When I first got interested in the West Highland Way Race some years ago, the old hands told me that there were always two journeys involved - the one across the Highlands on the longest Saturday of the year and the one that starts in the depths of the previous winter, the long haul of getting yourself into a state suitable to meet the challenge and toe the start line. This year I didn't get the luxury of the latter one; six months of no running leading to some knee surgery in March saw me back in the running game with a half mile in six minutes on 19th April - a date that I hoped would be the dawn of gradually getting back to normal. The WHW entry had of course been in since last November, and I decided to go for it. Two months would just have to be enough.
The payback for such hubris might well be a good kicking up in Scotland, no more than I deserved you might say, but I reasoned that I still had three things in my favour. First, I was by now an "auld acquaintance" rather than a brash new suitor - after seven previous completions I knew exactly what I was getting into. Next, while I had not run through the winter I had continued to walk the hills so had plenty of time on the feet in the bank. Finally, the overall time allowance for the WHW Race is a fairly generous 35 hours - you have the time to walk an awful lot of it if you need to. I was also under no illusions about performance - if the thing was going to be done it would likely take a very long time.
Any doubts I might have had about whether this was a sensible enterprise or not were quickly dispelled in the comfort of the now very familiar on Friday evening - checking into the Premier Inn in Milngavie with Jan, the rest of my support team turning up from their busy lives, John in Manchester and Julia in Reading, the family reunion over dinner, how's it going to go, probably OK but I have a plan, that's OK then.
Down to the registration, lots of friendly familiar faces, the braceletting, chipping and weighing, "Am I really 3 kilos heavier than last year?", superb top in the goody bag, same as the one from a while ago that's been worn all over the world since, then off for a final quiet hour or so before coming back for the start. I could almost recite the briefing word for word by now, but wait, there's a difference this time, the Lord of the Bridge happily informs us that there will be no weather this year! Then the last bit of waiting, meetings, Aussie Keith "let's get a selfie", hug for Fiona, both of them setting out on their tenth trip up the course, Borkur from Iceland who always said he would come to Scotland and now he's made it. I won't be seeing much of the usual suspects during the race this year, the plan has to be different.
Then the countdown and we're off.
I've said numerous times that if your main aim is to finish then don't start on a twenty four hour schedule and then have to tough it out when it falls apart, that won't be pretty. I've done it and I know. If a finish is what you want then plan for it - so now it's time for me to follow my own advice. I give the team a schedule so we can meet at the early checkpoints without them losing too much sleep, but underneath this the strategy is simple; I want to get to Auchtertyre (50 miles) in about 13 hours or so with the absolute minimum of effort. If that gets done I will have enough time left to walk to the end if necessary. My tactics are to walk anything that even smells of uphill , to run no longer than two miles continuously without a walking break, and to "run" at no faster than 12 minute miles.
The field takes off ahead of me and I'm soon on my own. I see one or two runners in the open field before the railway, and one support team at the Beech Tree. Otherwise it's very, very quiet. Along the railway line continuous running is easy but the calf starts to get a bit sore now and then and I slow to a walk for a few minutes every mile or so. At the end of the railway I'm used to looking back as I hit the road and seeing a long line of headlights behind, but tonight all is darkness. Two and three quarter hours from the start I chug through the road crossing at Drymen and there is no-one, and I mean not a single person, there. It is as if the race has completely disappeared. Of the 193 starters, I calculate later that I am now in 190th place. It's lonely down here at the back!
The headlamp comes off as I turn into the forest, and I start very gradually to catch and pass one or two other runners. I catch Fiona just as we crest Conic Hill, then cruise down to the Balmaha checkpoint to be welcomed by Davie at the dibber - he looks as though he's done his shift and is ready for breakfast. It's easy to find the crew as the car park is almost empty. At 4:19:43 I'm now in 184th place. John and Julia have everything ready and in a couple of minutes I'm away up the loch, saying I'll see them in Bein Glas with 10:30 on the clock - three nice steady sections, 2 hours to Rowardennan, 2 to Inversnaid, 2 to Bein Glas.
