Monday, 1 July 2013

West Highland Way Race 2013

Are you sitting comfortably?, if not go make yourself a nice cup of tea, grab a biscuit, put on your comfy slippers and settle down, for any race that’s 95 miles long deserves a race report of equally epic proportions.
I forced myself into an early night on Thursday night, knowing that sleep was going to be at a premium on race weekend itself, despite waking at 5:45am I quickly fell asleep again not waking till just before 10am. For some-one who regularly endures a poor night’s sleep 12 uninterrupted hours the night before a 95 mile race is unexpected manna from heaven.
OCD Kit Packing

I only had 2 or 3 small things to sort out since my kit was already boxed, labelled and packed into the car on Wednesday evening. A leisurely shower, breakfast and an hour lying on the couch reading before I headed North at 12:30. I’d borrowed my neighbour’s roof box to ensure we had plenty of storage space and since it was about as aerodynamic as a garden shed, I pootled up to Glasgow at a very leisurely pace. I stopped at an outdoor shop to pick up a small kettle and some emergency ponchos for myself and my support, I felt that given some of the less optimistic forecasts the ponchos might prove providential.

I checked into the Premier Inn, Bearsden just after 3 and quickly settled into bed, curtains drawn and lights out, I may have dozed a little bit, probably not, but the main thing was I was relaxing and not on my feet. It felt a bit weird checking in and trying to sleep mid afternoon, but then not much about the next 48 hours would be normal anyway.
Calm before the storm
Eileen texted to say she’d found a direct train from Edinburgh to Milngavie and would arrive about 7:15, so I said I’d pick her up and get a couple of things from Tesco at the same time, it would also give her a chance to try out my car for the first time since she’d be doing most of the driving.  My car has electronic auto-hold rather than a handbrake so it can be a bit disconcerting at first. Having picked up some bread and extra nibbles for the support team we headed back to the Premier Inn, where Eileen managed to reverse park first time unlike the plonker in the Micra at the end of the row who reversed onto the grass verge hitting a lamppost into the bargain, promptly getting out locking the car and heading into the restaurant without a second glance, bizarre.

I briefed Eileen on my OCD packing (labelled boxes each containing laminated lists of contents) and we headed over to the Burnbrae to get some food, whilst the pub was busy we only waited 10 minutes for a table and the service was pretty quick and the food was decent. It was good to have company over the meal and time passed quickly. We headed over to register at 9:30 and were in and out in 10 minutes, there were already some runners and teams already hanging around in the car park. It seemed strange to me that given you know you’re going to be on your feet for a long time why would you turn up so early, you’re burning energy and not relaxing.
We headed back to the hotel and I had a shower and a shave and had just got changed into my race kit when Zoe texted to say she was in the car park. OK she was in the wrong car park, but she quickly found us. Time for briefing number two and a spot of kit transfer and it was immediately obvious that the roof box was a good call, lots of extra space without being muddled with my own race kit. Back up to the room for a large cup of coffee and pretty soon it was 12:15 and time to head down for Ian’s race briefing. I was feeling really pleased my plan for the day had worked out, I’d pretty much done nothing but relax all day, was well fed and watered and hadn’t expended much nervous energy at all, in fact I was so relaxed I almost forgot I needed a drop bag for Inversnaid. We parked in the Tesco car park and walked round just in time for Ian’s briefing, a quick hello to fellow Harrier Caroline and her support crew (Lesley, Steve and Choppy) and a few hello’s and good lucks to fellow runners.

I made a last minute decision to put my on Goretex waterproof over my long sleeve top as the long forecast rain looked almost inevitable and whilst it wasn’t cold I thought it would be easier than trying to put it on whilst running in the dark.
Like all of the preceding week, I didn’t feel nervous, anxious or excited I just wanted to get started and get it done.

1am the hooter goes off and we’re away, the adventure has started.
I deliberately positioned myself at the back of the pack to avoid going off too quickly and immediately lost sight of Caroline; in fact not seeing her again until just before the presentation on Sunday. My run through Mugdock was pretty uneventful, mostly focussing on gentle 10 – 11 minute miles; not falling over and chatting to a succession of runners. “Is this your first?”, “What did you do it in last time?”, “Are your crew meeting you at Drymen?” repeating the same conversation many times over with different runners. I chatted briefly with Ian Minty, who had a particularly eventful race and went on to a well deserved and gutsy finish.

