Friday, 6 July 2018

1000 miles on the West Highland Way

I've had to include last year's DNF at around 83 miles to justify the title, but as it cost me far more in pain and energy than this year's 10th finish, I don't feel too guilty about that.

When I started my first West Highland Way Race in 2007 I was fairly sure I would never do another one, or indeed any other long race; it was just a one-off to see if I could do it. By the prizegiving 35 hours later I was hooked. I've been back every year since, apart from 2015 when there was a direct clash with the Dragon's Back which I wanted to have a shot at. I don't think I'll ever tire of this beautiful course. At that first prizegiving I was inspired by Alan Kay and Jim Drummond, each with a dozen finishes under their belts, and wondered how many I might get around to; at a few weeks off 59 certainly not that many, Jim was younger than me and Alan only a few years older. But over the years our ideas of what is possible have changed as stunning finishes by  70 year olds Gareth Bryan-Jones in 2013 (26:15:13) and Graham Arthur this year (23:57:17) demonstrate. I'm not remotely in the same class as either of these two athletes but they give me encouragement that I should be good for a few years yet and that turning up for the start this year was a sound decision.
11 years of buffs now!

I have to admit right from the off that my overriding objective this year was to finish, I wasn't too bothered about how long it might take. After my first failure last year, caused I'm convinced by bad decision-making on the day rather than any inherent inability to deal with the course, I wanted to get that 10th goblet done and dusted with no mistakes. An added factor was that this year's training has been directed more towards the Lakeland 100 at the end of July rather than the much more runnable West Highland Way, and with this background I decided early in the year to go in with a conservative game plan of completing the course in 30 hours.

I caught a cold a week before but by the Friday it was down to the thick head and stuffy nose stage so wasn't likely to cause any problems. Unfortunately I'd given it to my wife Jan, half of my support team, who was now suffering a bit. On top of this she'd damaged a knee ligament a few weeks earlier and was still finding driving more than a few miles at a time painful. Our son John turned up looking fighting fit though so we would no doubt be ok. After discussing the game plan over dinner in the Burnbrae in Milngavie, John drove me down to registration, then I went back to the hotel for an hour or two of horizontal contemplation before the start.

Jan and John were both asleep when I crept out to walk the three quarters of a mile down to the station. It was a beautiful warm evening and the forecast was for more of the same. I hadn't brought anything waterproof because it wasn't going to rain. The station yard was buzzing as usual  -  I sometimes wonder what it's like down here on any other Friday at midnight. After a bit of time meeting some of the usual suspects then listening to the briefing at which Safety Officer Sean confirmed that there would be "no weather" this year, I joined the 235 strong starting pack somewhere near the back. I didn't really hear the countdown and the hooter but we all started moving so I guessed that we were off.
With Keith Hughes just before the start

I had planned a 4 hours 30 minute time to Balmaha, which I reckoned could be achieved by walking all the uphills and settling into a steady 5 miles an hour jog everywhere else. This pace soon saw me detached from the main body of the field: there were still one or two runners around but most of the field and their crews had moved on. I passed a handful of muted supporters at the Beech Tree and a similar scene at the Drymen road crossing. On the other hand it was clear from the outset that there were going to be a lot fewer midgies than in an average year so things were looking good. I reached Drymen in 2 hours 35, a bit longer than ever before but it was still good to get the rather dull first 12 miles out of the way, the race really starts here. It was a beautiful early morning through the Garadhban Forest and up and over Conic Hill, and I was soon checking in with Big Davie the Balmaha marshal, 4 hours 23 minutes from the start and in 226th place.

I found John quite easily in the now almost empty car park for a quick bite to eat and top up of the water bottles, then it was off up the loch. In my recent "slower" years I had always allowed myself 6 hours from Balmaha to the next checkpoint at Beinglas Farm, but had planned on an extra half hour this year to keep it easy. Rowardennan was very midgy,  Inversnaid almost completely free, and the journey delightful. I jogged the odd easy flat or downhill but mostly it was a steady walk. I've been practising steady walking though and now find that I can keep up a reasonable pace for hours on end without too much stress. Along the way I passed Fiona making good progress towards her 14th finish, Dave and Martin taking a break at Inversnaid, and Ian Rae, who I've spent many West Highland Way miles with over the years, just before Beinglas.  Jan and John were there just beyond the checkpoint.

I'd decided this was the point to bring a bit of savoury  into my Mars Bar and Haribo diet, so I walked out of the checkpoint with a marmite sandwich and a bag of crisps. I always think that the stretch from Beinglas to Auchtertyre needs a bit of care in the WHW race. In the Fling you can give it whatever you have left but in the longer event there is still a long way to go and you can pay for over-enthusiasm. It's easy to run the long gentle uphills up to and just beyond Derrydarroch and pay for it later. I have on more than one occasion left Beinglas in good shape and arrived at Auchtertyre feeling pretty beaten up. So I had decided to walk pretty well all of this stretch. My previous few times for it have all been a little under 3 hours so I told Jan and John that I would aim for three and a half, 3:15 minimum. So I was somewhat surprised on reaching the post that tells you you're on the last uphill in the final forest in a time that made it clear I was going to be under three hours again after taking it very easily. I tried to call the team but got no signal. I couldn't miss them at Auchtertyre because it's a weighing checkpoint and I needed the card. I slowed down to a very slow walk to stretch it out to 3:15 if I could. Eventually as I crossed the river after the main road I got a signal to let them know what was going on. I eventually checked in with John Kynaston at Auchtertyre 2 hours and 53 minutes after leaving Beinglas. A big learning for me, a steady and efficient walk over this section is nearly as fast as an inefficient walk-run, and leaves you feeling a whole lot better. I arrived at Auchtertyre  in 13 hours 41 minutes, now in 184th place.  I would have been happy with anything up to 15 hours; I was now in good shape and with over 20 hours to complete the 44 miles left to the finish.  I chatted to John for a few minutes about future plans then I saw Jan's car appearing at the far end of the field so I went over to meet it and get the weight card.

