Sunday, 16 July 2017

Lucky 13 - West Highland Way Race 2017

Training for this year went very well, using a few “wee” ultras for my long runs and even a PB at the Fling, now for someone that isn’t motivated by time, that was a great wee bonus proving I was in great shape for this year’s race. My last long run was a “mere” 18 miles but cracking quality on the Trotternish Ridge with over 4000 feet of climbing after a weekend with very little sleep marshalling at the Skye Trail Ultra. My taper time passed in a flash, the weekends filled with two music festivals and a wee trot at the Skye Half Marathon, suddenly it was Monday before the race, I had a wee meeting with my support crew, it didn’t take long, between myself, Pauline, Ken, Sue and Gillian I believe we are the most experience team with either running or supporting have had a hand in earning around 50 Goblets. By Thursday all my stuff was sorted and I dropped it off with Ken on the Friday morning so he could play Tetris with all the gear, I spent the rest of the day chilling, doing my nails, having a wee snooze and waiting until Ken, Sue, and Pauline picked me up at 9.30pm. I’m not really superstitious, I like the number 13 and I love good vibes, the little guardian angel I’ve worn for every WHW race got a wee charm for extra luck.

Driving into the station car park at Milngavie never fails to make my nerve ends tingle, after about a hundred hugs I was registered and back in the car, curled up, snoozing on the back seat until race briefing time.

1.00am, Finally! We were off! Woohooo! Big cheesy grin, high fiving loads of folks along the length of the street, changed days from an eerily quiet high street dodging the odd drunk in my early WHW races years ago.

The weather was pretty benign to start with, perfect conditions  but this wasn’t going to last so I’ll enjoy it while it does.  Into Mugdock and going carefully, many a runner has gone over an ankle here and I’m not risking it. Side by side with Ally again and paying attention to the path instead of blethering we didn’t do any bonus bits this year, there’s no pressure for us to stay together but we’ve covered many miles at the same pace, I didn’t doubt we’d do the same this year. We kept it nice and steady along the path of a thousand gates then out onto the road to Gartness, I kept my eyes peeled for the bats, I was glad to see them flitting through the trees although it was still fairly dark, I said to Ally I was sure I had taken my head-torch off along here. Were we a bit quicker or was it just darker for longer?  No point looking at my Garmin, I was wearing it for the time of day, just for peace of mind of making the early cut-offs, the numbers are big enough that I don’t need my glasses on to read it. My crew have a detailed sheet of my splits, they’ll be able to tell me if I’m on a par with previous races, that’s their job, I just run.

A shame we weren’t going to be rewarded with a stunning sunrise on Conic it was too cloudy, at least it was dry, the wind was a bit cool too so I popped on my jacket and gloves just for the top,

I took the descent very gently, keeping my quads for later, heading down the steps I phoned my crew letting them know of my imminent arrival, my porridge and mug of tea will be ready and at the perfect temperature at Balmaha. Clocked my doofer with the timing guy, a big hug from Big Davie then through the car park without breaking stride, porridge pot in hand, banana stuffed in my bag for afters and Pauline walking beside me carrying my mug until I was ready for it, Formula 1 could take lessons from my team.

The beauty of the route between Balmaha and Rowardennan never fails to make my heart fly.
I wish Neil had said this was his 100th ultra, it would‘ve been lovely to celebrate with him, but I can understand he didn’t want the pressure, there are no guarantees with the WHW no matter how many times you’ve done it.   

Neil on his way to completing 13 WHW races and his 100th Ultra 

Again my crew were ready for me at Rowardennan, my feet were feeling great but to pre-empt any problems I was going to change socks, well, technically I didn’t do it, I was sat down with my feet up on a stool eating a rice pudding while Sue did the necessary ably assisted by Pauline.

photo from Lorna Sinclair 

I enjoy the low road, a short section re-established last year and I think more in keeping with the rest of the loch side and far prettier than the slog up the wide track. At Inversnaid I was handed my drop bag and keep moving then I heard my name shouted, “Sorry Ruth, I didn’t see you!” I turned around and walked back a couple of paces for my hug, it’s the rules.

