Thursday, 30 June 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

Training had ticked over nicely this year, four ultras done, three on flat tarmac (but that’s fine,I’m quite ambidextrous with my running) and seventy miles covered doing Ally Macpherson’s support during his Skye to Maggie’s run, then the Fling, in May I was doing short quality off road hill work and practiced the whole weekend with no sleep marshalling at the Skye Trail Ultra.

I had most of my gear sorted before the meeting with my crew on Tuesday, so I was able to leave it at Ken and Sue’s.  We went over the final details, at the end I said “I don’t think there is another team with the depth of experience we have between us!” Still there are no guarantees or room for complacency, the West Highland Way is an adventure where anything can happen and nothing should be taken for granted. So I just had to fine tune a few bits and bobs on the Wednesday, a wee shift at work Thursday then Friday was spent just resting, doing my nails and having a wee kip late afternoon, enjoyed a lovely long shower knowing the next one won’t be until Sunday morning.

9.30pm Ken, Sue and Pauline were at my door and we were off, the sky looked stunning driving over the Kincardine Bridge, the weather looked promising for a settled and dry night and the forecast was good for the whole weekend, but again this can change in an instant and I was prepared. We arrived at the car park at Milngavie Station and my tummy was as excited as a box of frogs (or whatever the analogy is) and there was a big daft grin on my face.  Hug Fest!  Sue accompanied me into the hall, I was tagged and weighed with loads more hugs then back to the car to sit and chill until race briefing time. Tick….tock…..tick.….tock…. Aw, come on clock is it adventure time yet?  

One small minor panic, we had paper race numbers!!!!  We never have paper numbers!!! I didn’t bring my lucky pins!!! (I’ve used them to pin on every race number since my first marathon in 1992) but then it dawned on me, the Adventure Show filmed the race in 2009 and we had numbers then, but within a heartbeat I smiled at the memory of Dario chuckling at my panic the last time, shaking his head with the words “You don’t need lucky pins!” Yep, he was right then and still is.
photo from Chuck Gordon

12.30am, the race briefing, hugs, smiles, photos, standing in front of the tunnel ready to go

then suddenly it was 1.00am.  WOOOHOOO! We’re off, loving the run up the steps, through the High Street, big huge daft smile, I hear my name, I can’t see who’s shouting, it’s so busy, I wave anyway.  Do I cry or laugh, maybe a bit of both, here we go again with the promise of the unknown, it never ceases bring the emotion to the surface.

Into Mugdock and switch the head torch on, it’s very busy, I concentrate on looking where I place my feet, many a runner has ruined their race here, there’s lots of excited banter. Ally and I are side by side there is no plan to stick together but we run a very similar pace, I was looking forward to covering a fair few miles with him.  After around 50 minutes, I had the feeling that this wasn’t right, we should’ve headed left down a lumpy wee track but we were moving round to the right still on a wide path, the head torches not picking up any detail other than the few yards in front, there were a few runners ahead around a dozen behind, no one else seemed concerned, I said to Ally that it wasn’t right but gave it the benefit of the doubt until we reach a big gate, the guys in the front were already over it, I shouted that we were on the wrong road, there was a bit of discussion that this was a shiney new gate and that it must’ve been put in place recently. Yeah that’s true, but we’re still going the wrong way, so an about turn and we all headed back, sure enough, there was the path we should’ve took.  Not to worry, barely a mile added and around ten minutes, it did gave me a bit of a giggle, last time I added a bonus mile was in 2004 and I was in great company, Jim Robetson going for his twelfth WHW! Now while you’re all giving it big hee haws I wasn’t the only one in the wayward group to have a goblet or two so I’m no’ taking all the blame!

Heading up Conic the sun was rising, it was going to be a cracker, I kept looking behind so I wouldn’t miss it peeking up over the hill. It was a “had to be there moment” and I was!

I phoned Pauline when I was on the wooden steps heading down to Balmaha, she said Sue would be walking towards me with my porridge. Coming into Balmaha there was Ada with cheeky grin and cheery greeting “Whit a fanny!”  Eh? Me?  Oh aye, the news of my bonus bit travels faster than I do!  

Now how do you find your crew in a busy car park where everyone is wearing midge nets? Well, I cannae miss this lot!

I went straight through Balmaha shoveling in porridge, I tucked away a banana for afters and Pauline walked with me carrying my mug of tea until I finished the porridge, I can’t rush food but I don’t stand still to have it either, it was at Craigie Fort where I handed Pauline back an almost finished mug and trotted off.

