Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Lick the salt off my nuts - The human body is capable of impossible things and other tales of supporting at the West Highland Way Race 2014

I usually like to take time and reflect before posting, but I've had a distinct lack of blogging mojo this year, so I’m going to hit the keyboard whilst memories, emotions and motivation are still fresh and raw.
I've trained with Andy Beattie & Caroline Moles round the forest trails for over two years, with Caroline and me running the WHW race for the first time last year with Andy in support. This year Andy was going for his 1st goblet and Caroline her 2nd, with yours truly as part of the support effort.
Andy’s team was going to be Zoe and Ian Grey driving with me and Helen running support, unfortunately a family medical emergency meant Helen had to understandably call off on Friday evening. Caroline had a well-practiced support crew of 2 times WHW finisher Ian Anderson (2011 & “the wet year”); Steve Head; Lesley Jeffrey and WHW newbie Steve Carroll.
Ian, Zoe, Andy, me
I have to confess it all felt a bit unreal in the final build up to the race this year. Last year I was completely emotionally, mentally and physically absorbed with the WHW race for 6 months. Whilst much of this year’s training and racing chat was WHW oriented and I knew I’d be supporting Andy as soon as he put in his entry in, it just felt different this year! I had a huge dose of pre-race nerves throughout last week; I don’t think I’d quite appreciated the responsibility of being part of a support crew up till that point. In fact I was definitely nervier as support than I was as a runner, strange but true.
With everyone but Andy working on Friday, our plan was to leave Dumfries around 8pm, collecting Andy in Lockerbie en route and arrive in Milngavie with ample time to register and get set up, but without too much time hanging around. Thanks to the generosity of Amanda Hamilton I’d managed to cadge a free hotel room overnight on the Friday, to allow Ian and I to get some kip before joining Zoe somewhere around Tyndrum the following afternoon, leaving Zoe to handle Balmaha, Beinglas and Auchtertyre solo.
The drive up was unremarkable, chatting through Andy’s support plan, ensuring we we’re au fait with exactly what he wanted. Andy is superbly fit and motivated; he’d banked a cracking Fling time and the only potential dark cloud was a recurrence of shin splints about a month ago. As a support crew we’d talked through options ranging from him smashing out a 21/22 hour finish through to a painful injury (shin split) induced 28/30 hour effort, and we thought we had covered all the bases and possible permutations.
Registration was smooth and efficient and once we’d transferred all Andy’s kit into Zoe’s van we encouraged him to sit down and spend as little time as possible on his feet. We were too far back to hear much of Ian Beattie’s race brief, but I think we pretty much knew it off by heart anyway. Time for photos, lots of wishing friends good luck and at 1am the hooter sounds and 193 intrepid souls set of on their WHW race journey.
Still smiling in Tyndrum
Once we’d clapped them all down the high street, Zoe headed off to get some kip before her first meet with Andy at Balmaha and Ian and I headed for the Premier Inn for a decent night’s rest. Contrasting fortunes for the two halves of the team - Zoe got no sleep, Andy had a tough time before Balmaha, the midges were appalling, and Ian and I had a good sleep a long lie and a decent breakfast before a leisurely drive to Tyndrum. Text updates from Zoe, suggested that Andy had a low point just before Balmaha, but had picked up and that with Paul Giblin and Robbie Britton heading for a course record time, I’d be running with Andy from Bridge of Orchy.
We met Zoe in the tourist information car park at Tyndrum and switched all the kit back into my car, or not quite all the kit as it transpired, more of that later. We walked over to Brodie’s store to cheer Andy up the hill, also catching Gayle Tait, who was looking strong and Jo Rae who was having a nightmare race with tummy trouble. Zoe than headed off to try to get some sleep and Ian and I set of for Bridge of Orchy. We parked in the top car park and walked down to the check point at the bridge, ably manned by Norma Bone and Sean Stone, double checking that Andy was eligible for support (you cannot have a support runner, if you are within 4 hours of the race leader), we settled down to wait. Andy and Caroline arrived in 13:32 and 13:31 respectively and both still smiling. We sat Andy down, replaced water bottles and snack bag, changed his buff, tried to scrape the dead midges off his face and neck, let him shovel in a rice pudding and steeled him for the climb up Murdo’s Mount.

