Sunday, 18 September 2011

West Highland Way Race Report (2010)

Going for a bit of a cop-out post today.

The blog posts I like reading the most are the race reports, whether from known faces and courses or from strangers and even stranger races. I find it inspirational to read about the highs and lows, how do folk react when it's all going swimmingly and, more importantly, how do people cope with the rough times.

Thought I would copy the race report I put together for The Pacemaker (Keswick AC magazine) after I completed the West Highland Way Race in 2010. Apologies to the various WHW race family members I met along the way who do not get a mention, but this was originally written for a different audience.

West Highland Way Race
Saturday 19 June 2010
Milngavie to Fort William
95 miles, 14,000 feet of climb

When you do 8 months training for one race, there is a lot of pressure to get to the start line in one piece. Having wrapped myself in cotton wool for the final 3 weeks of build up, I had at least achieved my first aim.

Any thought of a few hours kip before the 1.00 am start was soon dismissed, so I just tried to relax and respond to the huge amount of text messages I was getting. All I really wanted to do was to get running, so it was a great relief when 1.00 am finally came!

It’s a surreal sight as 150 runners with head torches set off, the biggest threat is running too quickly so I used a series of checks along the way to keep myself at my planned pace.

After 1½ hours, I met my first support crew, Simon and Tim (colleagues from work) who quickly handed over my fresh water bottle and gels and I was quickly on my way, knowing it would only be another 45 minutes and I would get the psychological lift of turning the head torch off. The night was crystal clear and cold enough to require a jacket on the climb over Conic Hill just before Loch Lomond, but knowing Tim and Simon were waiting at the Loch shore below kept a skip in the step.

The plan was to arrive at Balmaha (19 miles) in around 3 hours 25 mins, having expended as little effort as possible – I was relieved to tick both boxes here. The crew did a great job of keeping spirits high (though I am not sure if it was for my benefit or theirs!) and I was away within a minute.

The next section to Rowardennan is lovely, following the loch shore with a few little climbs thrown in for good measure. The day was warming up and I was really starting to enjoy myself but still keeping an eye on my pace checks and nutrition. Rowardennan (27 miles, 4 hours 54 mins, 37th place) would be the last time I would see Simon and Tim for 3 hours as I made my way up the rougher and more technical section to the north end of the loch, so I took extra fuel and made my lonely way. On training runs I have developed a mantra during the rough sections of “Don’t fight it”, on race day I found myself singing Oasis’ “Roll with it” which seemed to work, but I’d had enough after 3 hours of rolling with it!!

It was great to finally meet up with Tim and Simon again at Beinglas Farm (41 miles, 7 hours, 57 mins, 30th place) and you can’t underestimate the psychological lift you get at these moments. I took an extra minute here to say thanks and goodbye to the lads as they had finished their stint. They had missed a night’s sleep, kept me watered and fed, raised my spirits, would now hand over the support roll to Crew 2 and go mountain biking in Fort William – I thought I had the tough job!

As I left Beinglas Farm, I checked my watch and saw that after 8 hours of running I was 1 minute ahead of schedule – another confidence boost.

The next section to Auchtertyre has a much better track to run on than the last few hours so you are more able to settle into a rhythm and the miles seem to pass that little bit quicker. The short but sharp hills through the woods above Crianlarich begin to take their toll on the quads but as I reach the A82, I realise I’ve covered this section about 10 minutes quicker than planned, so I phoned ahead to Crew 2 to let them know I’m a bit early – no problem, they are already in place.

I am met with cheers from my new crew of Martin, Liz (both from Keswick AC) and my father Paul, who usher me across to be weighed. Having been weighed at registration, the organisers set an upper and lower threshold which you need to stay within; otherwise the race doctor is required to check you over and has the authority to withdraw you from the race. All this led to my first major problem of the day (if you don’t include running for 50 miles) as the marshal misread my weight card and informed me that I was close to my upper limit. I was, in fact, the same weight as I started but after 10 hours of running, it didn’t really register that a mistake had been made and I spent the next 45 mins panicing until Paul (who is a doctor) realised the mistake and got word to me to start drinking properly again.
The spiritual half way point (50 miles, 10 hours 2 mins, 26th place) required a special treat so I had a change of shoes, socks and shorts and left with a relative spring in my step. As I looked around me, it was hard not to enjoy it, sun in a clear blue sky and now entering the Highlands proper. Despite this, your mind still wanders ahead to other battles to come; the slog over Rannoch Moor, the climbs of the Devil’s Staircase and out of Kinlochleven and the quad trashing descent into Fort William.

At Bridge of Orchy (60 miles, 11 hours 56 mins, 22nd place) I could see the benefit of having a previous competitor to lead the support crew. Martin made it perfectly clear that all that mattered was my needs – it was like a Formula 1 pit stop, he had even commandeered another car boot to use as my crew had parked further away! I quietly resolved to be as cheerful and perky as I could during the stops, resulting in our meetings looking a lot more sociable than many others.

Rannoch Moor passed rather better than expected despite the strong headwind. A group of 5 of us formed up and basically ran together for a couple of hours in some kind of cycling peloton, taking turns on the front running into the headwind. The group pulled away from me on the approach to Glencoe Ski Centre but with another marathon still to go, I though it prudent to save something for later. Another moral boosting pit stop and I was told for the first time what position I was in. 17th place after 70 miles and 14 hours 20 mins of running - suddenly it became a race!

As ever, the crew went one step beyond and moved on to walk halfway up the Devil’s Staircase climb to provide extra moral support and give me enough fuel to get to Kinlochleven. I found the climb tough so took it steady and was able to more than make up the time on the long descent into Kinlochleven (81 miles, 16 hours 50 mins, 17th place). I had mixed feelings here as Fort William was nearly in sight, I was on for a time beyond expectation but for the first time I looked knackered and felt it too! I took a tactical regroup here, stopped for about 7 minutes, had a good chat and drink and then walked for the first 500 yards on the way out.

This, allied with the news that two other runners were not too far ahead, was enough to get some kind of a skip back. Those competitive juices run deep! I caught one man quickly on the climb; we exchanged words of encouragement, though his state of disrepair made me feel even better. It still took half an hour to catch sight of the other runner. We ran together until 1½ miles from the finish, both pushing on to stay ahead of another runner. On the final forest road section I was able to push on, throw my bumbag to Paul at the Braveheart car park and hold on until the finish.

You hope for crowds, fireworks and marching bands – you get your support crew (all five in my case), a few organisers, the double doors of the Leisure Centre and a lady with a clipboard. “20 hours, 20 mins and 59 secs, 15th place, congratulations!” Time to get reweighed. My body had now started to shut down and I really struggled to get on to the scales but I was eventually revealed to be exactly the same weight as I started.

My emotions suddenly started to get the better of me, particularly after a chat with my wife and my mom who stayed together back in Keswick, as eight months of blood, sweat and especially tears were vented. Once recovered from that, we then had to deal with a sudden loss of blood pressure – lie down in the car, legs in the air and pose for the cameras – and that was pretty much it for me for that day.

To say I was elated would be an understatement, to say you can’t do it without a superb backup team would be an understatement, to say it’s an awesome event would be an understatement.

So that was my summary of the day out. Shorter than some tomes and lacking the names and personal touches of others; something I'm going to have to rectify in future reports.

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