My running has gone well from January, when I start to look towards the race, I haven’t run to a training plan in years but have enjoyed using a few races for my long runs, the Falkirk 8 hour Ultra, Loch Katrine Marathon, Keilder 50km, the Highland Fling and six days after the Fling I covered over 50 miles with a weekend of no sleep supporting Alistair Macpherson doing his 10 Island Challenge on the Western Isles starting in Vattersay and finishing on Skye. Although there was no running involved in being part of the race team for the Skye Trail Ultra at the end of May, a 5.30am alarm on the Friday morning and no sleep until Sunday night coinciding with my first weekend without caffeine was excellent sleep deprivation training.
I dropped my gear off with Ken on Thursday night so he could pack the car at his leisure. I spent Friday just quietly pottering and snoozing. Ken, Sue and Pauline picked me up at 9.30pm and we made our way to Milngavie, driving over the Kincardine Bridge the sky was gorgeous and promised good weather over the weekend.
At registration, between a million hugs I picked up my wristband, goodies and got weighed. Back at the car I decided the timing chip was going to bug me, a big flat square thing on an elastic wrist band around the size of a coaster! Well, maybe a slight exaggeration but on my scrawny wrist if felt that big! Luckily it had a hole in it and I had a cord to thread through it so I wore it round my neck tucked in my vest.
For the first time ever in the history of Sean’s safety briefing he said that there wasn’t going to be weather! Just before the start I had a wee panic, Wilson and I were going to run together to begin with but I’d lost him, I jumped up onto a bench scanning everyone moving forward into position, “Ah, there you are!” Relief, we moved into the throng, so many runners and so much excitement, I love this moment, there are no guarantees of reaching Fort William but we all have the privilege of starting no matter how the adventure will unfold.
Before the 1.00am start there was a minutes silence for Don Ritchie, I smiled cherishing a memory of spending an evening in a Dublin pub with him after an Anglo-Celtic Plate. The hooter sounded, I let out a “WOOHOO!” hugged Wilson and we were off. “Wilson! Get back here!” He was on a mission but I wasn’t going to let his emotion jeopordise a sensible start. Up through Milngavie High Street lined with support, high fives, camera flashes, cheers and shouts feels so mad at 1.00am in the morning and I giggle along it! So different for my first race in 2003, eerily quiet with just around seventy runners and the “crowd” was a bemused half dozen of merry locals heading home from a night out.
Into Mugdock, head torch on and watch where I put my feet, a bit of subdued chatter as we attempt to settle in, a perfect night, the moon was out, a clear night and never completely dark. Loved to see the bats again along the road from Gartness, I feel it’s a good omen. Wilson and I parted company when I stopped for a pee just before the big gate in Garadhban, he was moving strongly and settled. I was watching for the sun rising as I climbed Conic but with light cloud the sun didn’t split the sky, it just gently got brighter.
On the wooden steps heading down to Balmaha I phoned my crew to get the kettle on. A hug for big Davie once I’ve dibbed my dobber at the checkpoint Pauline led me to where they were parked, not without a bit of palaver for them, when they first arrived it was full and they couldn’t get parked, so they drove off towards Rowardennan to find a safe place to wait until the car park emptied a bit, it meant they didn’t get as long to rest before I arrived and even worse, they didn’t want to risk getting their bacon rolls from the Oak Tree until after I’d gone through! At least they didn’t have to wait too long for their breakfast since I don’t faff at checkpoints, I walked through with my pot of porridge, Pauline carrying my mug of tea until I was ready for it.
|photo from Sue Walker|
At Rowardennan, my feet were feeling fine but I had a pre-emptive sock change, Pauline and Sue are faster than Formula One with wet wipes, Body Glide and fresh socks as I sat and ate a rice pudding,
|photo from Sue Walker|
I changed my 200ml water bottle to a 300ml one, since I won’t see my crew again until Beinglas, picked up my sunglasses, a wee skoosh of Skin-so-soft, the midges were out but not the worst I’ve seen, and I was on my way. I love the low road, it’s a proper enchanted wood, one of the marker posts is so ancient it’s covered in lichen and there’s only a suggestion of a white thistle which leads you up towards the narrow path with a hint of the technical section to warm you up for the scrambly bits after Inversaid, I just ease myself along, gently on the swoops down to the edge of the loch, steady on the climbs, carefully over tree roots and boulders, not stressing the pace just going with the flow, the path was really dry and easy to skip along (in my mind not for real) I remember how different it was in 2012 where Sue, Jonathan and I stayed together to see each other safely over the torrents of water hurtling down off the hill. At Inversnaid I pick up my drop-bag, I stood briefly but only long enough to down a chocolate Yazoo, so I could bin the empty bottle, I didn’t have much room to carry it after I stashed away a custard and a wee bottle of flat coke into the front pocket of my bag.
