French alpinists have an expression "retour au pays des vaches". After the adventure, when you step off the last bit of glacier or dangerous ground onto the easy hillside below, you've returned to the land of the cows - you're safe, you've survived the trip. And as you wander down for maybe an hour or two through the high meadows and pinewoods, no more stress involved, no more decisions to make, tired but somehow no longer tired, it's a short but precious time to contemplate and savour what you've just achieved, before you have to face the music and return to the real world outside the game you've been playing.
There is a mile of tarmac at the end of the West Highland Way; you come out of the Glen Nevis forest at the Braveheart carpark then follow the road along to the finish. I know it's despised or hated by some, I've heard it often complained about and sometimes roundly abused, but for me this bit of the journey is the "pays des vaches". Job done, whatever pain you have is going to stop soon, time to enjoy the last bit before it's all over and you get to the bright lights, the congratulations, the shuffle off to a well-earned rest. So if you run the West Highland Way Race, when you reach and travel this last mile, whether it takes you seven minutes or half an hour, just take a moment or two to reflect on how you came to be here, Glasgow to Fort William on foot, not a bad effort, you don't do that sort of thing every day.
At the end of my first trip I came to this point when the sun was well up into Sunday, thirty-odd hours after the start. There was another runner, or walker for that's what we both were by this stage, just ahead of me. Now known as the Subversive Runner or the Pirate, he had not at that time acquired either soubriquet. A hundred yards from the finish he stopped. Go on, I said, I'm not going to pass you now. It's OK, he said, I'll just wait for my mate to catch up, he's not far behind you. So my deserved seventy-first place became an undeserved seventieth and I carried on to the Leisure Centre carpark. There I was welcomed by a shortish, balding fellow with a smile as wide as his face, in spite I suspect of having not slept in the past forty-eight hours. "Really well done", he said, "you look in pretty good shape." I didn't of course, but I'm sure I grew an inch or two at that moment. I heard him greet the runner behind me "Hi Dave, well done, good to see you back", and it occurred to me that he had probably seen home every finisher before me, and would no doubt wait for the few still to come. He's been there at my subsequent completions, whatever time I arrived, with the same smile and always a word or two of encouragement.
I hope to be seeing the tarmac again soon, sometime in the darkness between next Saturday and Sunday. And as I make my way over those final few steps to the finish, I know I'll hear him again.