Last year I ran each of the three ultramarathons which take place along the West Highland Way in Scotland.
While this site is primarily interested in my architectural thinking, rather than running, I find that reflecting on events like these helps to bring a little more focus and clarity to that thinking. So, I thought I would post the notes I made after the races. These are all quite long races, and my account of each (particularly the WHW Race) is rather long too. So I’ll include a short version and a ‘not-so-short version’…! The non-selfie photos from the Fling and the Devil are by Graeme at Marathon Photos.
Saturday 30th April: Highland Fling (53 miles / 7,500 ft ascent).
Time – 11hrs 43mins 21secs
Saturday 18th June: West Highland Way Race (95 miles / 14,760 ft ascent).
Time – 25hrs 33mins 39secs
Saturday 6th August: Devil o’ the Highlands (42 miles / 7,260 ft ascent).
Time – 8hrs 26mins 54secs
WHW Triple Crown: Done!
Race 1: Saturday 30th April
The Highland Fling (53 miles / 7,500 ft ascent)
Time – 11hrs 43mins 21secs
I got up around 3:30am and drove to Milngavie. I picked up my race number and deposited the drop bags containing food and drink that I’d be able to collect at four points along the route. It was really cold, but dry – perfect conditions for running. This was to be my fourth Highland Fling, and I felt like I’d trained well, knew the route well, and was in better shape the three previous occasions where I’d completed this brilliant event. The organisation / registration ran like clockwork and the race started at 6:00am – I guess there were around 800 runners so it was quite busy for the first hour or so. I was just plodding along really, trying to stay relaxed and just thinking about the next mile or two.
I had a strange moment after a couple of hours in the forest above Drymen (after only 13 or 14 miles) where I started to feel quite tired and sluggish, so I slowed down a bit. I eventually figured out that I was probably just a bit sleepy from the early start, and soon enough I felt ok. The climb over Conic Hill at the south end of Loch Lomond was stunning – the sun was out and the views over the Loch to the mountains beyond were brilliant. This is when the race really gets started!
The journey up the side of Loch Lomond is the crux of the route for me – about twenty miles of winding paths going up and down lots of short but steep hills. There are a few really technical sections where the race slows to a walk. North of Inversnaid I was marching along in single file for two or three miles to the top of the Loch – in a traffic jam of other runners. This was a good chance to have a bite to eat and get some drinks. Shortly after that I arrived at the Beinglas checkpoint (41 miles done) in pretty decent shape. The cheery marshalls at the checkpoint had cups of cold Coke which went down really well. So, just 12 miles to go…
The last section was fine for a while, but after a few miles I started to feel a bit tired, and was slowing down significantly by ‘cow-poo alley’. My target of a big PB was slipping away, but once I got past the ‘roller-coaster’ above Crianlarich I started to feel better. I got my head down and ran as hard as I could to try to make sure I still beat my 2013 PB. The finishing straight at this race is really special (somehow it feels like every single runner to finish is doing something really great – and is a credit to the event organisers). It felt great to run in there about five minutes inside my PB.
This year, to some extent, the Highland Fling was about trying to run a good time to set up the WHW Race in June. My time was ok (it would have been good to be 30 minutes faster) but I was encouraged by the fact that I hadn’t gone through any really, really rough patches, and had felt strong most of the day.
Race 2: Saturday 18th June
The West Highland Way Race (95 miles / 14,760 ft ascent)
Time – 25hrs 33mins 39secs
This was the Big Race. I pretty much knew the other two events were manageable, and I knew that barring injury etc I’d finish them ok. But the WHW is something different altogether. It feels kind of intimidating. The idea of running without really having a proper break for around 24 hours just seems a bit frightening (for me at least). Having said that, I had trained well, and I’d done lots of preparation beforehand. I’d sorted out a really good back-up crew, and I resolved that whenever it got difficult I’d just tell my self – “you wanted to do this – you chose to do it – so stop moaning and get on with it”… and that’s more or less how the day panned out.