The midgies are annoying but not biting, the weather is wonderful, dry and cool. At the pace I'm going I really enjoy all three sections, with short stops for the drop bags at Rowardennan and Inversnaid. But although I'm going slowly, at least I'm starting to see more runners now and feel more part of the event again. I decide to walk all the way from Inversnaid to the top of the hill before Doune Bothy which is surprisingly relaxing - no decisions to make about which bits to run! I spend a mile or two with Flip Owen coming out of Inversnaid, then on the crest of the hill before the bothy I catch Adrian Stott; this will be his fourteenth completion of the race, which makes even the ten-time finishers look like beginners. We pause for a minute or two at Dario's Post to wish him well and admire his view. Adrian stops to chat a bit with Karen and George, who we meet sweeping in the opposite direction, and as soon as I'm on my own again my mind wanders off somewhere and I trip and fall over. The only real damage is to the strap on my watch, so I tuck it in a pocket and soon afterwards Bein Glas turns up where I arrive in 10:25:52
In seven previous WHW races with the same crew, we've never missed a checkpoint, but I suppose there's always a first time; I can't find them here. No phone signal for me, so I don't know what's happened. They could have hit bad traffic or had a puncture (that's happened a couple of times in the past) but I don't know. I wait around until after the 10:30 time point which was my planned arrival, and wonder if they are likely to be along in the next minute or two or whether the problem will delay them longer. I've no idea, so a word with the marshals and they're kind enough to allow me to push on, after giving me a litre of water. There are offers of food from people at the checkpoint, but I have plenty enough to get to Auchtertyre so I thank everyone for their kindness and carry on northwards. A bit frustratingly, less than a mile further up the glen I get a reasonable phone signal and find out that I only missed the team by a minute or two, they had really bad traffic coming up the loch after breakfast in Milngavie. No problem, I'm happy that they're all OK and will see them at Auchtertyre.
I pass one or two more runners on the way up to Auchtertyre, including Carin Goldblatt who's come all the way from Israel to compete. She says she's finding the climbs and the ground underfoot hard, but she's previously done the Lakeland so she'll be OK. I tell her that things get a lot easier after Auchtertyre. The miles pass slowly but easily, except I'm getting a bit more discomfort in my weak right calf, so decide to re-do the taping at the checkpoint. I arrive at Auchteryre in 13:08:14 (about two and a half hours slower than last year!), now in 143rd place. The team are ready and waiting so I stop for a bite to eat, a change of shirt and to wipe off as many dead midgies as possible. I leave my watch with John in the hope that he can fix it before the next checkpoint (he does - just another duty of an accomplished back-up crew).
Again, after eating quite a bit I decide to walk all the way to the top of the hill after Tyndrum. Going up the track after the village hall I catch up with John Vernon. I've spent quite a few hours of ultra time over the years with John, and although he's completed 10 WHW races, this year he's in the alternative "WHW Challenge" which started an hour earlier. We stay together until the creep back under the railway line, then I take off to run a bit and he continues at his steady walk. I run all the way to the stream crossing at the low point, probably my longest continuous run of the day so far, and most of the flat bits from there to the station. I always meet the crew in the station car park before the checkpoint as it's usually quieter for parking. Normally one of them goes down to the marshal to check if there are any kit requirements for Rannoch Moor, but on such a lovely day it's clear there won't be so they haven't bothered. I feel the need for a Coke hit rather than food, so just down a half litre in more or less one go then I'm on the way again. Down through the checkpoint, up the hill for a word or two with Murdo who really should have been running this year, and round to the start of the Moor.
This is without doubt my favourite stretch of the course. The wonderful emptiness of the scenery and the easy going make the miles flow by. I spend a mile or so with Norman Duncan but for the rest I am completely alone and quite happy with that. I relax my rule and jog some of the slight inclines as well as the flats. Compared with the rest of my race, I'm not surprised to find afterwards that this is the section I do by far the fastest relative to the field; I'm 78th fastest across here, compared with well over a hundred on most of the others, and I arrive in Glen Coe in 18:58:34 in 134th place.