Apart from seeing a couple of runners just after leaving Inversnaid I was on my own for the technical section, I revelled in it being all mine, taking my own easy pace, no pressure to keep up with someone or feel I had to move over if I was holding anyone back. I’m not really greedy or anti-social but it was a pleasure having it all to myself.
When the ladder first came into my view I could see a runner sitting at the top, as I approached it he was still there, I climbed and asked if he was okay, he answered he was fine, but I wasn’t just accepting his polite reply and cringed at myself as I asked “Are you sure?” like I was his Mum. He did convince me he was just having a wee breather and I was glad to see him catch me up a few minutes later.
I always have a wee cheer to myself when I hit the flat grassy bit and ease my running legs back into action after their breather on the clambering. I looked forward to pausing at Dario’s post, and that thought pulls me on, the path is fairly runnable with some steady climbs and I catch up with Dave, it’s the first time I’ve see him during the race, I was having a really good spell, Dave was moving fine but a wee bit slower so I went by but not without a wee cheeky parting shot. “Keep up, I’ve got a 15 year old Glenfiddich!” Dave wasn’t far behind me reaching Dario’s post and my wee hip-flask was passed around, glad to see around half a dozen take a moment in such a beautiful spot, even if they didn’t know Dario.
It isn’t far to the checkpoint at Beinglas from Dario’s post, it’s level with the pylons but they seem to take a while before they get closer, down through the trees, wary of roots, one thing I’ve noticed this year, the foxgloves are in abundance and blooming all over.
Just as I reached Beinglas Farm Ellen shouts “You are looking fresh!” I laughed, 42 miles in I’ll take that, whether it’s true or not. “You’re just having a great day out!” she continues, I certainly was, smiling from ear to ear even, how could I not be, the sun was out and I running my favourite race in the company of my family. I dibbed my dobber in the timing doofer and carried on walking out the checkpoint with a big mug of leek and potato soup, Pauline came with me to take the mug when I finished and give me updates on how everyone else was doing. What stars my crew are, they even pandered to my diva demand of mashing the lumps to make it easier for me to eat. I fair enjoyed the savoury after the milkshakes, rice pudding and custards. It was just after midday, the warm sun on my back, the open path towards Derrydarroch in front, and with a happy tummy full of Mrs Baxter’s finest I wasn’t going to push it, just keep a comfortable easy pace tootling along while the sun was at its highest and my soup digested.
I giggled at the health and safety with the bubble wrap on the entrance to the Crack yer heid tunnel, it’s not the on the way in it gets you, it’s the way out you’ve to watch, but lucky for me I’ve always managed not to dunt my bonce!
Climbing the steep path after going through the tunnel under the A82, all of a sudden I felt quite weary, my legs didn’t feel the strength in them that I thought they should, hands on thighs I made my way up, after such a good spell, it was only natural to have a dip and mid-race wobble, I’m not quite halfway yet, I cannae be so tired! Not to worry, I’ll soon be pulling it in, and the swoops and climbs of the rollercoaster will take my mind off how I felt. I was not amused having to wait ages to cross the road over to Auchtertyre, there were some guys on bikes waiting on the other side to cross too, one shouted over “At least you’re getting a rest!” I was polite and smiled but I HATE standing still, I may never go fast but I never stop either! I was looking daggers at the cars and muttering under my breath.
Finally I crossed over and keep it going round to the checkpoint, I was weighed and dropped 0.8 of a kilo, that’s fine I didn’t expect to change much. My crew had my macaroni cheese ready and a beer shandy made with Belhaven Best, far better than any sports drink. Pauline walked with me with my grub and beer but I still felt a bit full from my soup and probably the heat so I just had half and handed it back, it isn’t far to Tyndrum I’ll finish it there.
Tyndrum is where I feel if I reach there then I’ve cracked it, it’s over half way and Sue and Gillian were joining me. I’m happy with my own company but it’s a boost to get a blether and I’ll have pals all the way to the finish from here.
It was the back of 6.00pm when I arrived in Bridge of Orchy, Sue had scampered off with a wee change from my Diva Demands sheet, on my plan I was just going to have paracetamol at Kinlochleven whether I needed it or not but I had a wee niggle in the top of my right foot, it had been hurting since Drymen (12 miles) and was now jarring every step, so along with my first coffee in a month a couple of paracetamol would help take the edge off. As I was having a sock change I decided to put my thick tights on over my Skins and another long-sleeved top, it was cooling down, Rannoch Moor is wide open and can be breezy, (last year the wind took me off my feet) I’d rather not wait until I was cold before faffing with clothes, it also meant I could sit down for my rice pudding as my crew hauled my breeks up my legs and do my socks, (Yep, I do Diva to the max)
Pauline was coming with me to Glencoe, it’s been ages since she’d done Rannoch Moor or seen Murdo and Peter on Jelly Baby Hill, we were blethering for ages before Murdo said, “Off you go, you’ve a race to run!”
