Since I got my ballot entry on New Year’s Day there’s barely been an hour go by that I haven’t thought this race. The training (big thanks to my coach, Tim Pigott) and planning leading into it had gone about as well as I could have hoped for.
I’d walked the route back in 2006 but could only really remember small sections so I made sure I got out and recced as much as I could beforehand. I ended up running around 75% of the route over the final couple of months.
I had an experienced crew with my brother Craig (who crewed at the race last year), Gillian (a WHW finisher in 2019) and her husband Greg (who crewed for her in 2019). It was great to not have to worry about ensuring they knew what needed to be done as they’d all been through it before. We had a meeting the week before to run through my A (sub-20) / B (sub-21) / C (sub-24/finish) goals, and any particulars around nutrition, hydration, kit etc.
Race day came and I spent the whole day pacing about the house with nervous excitement just wanting to get started. We headed through to get registered as early as we could at 9pm and then take myself away to try and chill out before the race started at 1am. We headed to Greg’s parents’ house nearby and managed to have a lie down and a sleep/close the eyes.
12:30am and everyone is back at Milngavie train station waiting for the start. Ian does his race briefing and suddenly it is very real. With a couple of minutes to go I got a bit closer to the front – but leaving the speedsters to occupy the first few lines of runners! At 1am on the dot we set off; under the tunnel and through the centre of Milngavie towards Mugdock Country Park.
My plan for the first leg to Balmaha was to keep my heart rate down and get through the dark without making any stupid mistakes. I was lucky I had been on the first section just a couple of weeks before and remembered it well – there as a small group in front of me that missed the turn just after leaving Mugdock and were running back up towards me as I got to the junction.
It was an uneventful start (always good) – I ate every 25min when my watch alarm went off, drank when I needed to, and just followed the line of headtorches in front of me. It wasn’t until I got to the Drymen road crossing that I ended up on my own with nobody in sight ahead or behind. Which was strange, as up until that point there seemed to be quite a lot of people around me. When I got closer to Conic Hill and I still couldn’t see anyone nearby I started doubting that I was actually on the correct path. I got my phone out, checked the map and thankfully was on the correct trail. When you’ve only ran it previously in broad daylight everything is different!
The climb up Conic Hill was quite enjoyable, and the sun was just starting to rise behind us as we got to the top. I wasn’t looking forward to the descent. The new path that has just been put in is fantastic – just not for running down. The ‘steps’ are all very awkward heights and lengths – it was hard enough to run down when I recced in the daylight. So, as planned, it was a power walk down and safely into CP1.
I arrived at CP1 in Balmaha, feeling great, around 10minutes ahead of schedule. Greeted by the crew and Alan (who had kindly driven across at 4am to support!) I was escorted through the car park to our aid station. A quick bit of porridge, change of t-shirt and off I went.
Then, only a few minutes after leaving the checkpoint I felt a very sharp pain in my left knee. I’d felt this a couple of times before over the years, but it generally disappears, and nothing comes of it. This time it wasn’t budging. It would come and go, but each time it came back it hung around a little bit longer.
By the time I arrived at Rowardennan it was fairly constant and it was starting to hurt a lot. At the checkpoint I met my crew for the last time before Auchtertyre – another 40k/5hrs or so away. They gave me some paracetamol and made sure I had all the food/fluids I needed before getting going again. The swarms of midges meant you wouldn’t want to hang around very long anyway!
I carried an extra bottle from here onwards as it was starting to get warm and humid and I was drinking through my bottles much quicker than usual. Ordinarily I’d have been able to top up from streams along the Loch but given the recent weather they were all completely dried up.
The section along the Lochside is the most technical and slow going on the route. My knee didn’t really seem to slow me down much as you’re not able to go much quicker than a certain speed anyway with the terrain. I was still ahead of my A goal schedule at the Inversnaid checkpoint by 2.5minutes.
As you leave the top of Loch Lomond and the terrain eases up to something more runnable I started to feel the knee impacting again. Anything flat was bearable to run, but descending was horrible and basically turned to a walk. I pushed through to get to the Auchtertyre checkpoint knowing that I’d be able to meet the crew, get a rest and put my feet up whilst I took on some food.
Arriving at Auchtertyre I was only 4minutes behind schedule, but I knew it was going to start dropping fast given how the knee had been for the last few km’s. I had quite a long rest – 10-15minutes – to try and give my knee a break. The next section was one I had initially been looking forward to – it’s a very runnable stretch over to Bridge of Orchy. But now I wasn’t so enthusiastic…
At the checkpoint we discussed support runners – I was still below the cut-off to be allowed one from Auchtertyre but suspected I’d be a bit closer to it by the time I got to Bridge of Orchy. So, I asked Gillian to be ready to run with me from there.
The short break initially seemed to have worked and I really enjoyed the short section along to Tyndrum. I collected my obligatory ice lolly as I crossed the main road, passed mum, dad and the dogs, who had come to see me at that point, and started the walk up the hill.