Rannoch Moor
Caroline and her support (Steve & Lesley) passed us on the climb up, and we didn’t see then again until Glencoe. Andy’s shins were holding out but his heels were giving him a lot of pain, so having held a steady yomp up the hill, the downhill was quite painful. We ran most of the way to Forest Lodge and the first slope up onto Rannoch Moor, changing to a run 50 walk 50 on the slopes and walking the steeper sections, but with increasing pain from his heels the walks were becoming longer and the runs correspondingly slower. Around 4 miles from Glencoe we were mostly walking and the phrase I’m bollocksed was uttered for the first time. We know each other well and generally know how to push each other along when one of us is lacking in oomph or motivation, but it was clear that this was more than lack of mojo and that overwhelming tiredness was playing a major part.
Some rapid text messages and Zoe opted to run out and meet us with a change of top (and change of chat for Andy), whilst I ran ahead to Glencoe to get some chips and a chair sorted. The shape of the plan was already sliding towards the longer end of our estimates, but we decided not to say anything to Andy, maintaining an aura of uninterrupted optimism.
Andy had been running in road shoes up to this point and asked for his trail shoes, this was the point we discovered we hadn’t quite transferred ALL the kit from Zoe’s van, whilst we didn’t have his preferred Speedcross 3s, we did have his Speedcross Fell raisers. As we were ministering to our runner with Grand Prix pit lane efficiency Caroline headed down the road to Kingshouse, I shouted out that she was on target for a sub 24 hour finish, but not being in a happy place right then, I didn’t catch her reply in full, but it did include the word “off”. Her crew had not allowed her to sit down at any checkpoint to avoid too much time fannying around and she spent a total of only 36 minutes stationary through the entire race, eventually finishing in a fantastic 23:39:54, around 3 hours faster than last year a brilliant and well deserved result.
The section between Glencoe and Altnafeadh is my least favourite section of the route; it’s only 4 miles but seems to go on forever (and includes what I’ve labelled The Pointless Hill) or possibly because it looks so close from Glencoe? Andy was increasingly struggling to maintain a run and when we got close to the Altnafeach I ran ahead to brief the team. With things increasingly looking like a walk to the finish we needed to plan and clothe accordingly. Zoe said she would join us for the final stretch from Kinlochleven, with Ian heading to FW to check into our hotel before meeting us at Lundavra.
The climb up The Devil was a struggle, with the pace dropping and a couple of sit down’s to take the pressure off Andy’s increasingly painful  feet, the conversation was becoming increasingly one way and Andy looked downright shattered. Throughout he’s been eating and hydrating fantastically well, with a good mix of foods, although I suspect Andy felt he’d been force fed a diet of non-stop Shot Bloks for 24 hours, overwhelming tiredness seemed to be the key factor though.
Recovery Snooze
The steep and never ending descent into Kinlochleven was just as steep and never ending as ever, with the evil carnivorous midges putting in an appearance as we hit the tree line just to add to the fun. I suppose I must have been focussed on Andy as I have no recollection of seeing anyone else from the race on this stage.
It’s strange how you lose chunks of recollection, all I can remember of the KL leisure centre is me shovelling in chips and a coffee and Zoe announcing Andy was going for a short sleep. Andy is the Usain Bolt of speed sleeping, no sooner had he lain down than he was out, and 20 minutes later he was up like a shot, which wasn’t helpful as he promptly went down again like the proverbial sack of spuds and spent 10 minutes flat on the floor with legs elevated under the watchful eye of Dr Chris. Whilst we’d been slogging over the Devil, Ian and Zoe had charged back to Tyndrum to retrieve the missing Speedcross shoes, but these went unused.
The brief sleep seemed to have re-invigorated Andy and we tackled the climb up to the Lairig Moor with a fresh(ish) step and hardly any pauses, also being fortunate enough to achieve this in daylight. But it was time for head torches before we hit the first ruin. Maintaining a decent yomping pace we eventually saw the welcome flickering lights of Jeff Smith of the Wilderness Response Team and an equally welcome cup of Irn-Bru. Leaving Jeff we could see the head torches of two runners catching us up, and just before the bridge over the stream, the familiar voice of John Munro could be heard “you can lick the salt of my nuts”. John having spent the early part of the race manning the checkpoint at Beinglas Farm was now putting in a stint supporting Amanda Hamilton. Amanda apparently struggling to digest food was
Kinlochleven - welcome to the midge-fest
licking the salt off individual peanuts and spitting them out. Having had to resort to the self-same tactic during the Fling albeit with a bag of salted almonds I had great sympathy for her. I’ve been following Amanda’s blog and it was a pleasure to see her collect her goblet.
With about 2 miles to Lundavra, Andy exploded into life and started running. Not your typical “I’ve just run 80 miles” ultra-shuffle, not a mediocre fat-boy marathon pace, but a full on blast from no-where. Honestly it was one of the scariest experiences of my running life. To morph from walking zombie into Mo Farah without warning - in the pitch dark - on THAT track was terrifying, do I run behind and try to grab him if he stumbles? Do I run alongside and fling out an arm sideways if he goes? I think I eventually plumped for run in front and act like a crash mat for him. Thankfully my sacrificial zeal remained untested.
After this Olympian burst from AB, Zoe and I quietly chatted and our tentative plan to let Andy have another nap in the car at Lundavra was shelved in favour of Zoe heading back to FW with Ian in the car and the gruesome twosome covering the 6.95 miles from Lundavra to the finish line.
With the bonfire blazing brightly and “we are the Champions” blaring out we didn’t pause long at Lundavra, a quick bottle refill and we were through, exchanging some banter with Ian and Zoe as we disappeared out of sight, unfortunately almost as soon as we were out of sight of the checkpoint Andy’s Duracell bunny batteries died and he was having to take regular sit down’s to relieve the pain on his feet. I must admit I was cursing inwardly, “what if we’d let him have a sleep at Lundavra” would that have been enough to keep him running, but we have to play with the hand we’re dealt and so it was back to cajoling and encouraging. With some of these sections to the fire road being technical and gnarly I confess I actively discouraged Andy from running, his pace when running was not much above his walk and when you added in a sit down stop and the reduction in walking pace thereafter I reckoned he’d be faster overall (and safer) just maintaining a walking pace, I think we were passed by a couple of other teams, with me chirping out “I can’t think of any place I’d rather be at 2am on a t Saturday morning, than here” to try to lighten the mood.