I do remember thinking that some runners had pretty poor head torches. I know I’m particularly obsessive about torches and my LED Lenser 170 lumen job, does make me look like a Chilean miner on a dark night, but it seemed stupid to me to risk your race, for the sake of a decent head torch.
The rain came on quite heavily on the Stretch before the Beech Tree, but the improved path meant very few puddles and I hoped dry feet. I was hoping to reach Drymen in just over 2 hours, around the same as my Fling pace and I wasn’t disappointed. Across the road and Eileen was right in front of me, quick swap of the bottles, shovelled down a rice pudding grabbed a sandwich and it was straight off, my strategy being to minimise time at checkpoints and stay on my feet wherever possible to avoid cramping up. I ate my sandwich on the first walking stretch through the forest and maintained a steady run on the flats and down hills and walked every uphill. I only remember talking to one girl, who seemed pretty upset that her support had missed her at Drymen and she hadn’t re-stocked, I offered her my water bottle and some spare gels but she declined. She didn’t seem in a good place and I felt she was already looking for an excuse to bale, since I’ve forgotten her name I hope she eventually made it. Not for the first time that day I was thankful my support were all WHW veterans and knew and avoided all the possible pitfalls.

On the approach to Conic Hill I said hello to Colin Knox as the first grey fingers of dawn started forcing their way through the overcast, keeping up a good yomp up the hill, I was rewarded with a surprise view of the loch as I crested the top. I passed a group of Scouts close to the summit, as a long time Scout leader I suspect they we’re doing a “dawn patrol”, where you climb to the top of a hill on the longest day to see the sun rise, with your leader encouraging and cajoling and promising life enhancing views from the top. I did it for years and never once saw a decent sunrise.

Balmaha 3:40

I took it very easily on the descent into Balmaha and on the last stretch through the forest was surprised to be passed by guys positively sprinting into the car park. I swiped my timing chip and once again the girls we’re standing right there to guide me to the car, bottles changed again another rice pudding and it was straight through, I asked for a change of top to be waiting at Rowardennan as whilst my waterproof is bombproof, I do have a tendency to sweat like a racehorse. Having decided from the outset to be relentlessly cheerful at each stop even if I didn’t feel good, I didn’t need to put it on as I was genuinely enjoying my experience so far.

Quickly up over Craigie Fort and along the beach I was completely on my own and sticking rigidly to my walk the hills plan, the 7 miles to Rowardennan whizzed by, I had been worried that 5am to 6am might be my low point as not only have I never ran through  night, I've never even missed a full nights sleep,. I needn't have worried the excitement, adrenalin and the views were fully occupying my mind.
On a less positive note, the long promised midges made started to make an appearance, I am to midges what water is to a man in the desert, I knew I'd get bitten, but even for me the bites were extreme.

Rowardenan 5:17

The miles to Rowardenan flew past as did marathon distance, I was surprised how many cars and support crews there were but once a again the girls were right there for me, waiting by the toilet block, charming! Another rice pudding and a change of top gave me a boost and I bounced out singing along to my iPod, passing team Santa baby who were busy re-fuelling the lovely Sandra. I know some people find the loch side quite boring, but it's growing on me every time I run it albeit this time I can't remember much about it.


I was still feeling strong as I carefully trotted down the steps and grabbed my drop bag, the Trossasch's Rescue guys had put up a midge proof gazebo, or more accurately a collecting house for midges, still it was almost certainly better than standing outside, another refuel and it was quickly back en route partly for efficiency but mostly to get way from the winged devils. The technical section immediately after Inversnaid has lovers and haters in equal measure, I'm moving firmly into the lover category and I did most of the section to Beinglas in the company of Andy Cole, Andy is a WHW veteran and his measured conversation and advice was great company and made this section fly past.

Beinglas Farm 8:37

It's only on later reflection that the value of an efficient support crew really makes its mark, as once again the girls were waiting for me right at the checkpoint. The midges must have been awful as with hoods pulled up, midge nets on all I could think of was the Jawa's from Star Wars, made me smile anyway. I think I was getting the better deal as at least I could keep moving. Another rice pudding and I was quickly off again.
I'm pretty single minded about things, since I was lucky enough to get a race place, the thought that I might not complete it simply never entered my head. Arrogance or ignorance?, neither .I can be pretty single minded about things when I want to. So why is this relevant?, because the section from Beinglas to Auchtertyre is my least favourite, but happily Bogle Glen and cow poo alley passed without incident. I was lucky enough to bump into the irrepressible Helen Lees on this section. Helen has a uniquely Glasgow way of looking at our hobby, there is nothing fancy or precocious about her view and despite the roller coaster hills and occasional rain shower she had me smiling all the way into Auchtertyre.