It had been very cold through the night and now the sun was up I was warming up nicely, the gloves came off, sleeves pushed up and peaked Buff pushed back from my face and was I happy to enjoy the solitude of the Balmaha to Rowardennan section, I only saw three other runners here and none of them were moving at my pace, I love the beauty of this part, a meandering path with quite a few wee climbs and descents in dappled sunlight through the forest, but I wasn’t alone, I had the company of a million wee feckers! In all my years of being part of the West Highland Way Race (watching Pauline finish in 1997 was my first) I have never experienced midges like this. I pulled my sleeves down over my hands, my peaked Buff was pulled down to my eyebrows and the one round my neck was pulled up, I kept my head down, all I could see was a few feet in front of me, I mourned the scenery I was missing but I couldn’t look up, every time I did I got a blizzard of midges nipping my eyes and choking my throat!  Eating my banana… well, I’m glad I’m not vegetarian!

On my diva demands I had a sock and shoe change planned for Rowardennen, Pauline, had walked back the road a bit to meet me as I approached, and asked was I sure I wanted to stop long enough to do this as the midges would eat my feet off. My feet were in fine fettle with the path being dry but I wanted to keep them that way and my team can do feet within five minutes so I answered yes, but I’ll stay with the same shoes, I picked up my clear lens glasses and was out of Rowardennen within six minutes, that extra minute was used putting on loads of Skin So Soft!

I was back with company along to Inversnaid, Sarah, Ally and myself had a nice wee pace along the newly restored low road, it’s so much more in keeping with the trail along the loch side than the trudge up the wide forest track. There was a bit of discussion on the race facebook page whether it would be longer than the previous race route, well, fantastic if it is, more WHW, what’s not to love about that!

At Inversnaid the Trossachs Search and Rescue team had a huge fan blowing a midge free zone, it looked inviting but I don’t hang about in checkpoints, picked up my drop bag and I just stood long enough to down a dinky 150ml can of coke, then I was off, Ally faffed about a wee bit filling bottles but I knew he’d catch me up, I was planning a quick pee stop, (pee stops were always as quick as possible, I hate when midges bite ma bahooky!)

I love the technical path after Inversnaid, concentrating on footing, big steps, wee steps, hang on and big humphs up for short legs but it all helps keep the legs supple, not stressing the time, it just takes what it takes, I felt a bit more confident placing my feet on dry rocks and what a difference to 2012 where Jonathan, Sue and I helped each other of the torrent of waterfalls, this year there was barely a trickle of water to step over at all. Lovely to meet Lillian and we blethered our way along, pausing briefly with Martin and an old goat that that has succumbed to the midges.

Once the terrain eased I always look forward to reaching Dario’s post, it’s still a fair way off but the thought of spending a bit of time remembering and celebrating pulls me on. At Dario’s post there was quite a party, I wasn’t sure my wee race hip flask would last, but it is just a celebratory sip, John, Adrian’s support, waiting for him, Angie, Ally, Martin and myself shared a few moments with Dario and a little Laphroiag Quarter Cask

Just before Beinglas I thought I saw a race official but the bright fluorescence was just Pauline’s tutu blowing in the gentle breeze, she was lying on her tummy taking photos!
Beinglas seemed awfy noisy after the peace and beauty of the loch side and Angel’s Playground but I wasn’t complaining, great to see all the enthusiastic crews shouting support, I had rice pudding and a mug of tea walking out of the checkpoint, with hindsight I should’ve drank more of the tea but I can’t rush drinking, I just end up choking, so after about half of it I passed it back to Ken, and happily trotted off. I’d swapped the clear glasses for the sunglasses, the path is wide open and the sun was shining, I was loving it, my long black tights sooking in the sun’s energy like solar panels, yeah, I know I’m Scottish but I like it warm, my long sleeves got pushed up and the midges didn’t seem so bad but eventually I started to feel it getting toasty, I dipped my Buff in a burn and had a refreshing sponge down. After Derrydaroch and along to Coo Poo Alley I was getting a bit wabbit, if I was feeling it a bit warm it probably meant that others were struggling with the heat, I hoped they would manage to deal with it, I took it easy, no point working hard, I’ll save it for when it cools down. I was just carrying a 330ml water bottle and it was getting low, there was no way I’d top it up from areas with livestock, maybe I should’ve had more of that tea!
photo - Donald Sanderman
I looked forward to the rollercoaster with the trees to provide a bit of shade, once in the trees there’s not much running happening, slogging the ups and saving my quads for later on the downs, it takes longer than you hope but eventually I’m on the flat just before crossing the road, I’m concentrating on my phone, trying to see if I had a signal to phone ahead an addition to my Diva Demands, I was craving a pint beer shandy, there might be a small chance of one from the wee shop at Auchtertyre, if not there the pub would be open in Tyndrum.  “Yeaaaaaahh!” I jumped out my skin, Yan spoke to me, he was right in front of me in stealth mode! He apologised for scaring me, I giggled, not his fault, I should be paying more attention to my surroundings.