Last year I didn't ask for one of the team to run with me until Kinlochleven, but as I arrive at the car Julia is all dressed and ready to go, decision made. A cup of tea, a few ginger biscuits (has anyone else discovered what a great ultra food these are?) and we're jogging down the road towards Kingshouse, just passing Adrian as he arrives at the check point. We walk up the false hill then jog down and round to the bottom of the Devil's Staircase. Then, maybe a just hundred yards or so up the slope, I suddenly feel tired, and I know that things are going to change. It had all been going so easily for so far, then it's like the message has come up on the screen "Sorry, you don't have sufficient funds to complete this transaction."
But that's OK, I almost welcome the feeling. Goblets are not meant to come easily. The outcome is not in doubt, we have 15 hours to cover 20 miles - I'm just going to have to work a bit harder for those miles now. We continue slowly but steadily to the top of the climb, being re-passed by two teams we passed in the first part of the stage, then just as steadily down the long descent. It gets gloomy enough to put on a torch just as we cross the footbridge into the final woods before the road. We find John and wander in to the checkpoint.
I've already decided on the descent that I need a rest, and with no time pressures that's OK. I stretch out in the car with instructions that they will wake me in 45 minutes. After that, a bit of preparation and the stop at Kinlochleven has taken just over an hour - not exactly "continuous forward motion" but I feel much better for it. Julia has now done her shift and takes off in the car for a well-earned sleep in Fort William, while John and I set off on the last lap. John takes the lead up the first hill to the jeep track; I say I can go faster than this but he says no, this is the right speed, the deal is to finish at minimum cost. So that's what we do. All along the Lairig Mor we make steady but slow progress. I've been along here wishing the miles away a hundred yards at a time, but tonight it seems strangely OK, I don't mind how long it takes. The only problem is that I keep falling asleep. I'm gone, then the next pace jolts me awake. I try Coke but it doesn't make any difference. No hallucinations, just tired. Eventually I say to John that I have to take five or I'll just fall over. I lie down on the bridge just before the second old house for five minutes or so and it makes all the difference, we're good for Lundavra. The trees appear then we can see the bonfire.
We get a wonderful welcome from the Kynastons, I tell them that it's hard now but we're getting there. I take another five minutes by the bonfire then we enter the home straight. It doesn't seem too bad and there's enough energy left for a "Yes!!" when we hit the fire road at the top of the very last uphill. We start off walking down the road, and our pace is still good enough to take us past another team, but then Sally Nicoll, who I last saw just before Bein Glas, comes by at a sprightly jog and disappears into the distance. It's broad daylight now and as I'm no longer liable to fall asleep I say to John that he can stop trying to preserve me, so we break into a jog too, which we hold on all the downhill bits as far as Braveheart Car Park.
The final mile goes quickly and then it's done. 29:37:33 for 131st place. Over 7 hours slower than last year but that doesn't matter. If you'd have offered me this result two months ago I'd have bitten your hand off.
Two weeks before setting out for Scotland I'd come in one evening and proudly announced to Jan that I'd managed to run for four continuous miles at 9 minute mile pace along our local canal. I mention this only because at the finish I learned that this was precisely the pace that Paul Giblin had maintained over the rocks and boulders, gates and stiles, 95 miles and over 14,000 feet of ascent of the West Highland Way. Awesome doesn't begin to cover his performance.
The prizegiving and the session in the pub later that evening were as good as ever. One or two friends said this was their last trip, but I don't believe them. This is just too good to miss. A huge thankyou to Ian Beattie and his organising team for keeping us WHW junkies supplied with our annual fix, and of course to my long-suffering crew of Jan, John and Julia for enduring another sleep-deprived, midge-infested (but this year not wet!) weekend in Scotland.
For those interested, the technicalities were simple. I wore one pair of shoes and socks (Skechers GoRun Ultras and Drymax Ultras) from start to finish, ate about 200 calories an hour, and finished with no blisters and no midge bites. And a feeling that I had somehow got away with something that I shouldn't have - I'd stolen a Goblet.