I love the gnarly section out of Inversnaid and didn’t stress the pace, some folk don’t like it, I just embrace the breather my running legs get with scrambling the bouldery ups and downs.  I feel like I have the agility of a lumbering baby elephant but it doesn’t stop me having fun. I had a great blether with Lucy along here and we both said we’d love to see the fast guys doing this section!

Yay, the flat grassy bit and back to a bit of running, from here the thought of spending a few moments in the company of an Angel had me skipping along. Yes, I really felt that good!  Along by Doune Bothy and the climb up to Dario’s post was with a lovely wee group.  

In my hip-flask I had the Glenlivet which resides in my WHW decanter, it was gifted to me from Alan and Lesley at the January training run. Stan, paused with me for a wee toast to our absent friend.  

Into Beinglas I was having some leek and potato soup with a proper diva demand written on my race requirement sheet. Could you mash the lumps please. With the damage to my mouth, eating is always going to be a challenge, even more so during a race, everything has to be liquid or mushy, so far I’d had porridge, custard, rice pudding and Ensure milkshakes, I was looking forward to something hot and savoury, it went down a treat.

The weather had been fine, an occasional light shower but not enough to need a rain jacket and the shelter of the trees had kept the wind at bay but now into the open path towards Derrydarroch the wind was picking up, I was happy it was on my back and blowing me along, but it wasn’t long before I felt it chill my lower back and make it ache, I had a bit of a dip and slowed a little, just a wee yin to the yang I had heading towards Dario’s post and I didn’t doubt I’d bounce back, I put my jacket on, it didn’t stop my back aching but I didn’t get any colder. I smiled at the health and safety warnings, even laughing out loud at the bit of bubble wrap taped to the top of the entrance to the Crack Yer Heid tunnel, aye, back in the day you just took your chances! Coo poo alley was a bit squishy but not shin deep, I took it carefully, ever thoughtful for my crew, they’re the ones who touch my shoes! (I do tie my own laces though!) I was glad to reach the shelter of the rollercoaster and out of the wind. Apart from a big posse of walkers near the gate above Crianlarich I had the climbs and swoops to myself and timed it nicely crossing the road, there was no traffic. It’s great having company but I love having the route to myself too. I kept a good pace up to Kirkton Farm, there’s Dave and Lee! Hug time!  “Great Buff!” he says, I had to think a moment, oh yeah, I was wearing the limited edition, WHW pirate one inspired by himself.

I turned into the wind and headed to Auchtertyre, I could see a couple had walked up the path a wee bit to wait for their runner, they waved, I thought Aw, that’s nice, being really enthusiastic for all the runners!  Hang on! Wow! It’s Ray and Jorie! I ran on and into a huge hug from them both!

Oh, what a surprise!  My cousins have been holidaying up in Harris and driving back to Cumbria, they had hoped to see me around Bridge of Orchy or Tyndrum but made no promises as they had to be home Saturday night. Gillian had reported for duty but stayed in Tyndrum with Sue so there was room in the car for Ray and Jorie to come with Ken and Pauline into Auchtertyre and be part of my crew. Pauline did a sock change for me, slightly hampered by a heavy shower but Ray was holding the brolly, (a job he’s a wee bit overqualified for, just recently been elected president of Mountain Rescue for England and Wales, but that’s just shows the calibre of my crew) I polished off the last of soup that Jorie was in charge of heating up. Ken was finding my thicker thermal top and heavier rain jacket. What a team!

I was soon on my way but not without shouting at Ian Dorey for holding up the weigh in, he was having a wee faff taking off his backpack tangled with a charging cable to his Garmin while I was standing waiting behind him. I didn’t see his face so I hope he laughed with everyone else, I was just kidding!
"Hurry up Ian!" photo from Robert Snodgrass

I headed down the road towards Tyndrum with a huge grin and a spring in my step feeling blessed to have such a thoughtful crew managing to work out a way I could see Ray and Jorie without them having to extend their long day too much waiting to see me. What a great boost it was to see them and not just a quick wave as I went by!