When I weighed in at Auchtertyre, I thought I’d be down a bit, I was actually 0.1 kilo below my designated 4% weight variation, but when you’re fighting weight is in the fairy category and the top and bottom of my 4% weight difference is around that of a bag of sugar, I wasn’t worried. Being outside the 4% alone would never have you pulled from the race, it’s there to aid the medical team help treat you correctly if you have other problems. Besides I was still bright eyed and bushy tailed, I assured Eddie I’d be back on track after a tub of mashed tatties and a pint shandy. The shop only had a wee bottle of lemon shandy, that’ll keep me going until I get a proper one,
I took off my long sleeved top to run with just a vest for only the third time this year. Pauline walked with me carrying the wee bottle of shandy as I shovelled in my cheesy mashed tatties.  Ooft! I felt full, but still needed to get more in before Pauline headed back to the checkpoint with my empties, I wasn’t planning company from here although it was allowed, so as I could take my time finishing my grub and shandy Pauline phoned back to the crew, she’ll stay with me until Tyndrum as I didn’t have enough hands to manage the bottle, a tub of tatties and a spoon! Pauline took the empty bottle and tub from me when I’d finished, but the dozy bugger caught her toe and took a header, I cringed as I watched her adopt the Eddie the Eagle position, but well impressed that after around four yards her feet caught up with her face and she didn’t have to use her chin as a brake!  She was fairly relieved too, holding a glass bottle, she didn’t want to put her hands out!

After crossing the road I was handed a thermal mug, Sue had been in the pub “Can I have a half pint beer shandy and put it in this please!”  A slightly raised eyebrow from the barman but he obliged. A nicely chilled Caledonian 80/- with lemonade, perfect! You can keep your high tech, blind you with science sports drinks, this hit the spot!

A beautiful afternoon for a trot to Bridge of Orchy with Ken for company, refuelled and over half way, still moving well, there was nowhere else I’d rather be.

Bridge of Ochy aka hug city

Gillian had joined the crew at Tyndrum, always a bonus having a fresh face join the team and she was ready to run with me from Bridge of Orchy,  I sat down for the second time during the race for another change of socks, I’d decided to stay with the same shoes, Pauline and Sue set about my feet as I took time to savour my first mug of coffee in a month! It was worth the abstinence just for that moment! Then we were off up the hill, lovely to spend a few minutes with Murdo and Peter, it was a pleasure to see them,and I was glad to see Murdo’s toorie bunnet went well with his breeks, and the flags were blowing beautifully for the photos.  

We made fine progress along Rannoch Moor, it’s a long haul up but we stuck in loads of running stretches, picking points where to walk and where to run. It was starting to cool down as we headed up so I put on a fresh long sleeved top and added my arm warmers at the top before heading into Glencoe, it was around 10.00pm and I was roughly an hour slower than my 2012 splits we were using as a guide but that’s a minor detail, I was in fine fettle and moving well.  Gillian and I were criticising the path that takes you to the Ski Centre, it isn’t actually a path just a pile of rubble, Gillian is an expert, she volunteers with the National Trust and was path repairing on Ben Nevis recently so she knows, and it made us feel better giving it a good slagging!

I had a ziplock bag marked Glencoe, it contained an extra pair of tights and my blue fleece, I’ve worn the fleece over the Devil’s Staircase since my PB in 2007, it’s maybe not the best cosy top I have these days but it’s tradition so on it went, I didn’t bother with a second pair of tights but I’ll now carry my “Ray McCurdys” named in honour of the legend, a pair of old blue waterproof breeks that I’ve cut off just below the knee and re-proofed several time, small, light and easy carried and even easier to slip on and off without having to faff with shoes and regardless of appearance they keep my quads warm and dry.