From the top of the hill all the way to Bridge of Orchy the pain started to get worse and worse. I stopped briefly, sat down, and tried various stretches to see if anything would help. But nothing. I started to get really frustrated as, besides my knee, my legs felt great. I stuck my headphones in, turned the music up loud and tried to drown out the pain. It seemed to work for a while at least.
Just before the descent into Bridge of Orchy I tried to spray some water on my face from my bottle, and in the split second my eyes were closed I managed to kick a big rock sending me flying. Miraculously I never hit the floor, but I was close, and I have no idea how I manged to rescue it!
Limping into Bridge of Orchy I was still ahead of the time to be allowed a support runner so we decided to wait the 15minutes so Gillian could come with me. Thankfully we did – the pain in the section from Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe was probably the worst of the day. The descent off ‘jelly baby hill’ was excruciating and the never-ending track through Rannoch Moor not much better. Gillian did a great job of keeping me moving and keeping me cool with water from any stream we passed. I dread to think how much longer I’d have taken had I been on my own.
After what felt like an eternity on Rannoch Moor we arrived in Glencoe. Another long stop at the checkpoint – 25-30minutes – to have a break from the knee pain, take on some food as I hadn’t been keen on much for the last few hours, and do a full clothing change.
Less than a marathon to go. I can do that.
Craig joined Gillian to support run from Glencoe. The plan was for Craig to do Glencoe to Fort William as we had recced this section together a few weeks prior. I’d hoped that this would help take me back to the recce day and away from the present discomfort.
I had been looking forward to the Devil’s Staircase climb before the race – mainly as it is an enforced walk and it has amazing views. But, given my knee, I absolutely was not as once I got to the top that meant I had a 7km descent into Kinlochleven that I knew wasn’t going to be pleasant.
I was correct.
The descent gets steeper as you go - meaning more pain and more frustration. I couldn’t wait to get into Kinlochleven.
Another 15minute stop – feet up, eating what I could. By this stage I was mainly on fruit and crushed up crisps that I was shotting down with gulps of Coke. The glamourous life of ultras.
Gillian had finished her running stint at Kinlochleven and it was down to Craig to make sure I made the final 25km to the finish. We were going to run from the checkpoint to the bottom of the climb out of Kinlochleven, walk uphill and assess the knee at the top.
I don’t know what I had done but my knee eased up significantly by the time it got to the runnable sections along Lairig Mor to Lundavra. I was able to run more than I had since the early stages of the day. Any time I did start to walk Craig would keep jogging knowing that I’d not want to fall behind and I’d get going again.
Shortly before reaching the final checkpoint at Lundavra I’d mentioned to Craig that I had been getting mild hallucinations. I kept thinking white rocks were sheep, and earlier in the day I’d thought a fallen tree covered in moss was a giant highland cow. He joked that he had seen a shop just across the trail. I’d wished it was true and started to crave a cold can of Irn Bru. Then, much to my delight, when we arrived at the Lundavra CP they had a bottle of Irn Bru on the table for runners to help themselves to. It tasted the best it ever has.
We were now on the final stretch – 12km to go. I tripped a couple of times on the single track so Craig kept telling me to be careful – we can’t mess up now! I was feeling good, the best I’d felt since the start of the day, and we passed a couple of other runners.
I knew several hours before that my target times were gone, and I was simply on a mission to get to the finish. However, there’s always that lure to get under each hour marker. As we got to the top of the descent into Fort William I started doing the maths in my head. I had around 6km to go, and 45minutes to get in under 22hours. So long as I didn’t stop or walk I’d be safe. There were also a couple of runners not too far in front which gave me something to keep pushing for.
As we hit the road at the bottom of the hill Greg and Gillian were there waiting. Greg sped off to meet us at the finish and Gillian joined us to lead the way back – last thing I needed was to take a wrong turn now. I was ‘cruising’ along at the same speed I had been going at the beginning of the day (although it felt like I was doing sub 4min k’s…). Tired, pushing through any pain. Just determined to get to the finish before it hit 11pm – 22hrs on the race clock.
The final 2km along the road felt like 10 and it was such a relief to finally turn into the car park and see the lights of the Nevis Centre.
We made it – West Highland Way done in 21hours 55minutes 28seconds.
Despite the pain, at no point did I consider pulling out and I genuinely don’t remember the thought ever crossing my mind. I’d put too much into this race both before, and during, to DNF. You’re also running for your support crew who you’ve dragged across the country and deprived of any sleep!
I am confident that I would have finished had I not been allowed support runners, but I am also certain that it would have added at least few more hours onto my finish time! The whole crew did a fantastic job, and I can’t thank them enough. They might even be lucky enough to get a call up again because I’m pretty sure that’s not a one-and-done.
I remember when I walked the Way in 2006 hearing about these lunatics that run it in under 24hrs. I’ve now come full circle – I am one of them and I have my goblet to prove it.
At the race briefing Ian said, “When you get to the end you’ll probably feel a sense of achievement the likes of which you can only describe when you’ve been through it.” He was right, and I can’t wait to go through it again.