At Tyndrum, Gillian was ready and waiting to keep me company to Bridge Of Orchy, Pauline walked up the hill with us as I had a mug with some cheesy pasta, she’d take the mug from me when I’d had enough. Sue had said to her “We’ll pick you up at the cemetery.”, after seeing the car go by up the road Pauline quipped, “Looks like I’m coming to Bridge of Orchy with you!” Sue was under the impression there was a way into the cemetery from the main road, not to worry, a wee bit of bog hopping, a climb over a fence Pauline and my mug were reunited with the rest of the crew!  That gave Gillian and I a wee giggle to watch.

The weather was really making its presence felt now, it was raining, a minute later it had stopped, my hood was up and down like a yo-yo, the wind was blowing us along then swirling round and in our faces stopping us in our tracks, quite a force on the high point before dropping down under the railway, Was the weather just mad or Scottish? Yep!
photo from Kirsty Archbold

Pauline had walked out and was waiting up on the path just before Bridge of Orchy to see if there were any changes to my Diva Demands, yes there was, I’d like the ziplock bag marked Glencoe now please, in it was my thick winter, windproof tights and my blue fleece I’ve worn every year over the Devil’s Staircase since my PB in 2007, Pauline was carrying a shortwave radio and called in my request… but shock horror...I was stepping away from tradition, in my kit bag was a thicker, newer, probably warmer fleece, could I have that instead. As she asked for my BaM fleece there was no reply, she tried again... still no reply... she called again. “Broadsword calling Danny Boy!”  Ha ha ha, gotta love my team having fun too!  

Into Bridge of Orchy after hugging Laura I sat under the gazebo so I could take my shoes off and get the winter tights on over the long Skins I had worn from the start, I was also going to add my cut-off waterproof breeks too, if the weather eases they’re easy slipped off.  Oh, and the moment I had waiting a month for, a mug of coffee.  Oooow, it was worth the wait!  Ken was coming with me for Rannoch Moor, he was geared up and ready to go, and again Pauline was my mug bearer as I walked up the hill.  I felt full after a tub of rice pudding but I wasn’t leaving any coffee, it wasn’t to be rushed either.

Great to see Murdo, what a shift he’s putting in with this weather and managing to keep the jelly babies dry too! Robin was doing a bit of reverse sweeping and lovely to see Dave again.

All cosied up, I was still moving well, Ken and I made good progress running down to Inveroran and along the road, there was a fine looking deer just beside Forest Lodge,

I didn’t run as much as I would’ve liked along Rannoch Moor, it felt quite greasy underfoot and the wind was taking me sideways, if I kept one foot grounded there was less chance of me blowing away and a good strong march was fairly energy efficient, At one point as the wind gusted I half joked, half seriously pointed over the moor saying “If I end up over there, you’ll come and get me?”  Ken grabbed the shoulder strap of my bag through the gust, I don’t think he fancied hoofing over rough bog either. Rannoch Moor was the first section I felt took ages, longer than I thought it should’ve although I never asked where I was time-wise after Beinglas or looked at my watch, I was just running on instinct and to the conditions, but the Moor is bloody long and mostly uphill and you can see it stretch out for miles until the ground meets the sky. Eventually we were past Flemings Cairn and over the top, heading down into Glencoe, Ken ran on ahead to rouse the troops.

Blowing a hoolie was putting it mildly when I arrived, I was to have my last sock change, my wee chair was set up at the side of Alan’s big red engine but he said “In you come.” What luxury to be out the wind although just briefly, you could feel it shaking the fire engine. Sue did my socks as I ate more pasta, Pauline was staying with me now until the end and was layered up and ready, I added another Buff round my neck and a wooly hat over my peaked Buff.

We walked down the hill so I could finish my pasta, last year my stomach started to rebel at this point, but so far so good this time, (no two years have ever been the same regards food) once round by Kingshouse the wind was blown straight into us for the only part of the route I feel is pointless, a rough, rocky, rubbly path that climbs up just to come back down which runs parallel to the road. I tucked in tight behind Pauline, close enough to clip her heels but we’ve worked together like this many times, Pauline picking a path through the terrain and me shouting either speed up or wait for me, I only wished she was build like a rugby player and made a better windbreak!  Ken, Sue and Gillian were at Altnafeadh just to pick up the empty mug and check we were fine for heading up the Devil’s Staircase.