Mum and Dad (support crew one) and I left for Milngavie around 10:30pm on the Friday night. We arrived in good time, I picked up my number, timing tag, t-shirt etc, and I got weighed. Every runner is weighed at the start – and then again after 50 miles, 81 miles, and at the finish – just to check nobody is losing or gaining more weight during the race than would be considered normal. The three of us had a little walk around, and then listened to the race briefing at 00:45am. I was feeling calm but a bit nervous when the gun fired at 1am and we all set off. The first few miles feel strange – like it’s not really happening (“why am I running along with 200 other runners through a country park in the middle of the night?”) but then soon enough it all just settles down, it kind of becomes normal – at least for a day.
I ran the first section with Mike, who I met at the start (we have a mutual friend). It was good to get to know him a little, and the chatting passed the first couple of hours quite nicely. Just before Drymen (12 miles) I found that Mike was moving away slightly and I felt a bit tired, I decided to let him go ahead – I was just feeling a bit sleepy and groggy (it was 3am I suppose!). I reached the first checkpoint bang on schedule, collected a bit of food and drink from Mum and Dad, and continued along the trail.
Climbing over Conic Hill, looking down on Loch Lomond with the sun rising over my shoulder was glorious, and it felt like the race was really getting underway now. I arrived at Balmaha (20 miles) on schedule just before 05:00am, changed clothes and shoes as planned, and ate ‘breakfast no.1’. The next section is the start of the journey along the banks of Loch Lomond; to be honest I don’t really like this bit as much as other parts of the route. Twenty minutes after leaving the car park I noticed the midges were quite bad. Then it just got worse and worse. There were thick clouds of them; it felt like running through net curtains. I was covered in midge bites, and dead midges that had stuck to me. Trying to outrun them meant that I arrived at Rowardennan (27 miles) ten minutes ahead of schedule (every cloud!?). Dad was taking cover in the car; Mum said “these midges are unbelievable, have you seen them?”… “yes Mum, some of them are still stuck to my eyeballs”. So we rushed out of that checkpoint as quickly as possible. That was the last time I saw Mum and Dad on the route, they’d been up all night, and had done a great job getting me through the first quarter of the race.
As I followed the route up the side of the Loch, the midges started to thin out a bit – as did the runners – so I was more frequently running along on my own. I had targets to hit for every checkpoint, effectively I was trying to run to deadlines every couple of hours, so the time seemed to pass quite quickly. I reached Inversnaid (34 miles) after about 8 hours of running and it still felt like we were just getting started. The Mountain Rescue guys at the checkpoint had arranged seats in front of a giant fan, so I had a five minute midge-free break and stocked up my supplies from my drop bag. Shortly after Inversnaid I caught up with Mike. I ran with him and a guy called Graeme (who had finished the race seven times!) for the next section – it’s possibly the most technical section of the route, and is mostly walking pace only, which felt like a bit of respite. The midges were gone, it felt nice and fresh, and we were approaching the top of the Loch – which feels like a huge milestone on the route.
We reached Beinglas (41 miles) about ten minutes ahead of my schedule, and Christine’s Mum and Dad (support crew two) were there waiting for me. I was quite fast through the checkpoint, so just mentioned to Mike that I was setting off (I knew he’d catch up soon). Sure enough Mike and I were running together again after a couple of miles, and we covered the next ten miles as a team. That was a tough section – it was early afternoon and it was starting to get hot. We were both feeling a bit tired when we reached the forest above Crianlarich, which is the half way point. However, we started to feel a bit better when we got to the road crossing – we were still on my schedule (we were both aiming for 24 hours) and we met Ali who was out to run in Mike’s crew. I met Christine’s Mum and Dad at Auchertyre (50 miles), still on schedule and got weighed – it was down a bit but nothing unusual. Philip ran with me for the next three miles, which he seemed to enjoy. Christine, Archie, Judy and Stuart were all waiting for me at Tyndrum.
It was great to see them – particularly little Archie! We walked up the hill out of Tyndrum together, and then I set off for Bridge of Orchy. It was starting to feel really hot now, and I knew that I’d be struggling to stay on schedule. Mike and Ali caught me up and we ran along together, the chatter was a nice distraction from the heat – but I couldn’t get away from the sinking feeling that my schedule (and my dream of finishing the race inside 24 hours) was slipping away.
