Well not strictly true, I had never run the "Devil o'the Highlands 43 mile Footrace" from Tyndrum to Fort William before, but I had covered the ground a few times as the second half of the West Highland Way race. Early August for the past few years has seen me playing other games in the hills but not this year so time to give it a go. I was looking forward to the race for a number of reasons, not the least one being able to start over this wonderful stretch of countryside without 50-odd miles already on the clock. I was also determined not to damage my chances in the UTMB in three weeks time, so I planned to take it easy and enjoy the ride.
So the support crew is collected from Glasgow airport on Friday night (daughter Julia of course - the deal is she'll drive the car and top up the Camelbak in return for a couple of days rockclimbing on Sunday and Monday) and we arrive at the Tyndrum Lodge just in time for the bar to close. Never mind says George R ensconced in a corner, they're open next door and we're just going round, so the pre-race Guinness is saved. Saturday morning is luxury, fall out of bed then straight round to the Green Welly, literally next door, for the check-in and pre-race briefing. Lots of the usual suspects to say hello to then we can stay in the warm until it's time to go, although the weather looks pretty good already. "Two minutes" shouts Race Director Garry, and still chatting we wander up to the start. I love these low key takeoffs, in a strange way they emphasise rather than detract from the enormity of what is about to happen, then we're off. I start walking (it's a steepish hill after all!) but all around are running, the whole field is streaming past, so I reluctantly break into a very gentle jog.
I have sketched out a schedule so that Julia has some checkpoint times to plan around; it's based on 12 minute miles for 42 miles (I know it's not 43, the arithmetic doesn't work) which should get me home in just under eight and a half hours. I'll take the first half really easily but it will still go quicker because of the territory; I don't need to see her at the Bridge of Orchy so we target the Glencoe checkpoint in 3 hours 15.
At the top of the hill out of Tyndrum, down the slope and under the railway and I'm happy to run now. It's brilliant, striding out down the perfect slightly downhill track, feeling great. I can see runners in the distance but even at this early stage the field is starting to thin out. I eventually catch a couple of runners a mile or two before the station and we carry on together. One's a guy of my generation, and we chat happily about our injuries for a while like old men do, then down across the main road and a steady walk up the hill. One or two people overtake us but I don't want heavy breathing this early on so we let them go. At the top it's different, this is what I came for and I'm away down at speed and soon on my own again. The midgies are getting uppity around the Victoria Bridge, though walkers that I pass say it was worse earlier this morning. Across Rannoch Moor the sun comes out, the uphills are gentle, and I'm starting to run most of them now. I pass and chat to a number of runners, eventually coming level with a guy who I first noticed before the Bridge of Orchy. It turns out to be Flip, who I know from the WHW forum but have never met before, and we run the second half of the Moor together. On the last uphill we see Murdo, cheering everyone on; running or not, he never seems to miss an event on the WHW, it's people like this who keep you coming back for more. At the crest of the last hill I call Julia to say I'm nearly at the checkpoint, should be there in 15 minutes but I make it in under 10. I'm 17 minutes up on my schedule but as I find out later from John K's usual thorough analysis I'm halfway down the field in 45th place - it seems everyone's going well. But I can't see Julia after checking in; I do a quick trot around the assembled support teams, still no sign, so I call her again. "You're too fast, I'm still running down the road from the Ski carpark!" so I jog up to meet her and we do a quick restock of fuel by the roadside. I've changed to Nuun rather than Succeed Caps for electrolytes in the last few weeks, they seem to work better for me (you don't have to remember to take them!), and I'm doing the whole race on gels, one every half hour.
On past the Kingshouse, up the hill, and I need a comfort stop but can't find any big enough rocks to hide behind so I wander off the track up the hillside for a hundred yards or so to get out of sight. I get a good view of several runners going past below me, so some targets to follow and I'm soon back down again to join them. The Devil's Staircase goes to brisk walking in spite of having to pass a caravan of thirty or so Spanish walkers near the start, I'm feeling a different person from how I was here in June, and then comes the downhill. I've looked forward to being here in good shape for a couple of years at least, and it's great to let go. I'm not really bothered about a time and I don't want to tire myself out but the joy of running down this perfect slope just takes over and I bounce from rock to track and back again loving it. I do look at my watch though and I'm puzzled. I was way early at Glencoe in spite of seeming to go slowly, but I'm only just going to beat my schedule on this section in spite of getting a good lick on. The slight detours to meet Julia and off the track before the Altnafeadh cost me a bit of time, but then I twig the main reason; I've based my schedule on times to the Kingshouse, but the checkpoint is at Blackrock Cottage and they're a mile or so apart - my world makes sense again.