My legs were still moving well but starting to feel the distance in them as we worked our way up, it was getting dark, we could see torches ahead on the high zig-zags and more behind moving pretty fast. I still didn’t feel the need to put my torch on, preferring natural light for as long as possible. As the guys went by I stood still with my hands over my eyes, saying “On you go, I’m not looking ‘cause I don’t want your torches to bugger up my night vision!”  After they were by Pauline gave me a row, “Well, that wasn’t very polite!” Oops, tolerance is the first casualty of tiredness, my apologies guys!  Heading down I gave in and put my torch on, the path was just a river and hard to pick a route of least resistance and keep my feet, if not dry, not so freezingly soaked, it is always a goal of mine to do this bit in daylight or at least dusk, I’ve only managed it a handful of times and is so much easier if you can see ahead a lot further than the confines of a torch. So resigned to having to slog it out I just got on with it and eventually we were heading down the wide steep track to Kinlochleven, having looked after my quads earlier I moved well and it didn’t take forever to get to the bottom.

Into the Community Centre, I was hugged and weighed by Julie, after the luxury of visit to a proper loo I did something I have never ever done at Kinlochleven before, I sat down for no other reason than to have a wee breather out of the wind. I used the time-out to eat a pot of porridge, I always just eat on the hoof but I think on this occasion taking a few minutes to gather myself before facing Lairig Mor seemed right. It was warm in the Community Centre and I had taken off my rain-jacket when I arrived but before putting it back on I added a down-jacket on top of the two long sleeved thermals, club vest and fleece, I know what Lairig Mor can throw at you, I was taking no chances going back out into this weather with eighty miles in my legs and heading into a second night with no sleep.

Having the luxury of such a great crew I was mob handed for the last section, Sue and Gillian joining Pauline to see me home.  I was roasty-toasty on the long climb out of Kinlochleven but I knew it wouldn’t be long until we were heading into the teeth of the gale, I didn’t take anything off, just unzipped a couple of layers. At the top I always like to pause and look back down over Kinlochleven and up the trail from where we had come, there were head torches just starting the descent, I wondered if it was Ally, I hadn’t seen him since the lochside but at the checkpoints I’d heard how he was doing, I waved and wished him well, wondering if they noticed our torches.

My hood was pulled down tight, with wooly hat and Peaked Buff as low down on my eyebrows as they could go and still manage to see about three feet in front.  It was great to pause and stand in the shelter of the Wilderness Support vehicle with some fizzy juice, a wee oasis of support created by Jeff and Patricia, even the hefty metal poles holding the flags had bent in the wind!   
photo from Jeff Smith 
At this point it doesn’t matter if training went well or if the race has gone according to plan (probably not), two things keep you going, heart and soul, time to slog it out.  As tough as it was, I was smiling on the inside, still a pleasure and a luxury to be here, I know I’m extremely lucky that I have the ability to complete this thirteen times.  Although I was happy it didn’t stop me having some petulant thoughts, being cocooned in all my layers with my head down against the wind and my vision blinkered by my peak made me a bit insular too.  At times the four of us were together, often I’d drop back a bit and have to work to keep up, I’d look up and they were “miles” away (probably no more than 50 yards) Pfft! They don’t care, look at them, just buggering off and leaving me!  Swiftly followed by a wry smile.  Aye, I’d leave me too, in this weather!   Rounding the bend heading towards Lundavra a fierce gust caught me and near took me down the slope, I over compensated leaning forward and ended up crouched forward with both hands gripping onto a big boulder in front of me, I looked up. The buggers haven’t noticed I nearly rolled down to the bottom of the hill!   But on the other hand when Pauline checked I was eating, after replying I was, she then asked “Are you sure?” I was stroppy enough to give her an earful finishing with “I know what I’m doing!” Post race debrief aka blether over a pint in the pub, I was told that they had noticed the wind nearly take me off and it was quipped “Oh, look, she’s saying a wee prayer!” I was also informed that if they did attempt the hand hold approach they could imagine the language, they really do know me!  

