This year my training has ticked over nicely, no illness or injury, just consistently plodding along with a few races for my long runs, a flat tarmac 50km in Perth, a lumpy trail 50km in Kielder and the Fling, (I won’t mention the weather!) Sleep deprivation training in marshal mode at the Skye Trail Ultra (with lots more weather) which was followed by three weeks caffeine free, that signals the countdown is on, it’s tough giving up coffee but I think helps me focus and prepare for the race, a test of my determination and what lengths I’m willing to go to for success, then a week before the race I had a meeting with my crew and we were good to go.
9.30pm, Friday evening Ken, Sue and Pauline picked me up, I’d dropped off all my gear with Ken on Thursday so there was no faffing loading the car when they arrived. Heading over the Kincardine Bridge the sun was dipping behind the hills, the sky was a clear rosy-gold, the shepherds were delighted, me too, the weather was promising to be good.
|photo from Sue|
We parked at Tesco, it’s the first time we’ve never got into the station car park, I’m not complaining, it just shows how much the race has grown since I first ran in 2003 when registration was inside the ticket office. I tried to register in the shortest time possible but with loads of hugs and wee catch ups, I knew it would take it longer than planned but I was soon back to the car making last minute decisions on what to carry and what to wear.
12.30am We are all gathered for the race briefing from Ian, then Sean’s “There will be weather” and medical information and just before the start there were poignant words from Adrain and a moments silence for the family we’ve lost this year, Tony Thistlewaite was sorely missed, he should've been standing here, aiming for his sixteenth goblet.
1.00am WOOOOHOOOO! We are on our way! (I don’t plan to write a then and now report but there may be a few reminiscences) another contrast from my early years. The support along the length of the street this year is fantastic! I had a big daft excited grin on my face when folk shouted my name, managing a few high fives until we turned down towards Mugdock, years ago support crews huddled round the steps just after the tunnel, then it was eerily quiet along the front of the shops occasionally encountering a few bemused locals heading home after a night out. Jennifer and I stayed together for the first few miles, all uneventful until nearing the end of the path of a thousand gates, I managed to catch my toe and down I went, we were in a bit of a bunch and I was relieved that I wasn’t trampled, folk stopped and helped me up, I was fine, just a bit stoory and in need of a wee dust down, I’d adopted the starfish technique for breaking a fall, just a wee dunt evenly spread out between both knees, stomach and the heels of my hands on landing... being caught having a wee lie down was probably more embarrassing!
My crew were in Drymen, I just picked up some custard and a fresh water bottle and plodded on, I switched my head torch off not long after, the sky was brightening with a few light clouds and the weather was promising to be kind. I may have had a hand in making sure the weather was going to be lovely, on the Tuesday before the race I re-proofed my big, sturdy “see-me-through-a-tsunami/bomb-proof/serious weather” jacket and carried it from start to finish.
I kept the pace fine and steady up Conic taking a few photos, and even steadier on the way down, saving my legs for later, just before the steps I phoned my crew, “Get the kettle on!” The reply, “It already is!”.
Down into Balmaha, and I hauled out the timing chip to dib in, I’m not too keen on these huge flat ones that resemble a coaster, they’re too big for my wrist so I’d clipped it onto my stretchy waistband that held my phone and reading glasses. A hug from Davie and my crew walked me through the checkpoint with a pot of porridge and a mug of tea.
|photo from Sue|
Into Rowardennan, I dibbed my coaster and hugged Gavin, my crew were ready and waiting for me with a chair for my first sock change, I sat down and spooned in a rice pudding while Sue and Pauline wiped down my feet and apply lots of Body Glide, it’s pre-emptive, I have no problems and I'd like to keep it that way. I’d decided the shoes I’m wearing are fine, they have good grip and perfect for the loch side, I wore them for the Fling but looking ahead I feel they are a wee bit firm on my toes and may cause problems later on so I say to Ken, Sue and Pauline that I’ll change my shoes at Auchtertyre.
|photo from Sue|
So with fresh happy feet I skip off towards the loch side… it was just metaphorical skipping, no real waste of energy just my mental image heading to my next favourite section, I haven’t done the low road since last year’s West Highland Way Race, I love the natural flow of run a bit, walk a bit and ooshah, how steep are those steps bit! Just letting the terrain dictate the pace, I was moving well, chatting when I had company and savouring the beauty of the route when I had it all to myself. Note to self - look where I’m putting my feet! I fell again! I was about a mile away from Inversnaid, and this time the technique I used for breaking my fall was a hundredweight sack o’ tatties and I don’t recommend it much, it hurts, especially down the left side which took the full of wallop of the roaster! The girls behind me sprinted to me and pulled me up, “I’m fine, it’s ok, I’m fine!” I say before I really know if I am or not, but I’m up and moving forward. I let the girls pull away while I take stock. My left palm is bleeding again, I rub my left quad, it’s bound to have some lovely colours and a few scuffs too but I wasn’t pulling my tights down to check just yet, at least there were no holes in them, my knee had another wee dunt but didn’t feel too bad, my ribs feel tender where they landed on my water bottle, I give them a good prodding, nothing broken, I think, just another bruise. I use a little of my water to rinse the blood off my hands since I’m not far from Inversnaid and will be filling my bottle up soon and decide I was lucky not to have done major damage, I reprimand myself for being such a muppet and to pick my feet up.
