For just one midnight of each year, there's no doubting that Milngavie station yard is a galvanising place. Meet lots of people who you know and many more that you've not met before, then go off and run the best part of 100 miles together. The mixture of nervousness and excited anticipation is heady stuff. So I've picked up my bracelet with the fateful instruction "Now that stays on until Fort William - unless you drop out", been weighed (never knew I was that much, the scales must be wrong), and dropped the drop bags. Son John accompanies me to the start, wishes me luck, then leaves me to say hello to a few folk and get my head around what's going to happen in the next day or so. I spend my time meeting up with fit looking people in the dark and trying to forget the twinges from my right knee which hasn't been great for a week or two - it's an old injury which still complains from time to time, however this time I've strapped it up with a mixture of white and pink tape, which gets me a lot of comments over the coming hours!
Then the briefing, the shuffle up to the underpass, the countdown to 1am, the hooter, and we're away, a hundred and fifty hopeful adventurers off into the night. Quickly through the town and into the park, find an easy pace, find myself with Fiona Rennie who I last saw at the Heart of Scotland three weeks ago, chat a bit, then I see a man with a dog.
I've run a good few miles with Graeme Morrison and his dog Penny in the last two Highland Fling races. I didn't think he had contemplated the West Highland Way until I got a message a few days ago "...got a late entry into the race on Saturday, see you there". But I hadn't seen him at the start, now here he was kneeling on the ground trying to put a broken head torch back together. He's had an interesting few minutes; the hooter at the start startled Penny who took off like a rocket, her lead dragging Graham's torch with it. He's managed to borrow a spare torch, catch up with dog, and is now trying to get things back in order. I hang onto Penny, he sorts out the illumination and we get on our way now firmly at the back of the field. This doesn't bother me at all, I have a plan which involves going very slowly indeed for the first 50 miles, probably slowing down a bit after that, walking all the uphills from the start, but only stopping for the bare minimum anywhere. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other in the direction of Fort William and you'll get there, I think it was Fiona who said that.
Rowardennan - plan 5:30 actual 5:29
It's a lovely night, clear, perfect temperature, and NO midgies. Graeme, Penny and I make our way steadily past the landmarks we know. Drymen comes up in 2:20, it gets light enough for torches off by the end of the forest, the wind gets cooler on the open stretch before Conic Hill. Graeme's a keen hillwalker and I'm not going to follow up at his likely pace, but in the end he stays down to mine. We jog down the other side though, and into Balmaha at 3:50. Graeme's support team are here so he's stopping for a bite to eat. I carry on, he'll catch me later. I've found over the years that meeting my team just at the official checkpoints suits us all fine - I'm less tempted to hang around and they get more time for sleeping and generally organising things.This year with the extra drop at Beinn Glas it's even easier to do this, I only carry a rucksack as far as Rowardennan then it's a lightweight bumbag for the rest of the way.
Just after Balmaha I'm walking to get a drink and a Mars bar and Ian Beattie comes past at a good pace, he must have stopped for some food and just got going again. It was through Ian's blog that I first found out about the WHW race (and I don't think I'm the only one so he's got a lot to answer for), it's good to see him going well. Then I'm on my own for quite a while but it doesn't matter because the loch is more beautiful than ever on this day. A figure in a pink fleece by the loch side taking photographs turns out to be Mrs Mac, I stop for long enough for us to agree that it's a fabulous day, she sends me on my way with a hug and good wishes. I'm enjoying this section, in the Fling you start to feel that you've nearly run a marathon because you feel you should be running at least the gentle uphills, but today I'm looking forward to them because I know I'm going to walk them all. A couple of miles before Rowardennan I catch Ian again, and Bob Allison catches us too, so we carry on to the checkpoint more or less together. I'm really looking forward to that first cup of tea, and I find John and Julia in the trees behind the checkpoint, a few midgies here but still nothing like normal so they seem happy enough.