Rannoch Moor gently climbs for quite a bit, we just plodded on, run a bit, walk a bit, I was wearying but only to be expected for being nearly seventy miles in, “I’m fed up climbing can I go down now please? Where is this Fleming Cairn? Bugger! It’s a wee dot in the distance! At least I can see it now!” I was speaking in jest, but as the saying goes. Never a truer word… Yay, finally level with the cairn, I could head downwards to Glencoe. Kingshouse used to be the checkpoint, I don’t really mind the wee detour to the big car-park at the Glencoe ski centre, it’s perfect for a checkpoint it’s just the half-arsed excuse of a path-not a path-just a pile of rubble leading you towards the Ski Centre that irritates me, that and the steep slope of the car park, I’m not climbing anything I don’t have to, I dib my dobber turn on my heels and headed down the road, Ken is ready to go with me with my chicken soup, I giggled a wee bit to myself when told a sprint was needed to bring me my Yazoo milkshake and blue fleece, I must be moving well then! I thought.
Heading towards Altnafeadh I took my time with my soup, it was in a thermal mug so no need to rush it, in previous years I’ve shovelled in pasta or mashed tatties a bit too quickly then felt queasy. Looking up to the top of the Devil’s Staircase it was shrouded in a wee bit of mist, I’ll put on my jacket as well as my fleece (wearing the blue fleece over the Devil’s Staircase has been one of my traditions since 2007) It must’ve been the back of 11.00pm heading up and Sean was right, there was no weather, I was roasting, the jacket came off and I pushed my sleeves up! At the top Ken and I needed our head torches, he also had a hand torch, it’s not easy to find the best line over the rough path in the dark and an extra torch helps.
We made steady progress down into Kinlochleven, I was hugged and weighed by Julie, I remained exactly the same weight as Auchtertyre, I decided to deviate from the plan and change into road shoes for a bit of cushioning on Lairig Mor, my feet were feeling the dry hard path, the left one especially, I was trying not to favour my sore right one but I think I was letting the left do all the work, I sat down for a pot of porridge and let Pauline and Sue do my feet, I asked if there was a blister on the ball of my left foot, it felt quite hot, Pauline dismissed my query “Pfft, there’s nothing there!” and flossed between my toes with a wet wipe. Squirm-shudder-squeal. I hate when she does that, she knows it and does it some more! (She’s a good fibber too, admitting after the race that there was a blister and didn’t mind making me feel like a drama queen!) Ok then, I’ll just straighten my crown and leave with my entourage!
Pauline, Sue and Gillian and I climbed the long slog out of Kinlochleven, my road shoes felt a bit snug to start with but my feet soon settled down, at the top we pause to look back and see torches at the top on the other side start to head down, it’s a tough section down to and out of Kinlochleven, I wished them well.
We moved on and could see the lights of Jeff’s wee oasis in the distance, by the time we got there is was getting light for the second time in the race, Jeff had quite a selection of fizzy juice and sweeties but then he produced a miniature of an 18 year old Glenfiddich, well, it would be rude not to, he poured us a teeny wee dram each, just a celebratory sip, enough to raise a smile as well as spirits. (No pun intended)
|photo from Jeff Smith|
I laughed when Val appeared “Where have you been? I’ve had to come all the way up the fire road, down that steep path and all the way up this hill!” Brilliant! Nobody needs a pal that asks how you’re doing ninety miles in. Sorry Val, I’ll try and go a bit quicker next time!
Down the long road into Braveheart car park the girls are behind me and don’t see the emotion crumple my face, this is my fourteenth West Highland Way and it has never stopped being special, Ken is waiting in the car park until we’re through.
The final mile, my body is ready to stop, my heart and soul are soaring, an overwhelming combination to fuel me to the Leisure Centre. Into the car park, the race has evolved and the finish has changed, it's now a big inflatable arch, Adrian standing by holding up the timing doofer, but during my chemo and radiotherapy in 2013 the mental image of slapping my hands on Leisure Centre helped keep my head up, and for me, I can not register my finish until I have touched the door, up the steps and symbolically place my hands on the glass. Adrian has followed me up the steps, I hauled the timing chip from my vest and finally registered my finish in 31 hours, 20 odd minutes and something or other seconds.
I love that running is so adaptable to each and everyone of us whether your goal is to push your body to destruction in pursuit of a best time and position possible or in memory and celebration of a loved one or just having the health to revel in the beauty of our surroundings. The West Highland Way Race is the most perfect and tough challenge you can choose to do all of these. The selfless support of the race family from Ian and race committee, marshals, support crews and checkpoint venues make magic happen, the prize giving is the pinnacle of all the hard work and those that go home with a goblet are privileged to have the chance to realise dreams.
Just saying thank you doesn’t cover it, but I hope you get the gist of my gratitude from this photo.
Ok. I'm showing off now but this lot with the support of my West Highland Way family has helped shape my character and give me strength to face stuff harder than any race, I'm so proud to be a part of this very special family.