This is what 95 miles looks like
The steps down through the trees were particularly tough going and the final short climb up to the fire road equally so. With the first tendrils of dawn creeping over the horizon and twinkling head torches dotting the massive bulk of Ben Nevis across the glen, the more runnable terrain of the fire road was a welcome sight. To Andy’s eternal credit he managed a healthy run pretty much all the way down to Braveheart Car Park, and we were not passed by anyone. I’m sure by this stage my chat had become repetitive and dull, or even more repetitive and dull than usual. 
“Not far to the street lights”, “not far to the 30mph signs”, “not far to the roundabout now”, “only 300 yards after the roundabout”. I was aware of another runner not far behind, but Andy managed to hold him off, coming in in 26:57:16, with the other runner 10 seconds behind, job done 104th place.
At no stage in our 13 hours together did Andy even once mention pulling out or stopping, and  it was a genuine pleasure to see him collect his goblet on Sunday.
I’ve not spoken to Andy since the event, so I’m not sure how he feels about his time? However just completing this event is a major achievement by any standard and he should be justifiably proud.
Team Beattie
I wouldn’t recommend having only one support runner for most of the second half, while the running and the distance were no problem, keeping up the chat solo for that length of time is challenging. Having your runner(s) join you on the Saturday does, however seem eminently sensible as they are fresh rather than having endured a night without sleep.

Zoe and Ian are stars on support duties, enthusiastic, capable and knowledgeable and seeming to know just when to be cruel and when to be kind, it’s a pleasure to crew and run with them.
All credit must go to Race Director Ian Beattie and his team of enthusiastic marshals’ and helpers, who put on another splendid event, thanks and well done.

What about the future? Well I never said I wouldn’t run the WHW race again!

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