Auchtertyre - plan 11:30 actual 11:12
John walks out of Rowardennan with me to take back my mug, I've only stopped for about three minutes but I've drunk too much - must remember that for Auchtertyre, it takes me three or four miles for me to get properly back into stride again, but I get to Inversnaid bang on schedule (7:15), pick up milkshake and ginger beer and off into the tortuous bit. Graeme and Penny and another couple of runners including Tony Thistlethwaite catch me here. I ask if they want to get past but they're happy to go at my pace for this section. We catch up Ian Rae, another runner who I have spent quite a few miles in company with in past races, and today will be no exception. Beinn Glas is reached in 8:55, just 5 minutes ahead of my plan. From here to the main road crossing before Auchtertyre is usually my least favourite part of both the WHW and the Fling - grinding uphills for the first part then the never-ending switchbacks in the forest, so I've allowed myself a fairly generous two and a half hours. But today there are a lot of people I know going at about the same speed, Graeme, Ian, then we catch Tim Downie, so it seems to fly past with very little effort. One concern is that I've told my team I won't be early, and now it looks like I will. I have no phone coverage at all on this section (good old 02 - I wonder if anyone else gets any reception?), so for the last couple of miles I slow right down, but still come in early. I check in and get weighed - still the same as at the start - get ticked off for not having a weight card with me - and thankfully find the family just getting parked up about two hundred yards beyond the checkpoint. The stove is out fast for tea, while I have a sausage roll and bananas and custard, another stop of barely five minutes. The day's really warming up now so Jan sprays me with sunscreen, I change into a short-sleeved top and put on my Foreign Legion hat.
Bridge of Orchy - plan 13:30 actual 13:23
A pretty uneventful section, the long climb up to the highpoint before the tunnel under the railway, then almost continuous running all the way to the station. The only slight negative is that the headwind seems to be getting stronger - we will have this directly in our faces for most of the way now, and there is little shelter from it. Again I spend time with Graeme and Penny, Ian Rae, and we catch up with Graeme Reid. Last year Graeme passed me going up the Devil's Staircase, he went on to a comfortable sub-24 and I missed by nearly 45 minutes - I'm hoping the same doesn't happen again today. Anyway, meet the team by the station for a bit more food and drink, and off again with the moor coming up. I learn at the checkpoint that Richie Cunningham was in the lead through here, hope he keeps it up (he does, to become the most popular winner in recent years, we all knew he would do it one day!)
Glencoe - plan 16:00 actual 16:00
Up the first hill with Ian, and we see a Saltire on top. It has to be Murdo, and of course it is, with a greeting and a jelly baby for all. Over the top I pull away from Ian as I like downhills, then a steady run along the bit of road to the gate onto the moor. I've always had company across Rannoch Moor, but not today. Apart from passing one runner and being passed by another I see no-one for the whole crossing. But now the sun and the wind are starting to tell, for the first time I'm conscious of having come a long way. The little diversion off the track to the ski centre car park is only a couple of hundred yards, but its roughness and undulations seem unreasonable at the end of a long section and I'm not too pleased with it. Meeting the family at the checkpoint, I have my first sit-down rest of the day, about seven or eight minutes, in time for tea and soup, and back to my long-sleeved top and flat cap, the sun isn't going to be any problem from now as it's 5pm, but it's going to be a beautiful evening. I'm tired but feeling OK, and I know from here if I don't do anything daft I'll get my 24 hour finish at last.
