do as well as I did: thank-you.

My WHWR: Milngavie – Balmaha

Friday dawned and I pretty much woke with the dawn, oh great! Up at 5.15 am unable to get back to sleep I worked up to 11.30 am before completing my final preparations which included packing my clothing, always a last minute thing for me. The forecast had been changing by almost the hour making it difficult for me to decide what to include/exclude.  I was supposed to try and rest in the afternoon, but that was so not happening.  Sarah and Andy arrived late tea-time, and after an early evening meal we headed to bed for a rest. Just before 10.30 pm we got up and readied ourselves to head to Milngavie to register and meet up with Alan and Katherine. Alasdair was staying at home to get some sleep overnight. He would meet up with the others at Inveruglas on Saturday morning and then see me at Beinglas.

We arrived in Milngavie about 11.30 pm. It was already busy and there was a hum of excitement that was steadily building. I registered and weighed in, chatted briefly with runners and support crews and race support I knew as we bumped into each other. Then I spent a bit of time at the car just generally faffing about before announcing that I needed to nip to the toilet at which point I was told to hurry up as it was 12.25 and the briefing was due at 12.30. Where on earth had the hour gone? When I got to the briefing just after it had started I could not see or find any of the crew: auspicious start then. Oh well, they knew what to do and where to go, but we somehow gravitated towards each other just before the off, which made me feel better.

Weather: we were told ‘there will be weather’; well, yes, that rather comes with the whole planet eco-system thing that sustains us. Plus Glencoe seems to have its own eco-system most of the time anyway. I remember one hill walking trip many years ago where we got hit with wind, rain, hail sleet and snow in Glencoe whilst the rest of the highlands basked in glorious sunshine: and when we had to use spare socks as earmuffs and gloves!

But, yes indeed, weather. The forecast had improved vastly over the last 24 hours. As far I could work out there was going to be a bit of rain overnight then it would dry up nicely during the day and then probably rain during the latter stages of the race. The temperature looked as if it was going to be OK. I was prepared though with various jackets, tops hats and gloves in the kit bags.

One thing was certain; just as there was going to be weather, this was going to be a journey into the unknown and the unexpected would happen. Success or failure was going to be dependent upon my ability to be flexible and manage the surprises.

We were off, through the tunnel and up onto the high street, experiencing a mix of pride and butterflies in the stomach as we were cheered on our way. There was a bit of a comedy moment as we at the back were met by the fast guys, including Johnny Fling,  doing an about turn after missing the branch off to the left shortly after leaving the high street. We started to find our pace and spread out. I was listening to my MP3 and keen just to settle into my own groove. It is strange running familiar territory at night. Your spatial awareness is different and it is less easy to spot the visual clues that indicate where you are. We ebbed and flowed chatting briefly as we came into step with others that we knew.

This first 19 miles was probably my worst section of the race. My brain was all over the place. For whatever reason I did not enjoy this section, it was just a slog and it messed with my head leaving me feeling flat and pondering how I would cope mentally if this did not change.  I felt as if I could not get into a comfortable steady pace.

My unsettled mood was not helped when it started to rain. For some bizarre reason I had decided to run the first night in my glasses rather than my lenses. I had major problems with them getting covered in droplets of rain and also fogging up because it was also warm and humid. That was a decision I really regretted as it rained on and off for the next few hours.

To cap it all I started to have gastric problems resulting in several unpleasant pit stops doing what bears do in the woods. Previously prone to frequent bouts of gastric distress I had not suffered with it for some considerable time. It was both typical and ironic that it should choose this race and this point in time to reappear.

The chimp was not happy and was making his presence felt. There was a lot of chattering going on.

A brief exchange with Sarah at Garadhban car park and I was heading towards Conic Hill. I was able to ditch the head torch shortly after that. Once I got onto the hill I pretty much had it to myself but met up with Stuart near the top and we came down pretty much together. I was pleased with my progress over Conic Hill, probably the best bit of my progress thus far and I was on schedule. For all that I was pleased with the progress I did not enjoy Conic as much as I usually do: maybe it was damp grey weather that was interfering with the normally magnificent views, or maybe it was down to my mental state.

I was greeted by Sarah and Andy in addition to Alan and Katherine who were the designated support for Balmaha. Who could resist the lure of breakfast at the Oak Tree. I was out of sorts, generally unhappy and just not in a good place: the chimp was out and I was a petulant child, but at least it was not a full diva strop. A quick check and re-stock of snacks. I was not drinking enough. I had some green tea and a bit of toast and almond butter which I struggled to get down.  Andy dug out the immodium and with hindsight two tablets was perhaps overkill, but I certainly had no further issues with gastric distress. I also took my CurranNZ, (which I would be taking two of every four hours), got my contacts in after multiple frustrated attempts and then had to make a dash for the toilets before continuing on my way: not ideal and not exactly the most relaxed of check point stops.