Auchtertyre Farm 11:06

I'd phoned ahead, causing a momentary panic, I suspect, to ask for some hot soup and some attention to my feet as I could feel a couple of "hot spots" starting. Again I couldn't believe how busy the place was. A quick swipe of the timing card and onto the scales, where I think I was down about a kilo and I was jogging off to the car. It felt like a formula 1 pit stop as my team ministered to my needs. Shoes and socks off, feet dried, top changed, hot soup and zinc tape on the hot spots on the soles of my feet. Special mention must go to Zoe for the attention to my putrid; white and pongy feet, definitely above and beyond the call of duty.
I was still within 4 hours of the leader so I'd be doing the next section solo, but with the prospect of Andy joining me at Bridge of Orchy.
This was a pretty long stop for me, but worth it as I felt very refreshed for the next stage. It felt odd to be running past the By the Way and up past Brodies Store, but I stuck firmly to walking the hills to conserve energy. Although the zinc tape had helped, the soles of my feet still felt like I was running with gravel in my shoes. I stopped just before The Way goes under the railway line, sitting on a rock like a big Day-Glo garden gnome. I took off my shoes, shook them out...nothing, I took out the insole.............damn, the underside of the insoles were in bits, with debris, stones and crap in both shoes. I've probably done over 800 miles in these shoes and for the first and happily only time that day I was annoyed with myself, I knew the shoes were past their best, but I never thought to check beneath the insoles. Even after thoroughly clearing out the debris I could feel the lingering effect on the soles of my feet, I phoned ahead to say I'd need a shoe change at Bridge of Orchy. Despite or because of this I ran well on this section, almost certainly it was the prospect of company from Bridge of Orchy onwards and the knowledge that with 60 miles done I'd broken the back of the race.

Bridge of Orchy 13:16

Over the bridge and once again the A-team were there, Andy and Zoe all togged up to run. Shoe and sock and top change and we were off up Murdo's mount for our jelly baby. I struggled a bit on the descent to Inveroran Hotel as my feet were pretty sore but this was more than offset by having company.
At out team meeting a couple of weeks before I'd decided to ask Andy to join us around Tyndrum, driving up from Lockerbie on the Saturday morning and benefiting from a decent nights sleep on the Friday, so he could be fresh for the second half. Eileen was going to meet us after Inveroran Hotel and Andy was going to run with me over Rannoch Moor. The sun came out briefly here and the views were truly stunning, it really is a privilege to be able to run in this country.
My memory is starting to fail me here, but I remember running on this section with some-one who had three support runners. It made me smile at one point myself and the lady runner were happily chatting away whilst our respective supports shot off ahead. I ran the flats and kept walking the hills and was passed my a very chatty Donald Sandeman, on the last uphill before you turn down into Glencoe, Donald was running very strongly and went on to a well deserved 22:18 finish. I'd asked Andy to phone ahead for more soup, but lack of a phone signal meant it was all a bit last minute. I didn't enjoy the descent into Glencoe Ski Centre, I was just finding it very sore underfoot, but I knew I'd broken the back of the race and my sub 24 hour target was still very much on.

Glencoe 16:06

The girls had bought some really salty chips, and I alternated between chips and chicken soup even dunking the chips at one point, although I must admit I really didn't feel like eating anything at all by this point. The welcome news was that Peter Duggan was running out from Kinlochleven and was going to meet us at the foot of the Devil, in fact he met us just as we left the Ski Centre car park. Pete lives in KL and knows every inch of this section of the way, so his knowledge was going to be a big help.
We ran past Kingshouse Hotel and kept up a run till the way started to climb upwards, duly dropping back to a walk until the crest we then ran all the way into Altafeadh. Zoe was going to join us for the climb up the Devil and the section to KL. I think I coped OK with the climb up, albeit its much harder with 70  plus miles in your legs than when you are fresh. I didn't enjoy the descent into KL, or "The Devils Arse" as I christened it recently, but Peter diverted us all by pointing out every hill, peak, corrie and geographical feature around. At one stage it felt like a guided geography trip and it certainly helped speed the time along. I took it really easy on the steeper downhill's not wanting to risk an injury this late in the game.