When I arrived at Bridge of Orchy (59 miles) I’d lost at least 20 minutes. I was feeling really flustered and a bit upset at the checkpoint. It was a bit hectic and I got in my head a bit. I sat down for five minutes and had a cold drink. Then I thanked C’s folks and Judy for all their support and got back to it. Felicity and Philip had got me through more than 20 miles of the route, and had done a great job supporting me. The next twenty five minutes was a steep walk up ‘jelly-baby-hill’. I collected my customary jelly baby at the top, and ran down the other side. I met Kevin and Stuart (support crew three) there and sat down to apply a blister plaster on my foot and change my socks and top. That dropped a bit more time, but it was worth it because the next section over Rannoch Moor is a long stint.
There’s very little shelter running over the Moor so it still felt really hot, but I found that I was passing other runners every ten or fifteen minutes, and was running pretty much at the pace that I’d planned. By the time I reached Glen Coe (70 miles) I knew that I’d really struggle to make up the time I’d lost, and that the 24 hour target was almost certainly gone, but I figured I should keep pushing as hard as possible. I was feeling good, so I just went straight through the checkpoint. Stuart started running with me; it was really good to have his company. This was the place where the wheels really fell off my race in 2011 – on that day it was getting dark, my feet were covered in blisters, and I was starting to hallucinate. This time, the sun was still shining (although mercifully it had cooled down nicely) and I was still moving well. It was really beautiful there, heading towards Glen Coe.
Kevin swapped with Stuart at Altnafeadh (75 miles) and joined me for the slow climb over the Devil’s Staircase – the view from there over Glen Coe was stunning. We ran down to Kinlochleven in good time – more or less at the pace I’d planned, but by this stage I knew it would be impossible to make up the time I’d lost in the heat of the afternoon.
In the 2011 race it was daylight in the early hours of the Sunday when we reached Kinlochleven – but this time it was still Saturday – 10:00pm-ish, so still light. That felt like a positive situation to be in. I changed in to my brown HBT vest and ate some cold pizza. Stuart was running from there with me – for the next seven miles to Lundavra. We climbed steeply up to the Lairig Mor path. Mike ran off hard from here – and pushed like crazy all the way to Fort William. He finished not long after 24 hours, after a brilliant final section. It got dark around 11:30 I think. We had headtorches, but it still felt really difficult to make progress because the trail was so rough. Stuart did a great job – running a few metres ahead of me and basically dragging me along. I’d been on my feet for almost 24 hours by now and was feeling really tired, but we just kept plodding on. This is a funny part of the race, the terrain is really difficult, so it’s hard going, but at the same time, the finish is getting really close. It’s like a giant magnet pulling tired bodies towards Fort William.
The last checkpoint at Lundavra (88 miles) is relatively remote. The brilliant marshalls had a bonfire going, and every time they saw headtorches approaching they blasted a song from their PA for the incoming runner. I think I got “Don’t Stop Me Know” by Queen, but I’m not 100% sure. I sat down and put on a couple more blister plasters, changed my socks again, and then set off with Kevin for the last seven miles. We set a notional target of 02:30am (which would be 25.5 hours). I was a bit slow through the forest section, but Kevin really kept me motivated and kept me going. I started running better down the track to Fort William over the last three or four miles. It seemed to take forever to reach the road in Glen Nevis, but eventually we did – passing through the car park there and on to the road. That moment means there’s ninety-four miles done, and just one mile to go.
When we hit the road I was running as hard as I possibly could – it felt like seven-minute-miles, but was probably half that speed. I knew I was going to finish the race now, even if I had to crawl, and I started to feel quite emotional. Stuart had jogged back from the finish, so the three of us ran in to Fort William together. Kevin and Stuart had done a great job of getting me safely through the night, along some really tough sections of the route.