Daylight appeared for the second time during the race and we pulled into Lundavra, Ken was waiting with a mug of hot chocolate laced with coffee before we headed off onto the home straight, seven-ish miles of steep climbs and descents through the spooky woods… except it’s worse than that, there hasn’t been spooky woods for a few years now but with the recent tree harvesting you can see exactly where you’re heading, it wasn’t any easier before but at least you couldn’t see it!  At one point the path was strewn with a huge obstacle of felled trees and debris, I really loved how my crew let me lead the way over it, they were pushing from behind now, apparently!

Onto the long wide track down to Braveheart, I didn’t need any encouragement, I pushed on, Pauline thought I was getting competitive as we passed a few in the last three miles, nothing so heroic I’m afraid, with the shelter of the trees heading back down to sea level I was roasting and wanted to remove some of the layers and go to the loo, but with wearing all these layers that wasn’t going to happen without a palaver, I didn’t want to prolong it any longer than necessary and I doubted I’d be able to move so well if I stopped and broke my rhythm.  

Out of Braveheart, onto the pavement for the final mile, savouring the moment but wanting it over messed with my emotions, then seeing Jo and Martin, they deserve to be in bed but are waiting to see me finish messes with my breathing, I don’t let go, I’ll do them proud and finish strong. Round the car park and towards the arch and the guy with the timing doofer, I wave him out the way, up the steps and rest my hands and my forehead on the door...Breathe.
photo from Davie Hall
photo from Ken Walker
“Will you stop wasting time and register your finish!” Big Davie shouts at me,  I turn and rummage under a million sleeves to find my bracelet with the timing chip and officially finish. Davie hugs me and I’m ushered into the Leisure Centre to be weighed, I manage to remove two of my jackets before stepping on the scales finishing at exactly the same weight I started at, ok, I was still wearing two more tops and two more pair of breeks than I started with but my weight was fairly consistent throughout.

Now I was free to celebrate. Martin cracked open an appropriate bottle of Isle of Jura Superstition and poured family measures into very posh silver shot glasses, I reciprocated with the wee drop of Glenlivet left in my hip-flask.  It’s a wonderful heady mix trying to take in what I have just achieved with the love and support of those with me.
photo from Jo Murphy

The best team ever
So proud of these two

We managed to shower and get back outside in time to see Ally finish.  
Before the prizegiving we headed to Nevisport for our traditional breakfast, my legs were fine on the stairs, others not so much!  The prizegiving is a special event, a slick process these days with a greater amount of finishers than the days of old but no less emotive, every finisher has their moment of glory and the family comes full circle with the first finisher presenting the final finisher with their well deserved and hard earned Goblet.

I felt the weather this year was the toughest I’ve run the race with, I have entered every year since 2003. I have had to DNS twice, a brain hemorrhage in the April of 2005 put paid to that year, and being diagnosed with mouth cancer at the beginning of 2013, the following surgery and six weeks of chemo and radiotherapy curtailed my running for that year too. With the positive upward spiral from the first time of running of this wonderful event, and with the support of my WHW family I have had the strength to face some very scary times, I can now take strength from coming through those and whatever the race and weather conditions throw at me I know I can face them smiling.  What doesn’t kill you definitely makes you stronger!  But none of this was ever possible without the support of everyone willing to give up their time year after year, I know I could not have done what I have without you all. There are no words that can convey my gratitude, I thank you with all my heart.

I’ve never really been one to dwell on times but adding all my races together I’ve covered 1235 miles with 182,000 feet climbed in 16 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 34 seconds and I’m really going to have to get a bigger cabinet.



Amanda said...

That is one awesome cabinet! Never fails to inspire me. X

Davie Searil said...

Finally got round to reading your blog Fiona and you've left me moist-eyed again. I'm going to save it cos there's a couple of ideas in there I might use next year...Gotta learn from the best!

John Cassidy said...

A great read Fiona, inspirational and heart warming. Lang may yer lum reek.