George said last night that when you reach the sharp right-hander over the stone bridge you've just covered a marathon distance from the start; this is my conversation-opener as I catch the runner ahead who I've been tracking for a while. It's WHW Runner Ian and although we've said hello a few times we've never really talked, even though it was his blog that first made me aware of the UK ultra scene (so I guess if it were not for him I wouldn't be writing this...). The track from here to Kinlochleven is easy downhill and mindless so we carry on together. We chat a bit about times for the day, I say I'm looking at eight and a half hours but I think I'll be 15 minutes up at KLL so eight and a quarter looks right. He says get your act together (or words to that effect), you must be able to do the last stretch in under three hours so you should be under eight. Well you don't ignore advice from someone with eight WHW finishes, so eight hours becomes the target, and we look for our respective supporters after checking in.
I think Julia and I are efficient in KLL, a minute or two at most for a new litre of drink in the Camelbak and a handful of gels, but by the time I'm jogging out down the road there's Ian ahead of me again - I suppose that's what years of practice does for you. I walk steadily up the first long hill passing three or four runners, then walk with Tony for a while as we reach the jeep track for the last bit before it levels out. I have a great run from here and am really pleased with my time from Kinlochleven to the end (John K covers the same ground a couple of minutes faster and feels he is going slowly - just depends on where you set your sights I suppose!). The Lairig Mor track stretches away miles to the first crest, I can see many walkers with their waterproofs and huge shrouded rucsacs - by now it's started to drizzle gently, perfect for running - but no runners except one in the far distance, and it takes nearly 30 minutes to catch him. Now there are no runners as far as the eye can see so Angus and I travel on together. I find if you can meet someone going at near the pace you want to do, the time and distance seem to fly by, and in no time we can see the trees at the start of the forest. Angus walks a bit to regroup, and I accelerate into the downhill knowing it's only seven miles or so to the end. I walk a short sharp rise just before Lundavra, and just as I start to run again a voice says "You don't have to run just because I can see you." I look up and it's George, who supports Ian on the WHW, coming in the opposite direction!
On through Lundavra and I walk all the little uphills before and through the forest; after having such a great morning I don't want to spoil it by getting trashed just for the sake of a few extra minutes. The forest is great in daylight, the track wiggling its way through the trees past a hundred sights that you miss in the dark, but I do recognise the uphill zig-zag that marks the start of the last real uphill. The path has been re-routed yet again near the top, and I am aware of another runner ahead for the first time since I left Angus a mile before Lundavra. We burst out into the clearing and the big track to the end, should I take the shortcut to the right, yes, no, oh well past it now anyway, past the other runner who's going OK but a bit slower, now just stretch out, let the speed of the hill take you down. After the big bends I find a runner walking, downhill all the way now I shout so he joins me - I later find out this is Lawrie - and in what seems like no time we are at Braveheart car park. A quick call to Julia and just the road to do.
The finish of this race is great; not stumbling across the car park in the dark to crash through the door, not splashing across the stream to be faced with a final uphill to the line, no this is a true finishing straight, level and fast with the crowd (and there still is one) cheering you to the end. 7 hours 39 and a bit minutes, 23rd place.
Two well-known climbers were a few years ago engaged in a cutting-edge first ascent in the Himalayas. On a particularly trying section, the second man called up to the leader "How's it going, Michael?" to which he received the reply "It will be retrospectively enjoyable, Patrick". I have spent a good few miles in races over the past three or four years experiencing retrospectively enjoyable situations. When you get a run that is just pleasure from start to finish I think you have to treasure it. On Saturday evening back in Tyndrum, Julia felt in need of a bit of exercise before our fish supper at the Real Food Cafe; in the warm gentle rain we jogged down to Auchtertyre and back, just another few miles on this WHW trail which I am learning to know.
Thanks to Garry and his organising team, and to all the people I met along the way, for a great day out.