Pauline was coming with me now and staying to the finish, Ken walked down the hill with us to collect the mug after I finished my Mugshot cheesy pasta, I handed it over just before crossing the road, ooft, my tummy felt as though it had a brick in it, I’m sure it’ll easy as I digested the pasta.  As we made our way up the rough path that climbs pointlessly just to come back down, the wind was blowing in our faces and pretty cold, I put on the Ray McCurdys and jacket to keep me warm and the wind out, the team were meeting us at Altnafeadh so I’ll pick up a woolly hat to stick on top of my peaked Buff and another pair of gloves. We stomped up the Devil at a good pace, Pauline was singing again, last year’s irritating song was 1000 green bottles hanging on the wall, this one was a slight improvement, “I’ve just came doon fae the Isle O’ Skye, I’m no’ very big and I’m awfy shy and the lassies shout when I go by, Donald where’s yer troosers!” (Sorry, bet that’s stuck in your head now!) I was singing in my head trying to drown her out, Skipinnish Walking On the Waves was my tune of choice. I don’t do iPods or Garmins on the WHW, it is too beautiful to have distractions even when it’s getting tough, every moment is a privilege to be savoured. As we neared the top we had to put the head torches on and we could see a few more twinkling below us. My stomach never eased, I was feeling quite queasy but I still had small sips of my Ensure milkshake, but I was getting fed up with it.

It’s hard to pick the best line along the bouldery path in the dark but we were pulling it in and eventually heading down the steep track to Kinlochleven, I’ve done this often enough that I know it takes forever, so just got on with it, when I thought we were getting close to the end I started counting my paces on my left leg, Ok, one hundred paces and we’ll be crossing the pipes!. I thought, I did that three times and then thought my left leg was rubbish, I’ll count a hundred paces with my right leg, that was just as rubbish, I gave up counting and eventually we were in the street lights of Kinlochleven and into the Community Centre, dibbing my dobber before hugging Julie and Sarah, (I forgot last year).  I do not sit down in checkpoints except to change socks or shoes, my feet had a few wee nippy bits but nothing to hold me back, there was no point doing anything to them at this point anyway, the whole way in the same shoes with only two sock changes, this was a first and testament on how dry the path had been.

My crew had my chicken soup ready so we all walked out the community centre together,  I was having all the girlies in support for the last section, Sue, Gillian and Pauline keeping me company all the way to Fort William. I handed Ken my almost empty mug just before  we turned up into the woods, pleased I didn’t get a row for leaving some, I must have had most of it, my stomach really wasn’t wanting it but I know I have to keep eating.

It’s “only” fourteen miles to the finish but they are no ordinary miles, it’s a long steep slog of a climb up onto Lairig Mhor, at least with a walk up, it gave the soup time to settle down, or so I tried to convince myself. At the top we paused to look back and down to Kinlochleven, I’m always glad to get that bit done, in previous years we’ve looked back in the dark and seen torches heading down the long descent into the town, with it getting light and no longer needed our torches I couldn’t see if anyone was heading towards Kinlochleven but I wished them well if there were.  

It was great have all the girls, they chatted away, I was listening, although not adding much to the conversation apart from an occasional “Oww!” when I stubbed my toe or bobbled over a boulder and quite a few “Aye, I’m remembering to eat!” I wasn’t fibbing but I wasn’t having as much as I should’ve, After being treated for mouth cancer in 2013 my eating if quite restricted, even more so during a race, I can’t do anything that needs saliva or chewing, and I just couldn’t face anymore cold and wet stuff, no matter what flavour my milkshake or custard. It was a bit frustrating that my legs felt strong and moving well but just had no energy.

About halfway along Pauline jumped, her phone was ringing, a signal, that was a surprise, she and Sue stopped so as not to lose it, Gillian and I continued, they filled us in when they caught up, it was Martin, we’d had updates all day on how well he and Jo were doing, he’d finished hours and hours ago but was waiting for me to finish, they told him to go and get some sleep I’ll be a while yet, it was so lovely to hear he didn’t want to miss me although he well deserved a good rest!

One thought made me smile to myself, a bit Phil Liggett commentary on the Tour De France when a cyclist was looking for more effort. “Bridge to engine room - More power please!” the reply my Bridge got was “Bugger off the stoker’s on a tea-break!” My head stayed happy, at least I could laugh at my own daft thoughts! And the girls were great singing old classics, Lairig Mor did take forever but it was still fun.  When we eventually saw Jeff and Patricia it was a lovely surprise, with them not being at the usual spot I thought they maybe hadn’t managed to get up or had left with an injured runner. It was just with the path being in such a bad state they couldn’t drive up any further. I wasn’t really wanting fizzy juice but managed a little Vimto to keep the troops happy, I was then rewarded with a wee 18 year old Highland Park from Jeff, now that warmed my heart.