Balmaha to Rowardennan

I was, with one brief exception, entirely on my own for this section, running in the early morning mist and damp which was atmospheric but quite muggy and humid. It was still and peaceful and I could hear the odd cuckoo and woodpecker. I started to relax and feel a lot better as my stomach settled down. I was able to gently push the chimp back into his cage; thank goodness. After struggling to eat at Balmaha I started to feel very hungry: a bit of an incentive to hoof it to Rowardennan. For once the undulations and climbs that so often frustrate me on this section did not bother me, and I took them as they came, allowing the terrain to dictate and accepting the ebb and flow in my speed and gait, knowing that I would not be serving myself  well to push too hard here. It was a relaxed, quiet and steady section for me that threw up no surprises.

I had been a few minutes ahead of schedule at Balmaha but arrived at Rowardennan several minutes behind schedule, which was most likely the result of having to take a bit longer at Balmaha. Sarah and Andy were ready and waiting for me. I was feeling much better now and a lot more positive mentally, and there was no petulant child or chimp present.  I did a quick change of shoes, got a reasonable amount of food down: rice and fruit salad and extra fluid. I was still not drinking enough. We topped up my water bladder and Sarah instructed me that I had to drink a lot more as she also handed me a juice carton to take with me. It was an efficient and smooth transition. I spotted David with his crew and I noticed Stuart and Fiona coming through. They transitioned out quickly and ahead of me as I decided to nip into the toilet on my way out. As I set out David called that he would be just behind me.

Rowardennan to Beinglas

I puttered along expecting David to catch me and for me to catch Stuart and maybe Fiona, (although I thought catching Fiona unlikely) and when this did not happen I began to doubt myself. Had I taken a wrong path/turn: there had been a bit of chatter about a new low level path? The track was not looking familiar, but then I had never run it at this time of year. It is amazing how the change of the seasons and the presence of so much more foliage and plants make things look so different and unfamiliar.

Eventually, I spotted a figure and as I drew closer I recognised Stuart. Phew I was on the right route. A brief exchange and I continued on. As I transitioned off the track and onto the path I started to get fleeting glimpses of people ahead and I soon spotted the familiar figure of Fiona. David then caught up with me, we chatted briefly but he was moving quite a bit faster and so passed on and then passed Fiona too.

I felt good and was going strong. I think Fiona sensed this and she told me to move ahead of her if I wanted. I considered it and decided to just stay tucked in behind her for a while. As I said, if I was going faster that she was at this stage I was probably going too fast. I also felt a bit awkward about passing and it was nice to have company. We stuck together to Inversnaid where Fiona literally did not stop grabbing her bag like a baton. I was feeling positive and confident now as I knew that was the best I had ever done over that section and I had never felt this good at Inversnaid before either.

David was sitting there which surprised me as I had expected him to have been long gone. I took a moment to take what I needed out my bag and set out. With hindsight I perhaps should have taken a moment to investigate what it was in my shoe that felt like a small stone. Whilst on a brief pee stop near the old boat house just out of the check point Chris and David passed me but I was soon just behind them as we started to pick our way up the loch side.  There was an outbreak of running Tourette’s as we scrambled along. Fiona must have been going at a fair lick as there was no sign of her. After a while David decided to go ahead of Chris and keep his pace up. I stayed with Chris for a bit chatting and just taking it steady: don’t fight the terrain sitting like a little guardian angel on my shoulder.

I too decided to pass round Chris and soon spotted little pockets of people including David making his way past them when the path allowed. I also chose to pass by as I was going strong and the chimp was getting frustrated if the pace was slower than I wanted to go. It felt odd supressing my inclination to be fair to others and not pass them on the tricky section. Just as I came off the loch side I caught up with Fiona again. This time I took the lead and we stuck together for a short while before I pulled ahead when Fiona took a pit stop. As I was approaching the hill up to Dario’s post I spotted David and closed the gap on the way up. We stopped together and paid our respects, all the more special on this day.

Beinglas: I felt good. I had coped well with the technical sections, had covered them at a good pace and was running strong; but I was hungry, hot and desperately wanting to change. Sod’s law that I should get this far unscathed and then have the biggest pratt fall slipping on the wet wood of the stile into the checkpoint. I smacked down hard on my elbow and backside. Ouch. Pain shot through my right elbow and the bone under my right butt cheek. Supporters were left in no doubt how much that hurt as I turned the air blue. My happy smiles turned to a painful grimace and my good mood vanished instantly. Cue the biggest diva strop ever.

Alasdair was waiting down at the bottom end. The fall had hurt and knocked me off kilter.  Alasdair had brought up from the car exactly what was on the plan, but I ungraciously responded with a full on strop when I realised that he had not brought up clothing and food other than snacks: bad bear! After a petulant foot stomping 30 seconds a lovely marshal came over to help. She helped with my pack while Alasdair returned to the car to get what was needed. On a positive note my drinking was back on track.

It was a pity that the stop had turned into a grump fest. I had been so looking forward to seeing Alasdair and was so happy that for the first time ever he was going to see me at Beinglas in good shape, happy and smiling, but a slip on a wet stile step put pay to that.  I would be lucky if Alasdair turned up at Auchtertyre after that. It would serve me right if he went home.