At Inversnaid it’s lovely to see friends manning the checkpoint, John is wearing a life jacket and having a great day monitoring the race from a boat. I quickly ditch my rubbish, pick up my drop bag and stuff a squeezy sachet of baby mac ‘n’ cheese and wee bottle of flat coke in a pouch and leave, no hanging around. A minute or two later I realise I’d forgotten to top up my water bottle, I check it and realise I have around 150mls maybe 200mls left, I consider turning back but decide it will be ok, although it’s not that far to Beinglas, it does take twice as long as it looks on paper, I won’t be breaking sweat along the most technical part, it’s slow going for a short arse with stecky legs, I also have the 250 ml bottle of coke to see me through to Beinglas, I’ll be fine.
I enjoy the scrambly bits not worrying about the time it takes, I feel it gives your running legs a rest and a good stretch for the muscles. It doesn’t take too long before I spy the flat grassy bit and ease back into running. I steadily climb up to Dario’s post, I pass on a kiss for Lee and share a wee dram with Dario, Martyn joins me in a toast to our absent friend, is it really ten years since you left us?
Martyn and I stay together until Beinglas where Wilson filled my water bottle, I chat to Ada, and I inhale the aroma of proper coffee but I resist the offer of a cup, one of my traditions is that I’m caffeine free until Bridge of Orchy, I’ll save the hit for Rannoch Moor. When I found out crews wouldn’t be able to get in, my first thought was “ Aw naw, I usually enjoy soup there!” but having a drop bag at Beinglas was fine, as much as I like my wee traditions being able to accept and adapt to changes is the key to having a successful race.
It was now around noon, the sky clear, the sun shining, the path ahead open with no shade, my full length black tights were absorbing the sun’s warmth like solar panels, I love running warm but even for me it was getting a bit roasty toasty, so I slowed right down and would save myself for when it cooled, knowing I’d be going through a second night, I feel it would be detrimental to my race to push on in the heat, it’s maybe worth the risk at the pointy end finishing in under 20 hours or thereabouts (part-timers) but for those of us finishing closer to the full time allowed, we need to play the long game and pace it accordingly, I have a wee saying for running in the heat. “If you’re too hot, you going too fast!”
I had a nice tootle along past Derrydarroch and Not Coo Poo Alley, a path upgrade I’m quite happy with, there will be no nostalgia about being shin deep in shit from me. Val and Gillian were driving up today and joining the crew, a wee bonus for me, they walked up the hill from Crianlarich to meet me with a tub of mashed potato/sweet-potato//cheese, I’d made it quite sloppy so it would be easy for me to eat but I was disappointed to see it had firmed up over night, they walked with me up the wee steep hill from the big gate to the trees while I forced in a few spoonfuls, I couldn’t not eat some after they’d made the effort to bring it to me! Besides, it was brilliant to see their fresh cheery faces, they waved cheerio, “See you in Tyndrum!” as I headed onto the roller-coaster.
I had to wait ages to cross the road after the funfair, I stood with my hands on my hips, elbows out, giving the traffic my best scowl. “I do not stand still! GET OUT MY WAY!” Harumph! Finally I crossed over and made steady progress towards Auchtertyre, looking forward to my soup and a shoe change. After being weighed by Tim and Murial, Pauline led me to where the car was parked, I was handed my mug and was expected to leave… “Err… my shoe change?” A look of surprise all round! “What shoe change? That’s not on the list!” I let out a big dramatic sigh, “Was nobody listening to me at Rowardennan? What a rubbish bunch of support! Yer all sacked!” Within seconds I’m sat in my chair with my feet up, Ken is doing my feet and I’m enjoying my cream of chicken soup, receiving the same level of cheek back, it’s all in fun and those within earshot laughed at our antics.
|photo from Sue|
Although I really enjoyed my soup I think I rattled it in a bit quick, it was sitting heavy in my stomach so again I kept the pace easy towards Tyndrum as I let my tummy settle. Pauline joined me at Tyndrum and we heading towards Bridge of Orchy I said out loud that my left shoulder was awfy sore, did it take a dunt when I fell or was it more from my posture? I think I might be rounding my shoulders trying to keep my ribs from being held tight to my water bottle, I loosened the straps of my race vest a wee bit, stretched my arms above my head, rolled my shoulders, lifted my head and let my shoulder blades slide down my back, relaxing and restoring my posture. I smiled thinking about having my first coffee in weeks and let that thought pull me on, Pauline faffs about with my camera, pointing it at me and making me run bits that I would’ve walked, a cunning ploy!