I charged in to the car park at the Leisure Centre. It’s just a Leisure Centre, but because it marks the finish line for this extraordinary event it feels like a really special place to me. I slammed the front door and stopped my watch just after 02:30 am. It was 25 hours, 33 minutes, and 39 seconds since I’d left Milngavie. I felt disappointed to have missed the 24 hour target, but at the same time I was pleased to be 7.5 hours faster than my time in 2011, and just elated to be finished. It’s strange – such a long time to be on my feet, such a long way, but it seemed to pass by really quickly! I sat down in the car park and had a beer, which was nice. Then I started to feel really tired and shivery, so we headed over to the hotel.
Christine and Archie were awake. It was brilliant to see them and give them a kiss, I’d really missed them. I got in a nice hot bath and fell asleep.
Race 3: Saturday 6th August
The Devil o’ the Highlands (42 miles / 7,260 ft ascent)
Time – 8hrs 26mins 54secs
This race was my first ultramarathon in 2010, so I was really excited to be running it again. I think the northern half of the WHW is more scenic and attractive than the first half – so it’s a great course to be running on. I figured that after the WHWR I wouldn’t need to worry about doing any specific distance training – and would just try to recover adequately in the time between the two events. I’d also decided I wasn’t going to worry about setting a time to aim for, I figured that way I’d be more likely to relax and enjoy the race. Although I knew it would be nice to beat my 2010 time, to make it three new PBs over the three races.
So everything was set up for a ‘relatively’ (?) easy conclusion to the Triple Crown. And then seven days before the race I work up with a really sore throat. Christine seemed less convinced than me that it was a genuine illness (thanks for the sympathy!) but then the next day it was worse, and worse again by the Monday morning (five days before the race). I went to the Doctor and she said I had tonsillitis. She gave me some antibiotics. I mentioned the race (I considered keeping quiet, just in case she told me not to run). She said if I was feeling better by the weekend it might be ok, but I should take it easy and drop out as soon as I start to feel weak. So I went to bed to try to recover.
By the middle of the week I was able to get back to work, and on the Friday I decided to have a punt at the race. I decided it was too important not to try, but that I’d stop during the race if something felt wrong.
So it was a familiar start – up at 3:00am, drive to Tyndrum, get my number, sort out my kit, have some food, get ready to start. It was raining and cold which was a shame, although the weather did tend to improve through the day. I started out taking it easy, running along with fellow Bog Trotter Andrew, who was running his first ultra. After two or three hours, heading over Rannoch Moor, I found that I was feeling strong and starting to pass a lot of runners, so I just kept my head down and tried to keep moving. I was hoping to get to the finish in time to catch a bus back down the road!
There were a couple of moments when I felt tired, but generally I just kept running, and tended to feel pretty good. The scenery over Rannoch Moor, in Glen Coe and through the Lairig Mor is just stunning – which really helps. Perhaps the final run in to Fort William seemed a little bit longer than usual, but it felt great to be moving ever-closer to the end of the journey. I actually enjoyed the new hilly conclusion, which was different to the other times I’ve ran along the route. Given the circumstances, and the fact that I’d been feeling rough all week, I was delighted to finish an hour faster than my time from 2010.
And that was that. The three races were all finished. Inevitably I’d like to have run faster – it always feels like that – I could always run faster, I suppose that’s a standard part of everyone’s post-race post-mortem. But this was my first time running these three huge races together in one season, and they were all PB times.
So the Triple Crown was done…
I spent hundreds of hours running in 2016. 46 hours of that time was racing these three events on the West Highland Way. That’s a lot of time I suppose. I sometimes try to remember what I’ve been thinking about all that time, but mostly I don’t think about very much, I just drift along quietly. I think that’s one of the things I like best about running – it’s just really quiet. Sometimes in the races I’d be thinking about how I was doing – how far to the next checkpoint, am I going too slow or too fast (unlikely!). I worry if I’m feeling tired or weak. I wonder when I’ll get finished. And I wonder what’s happening at home or out in the world while I’m running along, isolated from all of that reality.
Mostly though, I just run along in my own head. And I remember how lucky I am – I remember my great friends and my family who I love so much. I think it’s good to take some time to remember those things, because they matter much more than anything, especially running!