I wasn’t moving very fast but I was still getting there and there was a mug of hot chocolate and coffee waiting for me at Lundavra, they even sneaked in some honey for extras, there was no hanging about, again Ken walked with us while I had my hot drink, as much as I wasn’t chasing a time I wasn’t prolonging it either, the sooner I got to the finish the sooner I could lie down. The home straight starts at Lundavra but it isn’t very straight, lots of ups, downs and stairs but my legs moved over them well just not very fast. Finally we were looking up at that last big climb we used to call the spooky woods, it was definitely better before the trees were cut down and you couldn’t see how steep it was! The bonus was there was a runner coming towards us, it was Steven, one of Martin’s crew, after a wee blether he shot off to rouse the troops. I was jealous of the way he loped down the fire track and disappeared from sight, around three and a half miles to go, as much as I was moving fluidly it wasn’t easy going but I managed to run most of it. As we approached Braveheart car park I took off the jacket and fleece, and handed them to Pauline to chuck in the car, I would finish in my club vest, once in the car park I dropped the Ray McCurdys but not quick enough, Ken had taken a photo!
I was off, the last mile! The girls took a moment to get the tutus on, they would soon catch me up, this was going to be quite a spectacular finish!  Past the roundabout at the Woolly Mill and what a welcome, Martin and crew along with Mel, she had been helping with the chip timing.  What an escort!
They fell in behind me and then I could see the Leisure Centre, I upped the pace, finally the legs were responding but I wasn’t running, I was floating!  Someone forgot to tell the bloke with the timing doofer, the finish isn’t the arch but the doors, I’ve been slapping my hands on them since they used to be wooden! Finished!

I did register my chip eventually, then I was ushered into the centre to be weighed before I could hug and thank everyone. Apart from the wee dip at Auchtertyre, my weight was pretty consistent!  Right, time for a celebratory dram, there was a smidge left in my hip flask for Sean, I savoured a wee Isle of Jura from his, Sean’s flask was a gift from Dario, making it all the more special. Then back outside, hugs of celebration and thanks, more Jura, Martin had a whole bottle!

Back inside for a quick shower, bliss! Just had time to get dressed, abandoning my stuff lying in a heap in the ladies showers to be back outside in time to see Ally finish, smiling as usual.  After tidying me gear there was no time for a lie down, just straight to Nevisport for breakfast, afterwards there was a lot of laughter watching Martin go down the stairs. Then it was my turn, with the words “This is how a pro does it!” I sailed down the stairs no problem. Shh, don’t tell anyone I just hadn’t been stopped long enough for my legs to seize up. I wouldn’t have managed that so easily later on.

The prize-giving, 159 finishers from 199 starters another record for the race, every winner having their moment of glory, every goblet is hard fought for and deserves a moment of proud celebration, but none of this could happen without the race committee and hordes of helpers and support crews, my thanks to everyone of you for your willingness to let me celebrate being alive in the best way possible.

The two presentations that made my eyes leak were Norma and Adrian, Norma has had a few tough years fighting injury getting to the start line and now witnessing her receive her goblet, you could see what it meant for her and Adrian, seeing him hug his fifteenth goblet after a very tough race just shows it never stops being special.

The date for next year is the 24th June, I hope to be there, my cabinet might start to struggle but I’ll risk it!

Did anyone else notice the words on the back of Adrian’s t-shirt at the prize giving.  Never Give Up.  Exactly!


Unknown said...

Another guid read Fiona. I felt as if I was on that race with you.keep them coming x

Helen said...

Another fantastic day on the trails you so obviously love! Even if you aren't privileged enough to see you out there doing your stuff, you can feel your passion reading about it! You are one of the strongest ladies I know and a true inspiration xx

Amanda said...

I'm crying again. Fabulous seeing you collect another goblet knowing what it means to you. What a tremendous way to celebrate life! See you next year, same time, same place! X

geosus said...

ooooft. tears streaming down my face as i finished this reading about your love of the way and recalling my own finish. i cant thank you enough for reminding me to go out and enjoy it even when any pain sets in. Wee you on the 25th claiming your next goblet x

Unknown said...

Another great read and another great run, lovely seeing you pick up you goblet x

Unknown said...

A brilliant read Fiona! Well done on your 12th goblet, that's really a huge achievement . It was great to share a short bit of the trail with you and I have thanks to you also for lots of tips from reading your previous blogs. Next time I'll remember the bit about the 80 shilling ......that would have gone down so well! �� Xx