Kinlochleven 19:02:10

Quick check in and weigh, change of bottles and I was just heading out the car park, when I felt really cold so an about face and I jogged back in to change into a long sleeve top again, plus hat. I didn't take on board any food, which I probably should have.
I found the climb out of KL endless and I kept having to pause for a breather, also my right foot was starting to hurt and I needed to stop and flex my ankle pretty regularly. I regretted only having run the Larig Mhor once as I knew in my heart that it dragged out and with my Garmin having given out on the climb out of KL. I had no idea how far it was to Lundavra but I do know I walked virtually all the way, I found the underfoot conditions awful, even on the flatter bits I couldn't muster a run and I was stopping every couple hundred metres to flex my ankle, which was not getting any better. I was passed by quite a few fellow runners on this section, my normal power yomp descending into more of a fatigued stroll.
The dark tentacles of night were starting to fringe the sky and it was feeling cold, I was very glad I'd switched to the long sleeve top. I wanted another layer for the last 6 miles and Andy ran ahead about 1/2 mile out from Lundavra, leaving me to cover the last bit on my own, which felt very weird being alone again and causing Eileen and Zoe a momentary panic as they thought I'd collapsed or something, no such thing. I remember the very welcome heat of the bonfire, and the music but couldn't tell you what they were playing. As soon as I stopped Zoe took charge, her Mountain Rescue experience really kicking in.
I was told in no uncertain terms to take off my waterproof and this was dried in front of the fire, whilst another thick layer was fetched from the car. I felt fine, but Zoe was insistent I was going nowhere until I was "sorted". An uncomplaining Andy had managed a complete kit change before we headed off on the final 6 miles to Fort William. Whilst standing at the fire I could hear wild shrieks and singing which turned out to be Sandra and her support runner, evidently enjoying every minute of it and powering onto the finish.
By now it was full on dark and lack of knowledge of the route, the underfoot terrain, darkness and tiredness all dictated a cautious approach, I felt sub 24 hour was still in sight, so lets not do anything stupid now.
Conversation dwindled to all but the essentials and I was very glad to sense rather than see the final hill up to the fire road.
"Am I still on for sub 24?" I asked Andy, the response was "Your last two miles were 20 minutes each and you've got 4 miles to go and 1 hour 15!" even in my bedraggled and tired state I could work out what was needed.
Zip up the man suit, pull on the Mojo socks and remember Fiona Rennie's words, "you're doing this of your choosing", no-one is making you do it!
time to run
I started to run, Andy matching me stride for stride, on the whole 4 miles to the leisure centre I spoke once "Is it in the bag?", wisely either Andy ignored me or decided silence was the best way to keep me moving. I kept the run up all the way, I could feel my foot hurting with every pace, but decided that if I kept running the pain would last less than if I dropped back to a walk.
Other more competent writers have described this section to the road as never ending, I agree it did drag on but at least it was down hill and I passed 4 or 5 runners on the down hill. I think we surprised the girls who'd parked at Braveheart Car Park and were expecting a broken man to hobble down the hill, I don't remember exchanging words, just thinking, I know this stretch its only a mile, its nearly over.
I kept up a run all the way in, in fact the last mile was probably my fastest mile of the day, around 9:40, not sprinting, but not too shabby after 95 miles and again passing 3 runners walking on this section.

Fort William 23:30:25

Into the car park, dodge round the rescue vehicle, head for the finish arch, swipe the card, shake Ian Beattie's hand, onto the scales, but most importantly slap the leisure centre doors, job done.
I can't honestly say I felt the surge of emotion other runners have described, just an overwhelming feeling of JOB DONE, thank god, now I can shower and sleep.
I went inside, sat down and rather unreasonably demanded a pint of chilled milk from my support team, I hope my only prima donna moment of the day. We didn't hang around but headed straight back to the Travelodge and I got an uncontrollable fit of the shakes en route, by 1am I was trying to negotiate my battered limbs into the shower and hobble under the duvet.
A thoroughly disturbed nights sleep followed, I was exhausted but incapable of finding a position that wasn't painful for my feet and my body decided to give up entirely on regulating its temperature alternating between violent shivering and sweating so much that I had to get up and change sheet, pillow and flip the duvet over, nasty!
I managed to eat two complete breakfasts before limping along to the presentation, WOW it was an incredible feeling to be part of this event, and I've now got my own goblet.
I owe a huge thanks to my support team Andy, Eileen and Zoe, to my family for putting up with an absent father for the last 6 months and to all the marshals and organisers who made such a special event possible.



  1. Great report - amazing achievement to complete and get under 24 hours. Raymond

  2. So, Keith... which comes first, Allt a' Choire Odhair-bhig or Allt a' Choire Odhair-mhoir? ;-)

    Great run!


  3. Brilliant running and a great blog.
    Fiona x

  4. Great finish and a great run Keith. Well done!

  5. Great read Keith. Congratulations. Davie Mooney

  6. well done buddfy..i finished in 23..24 so was probably the next one in front of you..will tell my story shortly...brendan o'hagan