I guess I spent 15 to 20 minutes socialising and generally faffing at Auchteryre, but eventually set off on the second half of the course. A gentle jog down to the low point over the stream, a cruise through the forest along the river to the Fling finish, then a walk up the long hill to the high point before the creep under the railway. I passed Amanda up here, suffering from a fall early on in the day, but she toughed it out to finish ok. After the railway I jogged all the way down to the river crossing, my longest continuous run of the whole event as it turned out, then walked the rest of the way to Bridge of Orchy where I met John and Jan again in the station yard.
Contemplative cup of tea at Bridge of Orchy

Jelly Baby Hill
A cup of tea and a sandwich to go then off down and over the busy A82 to the checkpoint. Murdo and Pete were up on the hill as usual, in far nicer conditions than a year ago, and as I hove into view I was treated to the Star Wars theme. Murdo told me that the race had already been won, and also that Jody Young, another regular going for his 10th completion was not far ahead. I always like the downhill from here, so I jogged all the way down and round the road to the Forest Lodge at the start of Rannoch Moor. One of my mistakes last year was running the majority of the moor, in an attempt to keep warm because I hadn't brought enough clothes from Bridge of Orchy to deal with the conditions, but today conditions were just about perfect, I had plenty of time, so I walked it all. I turned up at the Glencoe checkpoint 19 hours and 45 minutes from the start, in 171st place.

Arrival at Glencoe
Tea and some warm soup as the day was cooling now, and another layer against the increasingly chilly wind, then off to meet the Devil. The few miles parallel to the road always go faster than you expect, at the bottom of the Devil's Staircase I finally passed Jody then got into the climb. It's not a huge ascent but coming at around 75 miles it's given me some hard times in the past. Not today though; I wasn't travelling fast but steadily and easily, passing a few more runners on the way up. The light had faded enough to warrant putting a torch back on just over the top.

There are some disadvantages to a 30 hour schedule, and one is that you get the 4 mile descent from the top of the staircase down to Kinlochleven in the dark. The route loses around 2000ft of height over this stretch, and in daylight you can run down with almost no effort letting the slope take you down. But it's a stony, rubble-strewn track and in the dark you lose your peripheral vision so it's very hard to see the best line over the next few yards and concentrate on the ground under your feet at the same time. This slowed the whole thing down and for me I guess cost at least 30 to 45 minutes extra time for no saving in effort. But it still got done so I was down into a remarkably midge-free  Kinlochleven just under 24 hours from the start back in Milgavie.

By now I had been awake for something approaching 40 hours and was beginning to feel a bit tired, although not particularly sleepy, so it seemed best not to hang around too long but get out and get the thing done. Because the support team were a little thin on the ground as it were, I had said to them right from the start that I was happy to do the whole distance without any company outside of checkpoints. I knew Jan was still struggling with her cold and bad knee, and I was concerned that John should get enough sleep to be able to drive safely back to Manchester at what would now be later on today, as he had to be back at work first thing Monday morning. But they had had a conference without me and decided that Jan could drive back to Fort William ok even if she needed a rest stop or two, so John had his kit on and was ready to go. He had already run 14 brisk training miles after meeting me at BalmahaI but was sure he had already had enough sleep to last the day. It was good to have his company, so after a quick mug of soup we set off on the last lap.

We weren't quick but I've had plenty of worse trips along this final section. The landmarks came and went. The climb up to the jeep track seemed easy enough, we were fortified by Irn Bru at Jeff Smith's pit stop in the Lairig Mor, and it was daylight again by the time we reached Lundavra. 
Obligatory photo with John at Lundavra

After the final climb up to the forest road leading to the finish, I had thoughts that I might jog the last three miles but found on trying that my feet were quite sore, maybe as a result of the hard ground over the whole course from the lack of recent rain.  So I shuffled while John walked on his considerably longer legs and we made maybe slightly upwards of 4 miles an hour.

The finish came after 29 hours and 8 minutes and in 147th place, so the plan had worked, job done, 10th successful completion. I was tired but in good shape, and had enjoyed the whole journey.
Welcome from Ian and Adrian at the finish

The prizegiving was as spectacular as ever. Jody and I were presented with our "10th finish" decanters together, and a in special little moment for me afterwards, Alan Kay came up to congratulate me.
10th finish with Jody Young

Since coming home I've thought a bit about my 2018 West Highland Way. I wanted above all this year to finish. I had a plan, and the plan worked. But I'm somehow left with a bit of a feeling that it wasn't all that sporting to approach the race this way. I finished with nearly 6 hours to spare, but in a race on a very runnable course I deliberately walked three quarters of it. I knew I was fit enough and I don't think the outcome was ever in doubt. In a venture like this, maybe there should be more uncertainty, the course deserves a bit more risk to be taken. Next time I come, I'll give it my best shot. The outcome may be no different, or even worse, but I'll  show the West Highland Way a bit more respect.

Because I write these posts as much for myself as anyone else, I'll just end with the stats of my 10 finishes (so far) and what I thought they meant at the time.


Amanda said...

Great to see you get that 10th finish and I was really impressed with your power marching approach and pace (I usually pride myself on getting a decent yomp going too!). Good luck with Lakeland, and a few more goblets in the years ahead!

Rob said...

A lot of very useful advice there, which I clearly need to take to heart if I'm to avoid a dnf!