Kinlochleven - plan 19:00 actual 19:00
I'm usually glad to have some company from my support runners from here to the finish. My daughter Julia usually does the stretch to Kinlochleven then my son John does the last section to Fort William. Julia is geared up and ready to go, but just before leaving Glencoe I'm surprised to see John Kynaston at the checkpoint. I expected him to be the other side of Kinlochleven by now, but he's had a tough few hours. I call to him it's time to go, and he joins us, off down the road at a steady jog. We stay together up the frustrating little hill that you then have to come straight down from again, and along to the foot of the Devil's Staircase. I think this is actually 3 or 4 miles, and it seems to go quite quickly. When we regain the road John stops for a few minutes to pick up his own support runner David, and little way up the staircase they pass Julia and me. John really seems to have a second wind now because they move ahead quite quickly - in fact John covers the ground from here to the finish an hour and twenty minutes quicker than me. We plod steadily to the top then jog gently down the other side. A mile or so before Kinlochleven I stop for a pee then feel nauseous for a few minutes; disappointing because I've been fine up to here, but it destroys my appetite from now on. Nevertheless we keep moving down to the town and arrive on schedule, check in and I get weighed again - this time I'm down a couple of kilos from the start but that doesn't worry me or anyone else at this stage.
Lundavra - plan 21:30 actual 21:25
I decide I'm not going to stop so I just down a mug of coke and carry on, this time with John, as Julia's stint is now over, job done!
Poor John, he always gets me at this stage when I'm pretty tired and not too talkative, but he always sees me through to Fort William. At least today we've got beautiful weather for it. I'm very slow up the first hill up to the jeep track but then we stride out along the Lairig Mor, remembering the times we've come this way in previous years, in the wind, rain and darkness with the path so running with water that keeping dry feet was an impossibility. Today we don't even have to use the bridges across the bigger streams, there's not enough water left to worry about. The false summits come and go. Somewhere along here Graeme and Penny catch us again and then go past. "How did you get to here?" he asks. For the first time in 2 Highland Flings and most of the West Highland Way, I see Penny looking tired - though she's still trotting along gamely without complaint - I guess at 2 years old she has still plenty of miles more to do. I don't see Graeme again but he gets home just 8 or 9 minutes ahead of me. Then at last we can see the trees and I know it's just a mile to the checkpoint.
Fort William - plan 23:30 actual 23:34:37
We don't stop at Lundavra, just call out my number and carry on through. Now I've never left here in daylight before so it's quite daunting to see the series of steep little hills leading away to the final bit of forest. I'm getting really tired now and each one seems harder than the last, but we don't stop, and are rewarded by the views across to Ben Nevis, still set against a clear blue sky. Then into the forest and after about a quarter of a mile we finally have to put the torches on. But I know it's going to be OK now, plenty of time, no need to rush. A runner comes storming past in the darkness, it's Tim Downie, we encourage him on his way. Then at last, the hill with the zig-zags, the final up, and out onto the final broad track to the finish. Could I run now, maybe, but I settle for a steady four miles an hour walk, taking about three paces to John's two. We debate the road at the end, it's nearly two miles he says, no it's barely one say I. Another team come past "Run Andy, it's downhill now" - it's Graeme Reid, he's recognised my pink strapping even in the dark. No, I'll get there, I tell him. And we do. As we hit the road John calls the ladies but they're already there at the finish, expecting us. Savour the road, it's over now, reach the carpark, through the door, check in, whisky, hugs all round. 23hrs 34mins 37 secs. An hour and ten minutes better than I've done before.
It was a great day, the new organisers did a superb job, and my family support team knew what I wanted every step of the way, even though I sometimes didn't. Thanks guys, couldn't do it without you.
When I first got involved with the West Highland Way race, I read that "An average runner can expect to finish in 24 hours". Well, it's taken this average runner four finishes to get there, but it was worth waiting for. And naturally I'm already thinking how that 26 minutes can't be too difficult to work at (who am I kidding, of course it will be difficult, but I'll still have a try....)
But the numbers are really just there because they have to be, to get us out of bed in February and drive us into the summer; in the grand scheme of things in themselves they're not so important. Those of us who ran the 2010 West Highland Way will remember it for the clear midgeless night, the perfect glassy calm of the loch in the early morning, the sunny skies and the green hills, the startling blue of the lochans across the moor, and the views along the way that if we run it another ten times we may never see again. Someone must have put in a good word for us up there. Thanks, Dario.