A lovely surprise as soon as I came out of the tunnel under the railway in Bridge of Orchy, my team were waiting there with my coffee, I was going to savour this, Ken swapped places with Pauline and we walked down through the checkpoint pausing only to dib in before heading up to Jelly Baby Hill. We spent a bit of time with Murdo, thank you, you’ve done a grand job over the years.
On Rannoch Moor we were striding out a good walk on the long inclines and running some bits, always looking around, today with the good weather it’s vastness was benign and easy going, the last time Ken was with me on this section we were in full waterproofs battling with the weather and occasionally Ken was grabbing my backpack to stop me blowing away! It was still a long haul picking the smoothest path over the cobbles and stones looking up towards Fleming’s Memorial, it takes ages to come into view and even longer to reach it. Ken sent a text to say where we were and we be heading down the rough bouldery path soon.
Arriving in Glencoe at 9.30pm it was cooling down so I put on the thick thermal I had tied round my waist at Bridge of Orchy, I still didn’t feel the need to gear up but I’ll now carry the cut-off waterproof breeks, more as a windproof if I got cold, I’ll also carry the blue fleece, another tradition, I rarely wear it these days, keeping it special, I had it on going over the Devil’s Staircase in 2007, the year of my PB and it’s full of good vibes! Sue was joining me now and staying with me to finish, the setting sun cast beautiful rosy-golden hues around the hills, these views fuelled my heart and soul, far more potent than the macaroni cheese I’d just fuelled my body with.
|photo from Sue|
At Altnafeadh fairy-lights adorned the crash-barrier, of course it was Sarah! What a boost to see you and have a hug to send me on my way. It was time to put on the head-torches, I prefer to be over the Devil’s Staircase and heading down and round towards Kinlochleven in daylight or at least light enough not to need a torch, it’s easier to pick a path with a bit more vision than just a circle of light a few metres ahead, it hasn’t happened for a few years now but never mind, it’s not as if I don’t know where I’m going!
I was pleased with how well my legs were coping with the miles and miles of downhill to Kinlochleven, it didn’t take several lifetimes as it has before, I was pleasantly surprised on how quickly it seemed to pass. After being hugged and weighed by Julie, I was sat eating porridge, Pauline flossing between my toes with a wet-wipe, she knows it makes me squirm, this was an extra sock change, I felt there was something in my sock jagging my foot, slight problem, Pauline had put the offending socks back on, Val had tidied them onto a pair so they looked like fresh ones, lucky Pauline noticed the real fresh ones before I put my shoes back on! Gillian joined us now, it’s great having more than one keeping me company since my conversation is usually rubbish by this time so at least Sue and Gillian can chat away and I can listen. It was slow and steady on the steep climb out, at the clearing at the top we pause and look back down over the lights of Kinlochleven,we could see head-torches at the top of the descent heading into the town, I lifted and dropped my head hoping they could see my torch flash across to them and catch the good vibes I was sending.
I was still feeling good, I felt it was me setting the pace and I was joining in with conversation too, previously my crew on Lairig Mor tend to pull away and I follow muttering under my breath about being left behind. Having a really easy spell in the heat of the day seems to have paid off. We blether along to Jeff and his wee oasis and pause for a wee juice.
|photo from Sue|
Heading towards Lundavra I don’t really fancy the hot chocolate/coffee combo on my list but I can’t think of what else I would manage, I ask Sue and Gillian for suggestions and I’m told if you don’t fancy anything in particular just stick with what’s on the plan. Good call, I am tired and maybe not as clear-headed as I think. I have a couple of wee blisters, a few scuffs and bruises but nothing to diminish the joy of being here, this was the best I have ever felt, although my legs were weary they moved well. I never had any real dips, of course I felt uncomfortable at times, covering 95 miles in one go is never going to be easy! My main goal was to finish smiling, in fact it was to smile all the way, I was in a very privileged position, I don’t take for granted I’ll be alive, fit and healthy next year, if this was my final time I was enjoying every precious moment.
Pauline joined the ranks again and we headed up the hill for the final six-ish miles, it does have some lovely swoops and climbs but with near 90 miles in the legs it’s tough going and I did prefer when the trees were there to hide the steep climb up to the fire road.
|photo from Sue|
|photo from Mairi Fox|
|photos from Alan Young|
I have done something that I find hard to take in, I am the first woman to complete the race fifteen times. Neil finishes for the fifteen time this year too, making five of us amongst the 1429 finishers to have done this!
|photo from Ken|
None of this would be possible without the unwavering support I’ve had, not just from my wonderful crew, also my West Highland Way family and not just during the race but through the health problems I’ve had in previous years, I could not have coped so well without you and will never forget that. I thank you all for being there and making me the person I am today.
Nobody’s tomorrow is guaranteed and I hope my West Highland Way Race story has not reached the end. To be continued...