West Highland Way, Saturday, June 21, 2014

95M / 14,000'

Phil Owen

The West highland Way race starts at 1am in Milngavie (just above Glasgow) and covers 95 miles of hills to Fort William including 1400ft of ascent. This was my fourth attempt, one DNF and two finishes with a pb of 26:47. I truly love this race but it’s hard to explain why. After all there are lots of 100 milers in beautiful places about and it’s not even the toughest of them (but more than tough enough). However there is a lot more to this race than the actual race itself. It has history, traditions and whw family. You just have to be there to understand.

The route of the West Highland Way Race.

Milngavie to Drymen (12.11miles)
Drymen to Balmaha (6.84miles) [overall 18.95miles]

The start is a funny old thing. For a race that takes you through some beautiful landscapes, starting at a subway under a road and along a fairly dreary main street always seems at odds with the race but the electric atmosphere, the nerves and excitement soon put that out of your mind. Through a park and woodland, along old railway lines and to Drymen. This is the flattest section of the route but by no means flat. Head torches bob and folk run way too fast. They usually pay the consequences. I try and switch off for a while. I like to leave Drymen behind to be honest; a couple short tarmac sections annoy me and I want to be on the whw proper. Soon after Drymen we glimpse Conic hill, a 1000ft hill with a good run up to it. I always feel this is where the race starts. On the top, it’s light now and the view of Loch Lomond is superb. Down the other side, lots of steps and into Balmaha Car park to be met by my support. I leave quickly and won’t see the support again till Beinglass.

Balmaha to Rowardennan (7.70miles) [overall 26.65miles]
Rowardennan to Inversnaid (7.26miles) [overall 33.91miles]

Two very tough sections lay ahead with constant climbs and very rocky ground. From Inversnaid hotel we have a few miles of the famous Lomond side rocks to negotiate. More scrambling than running but I do love this section.

Inversnaid to Beinglas Farm (6.63miles) [overall 40.54 miles]
Beinglas Farm to Auchtertyre (9.54miles) [overall 50.08 miles]

I take a bit of a fall just before the checkpoint and have a few scapes but luckily my back pack saved me form the worst. David Hetherington follows me into Bein glass CP, sits down and eats. I know I’ll not be fast this year but I do want to be ahead of David or I’ll never hear the end of it for the next year. I refill my water and eat at the same time, grab something I can eat on the way out and move on. Total time, no more than five minutes. Dave’s still sitting, looking like death and eating what appears to be pedigree chum as I leave. Some decent climbs then some steep rolling hills in the forest finish this section. Under foot is a lot rockier than I remember but I’m glad of the shade in the forest. The heat has been taking its toll on me. I run well into Auchtertyre.

By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes, where the supporters turn out on Loch Lomond.

Auchtertyre to Bridge of Orchy (9.26miles) [overall 59.34 miles]
Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe Ski Lodge (10.82miles) [overall 70.16 miles]

At Auchtertyre I’m weighed and have lost 4kg. Not good, they will keep an eye on me. However a breeze has picked up and I’m finally cooling. As I leave I see David come in and sit again. The cooling has completely changed how I feel and for the first time in the race I’m feeling grand. 50 miles of overheating and feeling rubbish is never that much fun!

I plod along the short easy section to Tynndrum while eating. I meet my crew here, as it’s a good place for them to park and eat. I hate the next 10 miles of rolling rocky track but I’m feeling good and really pick up the pace. As I come into Victoria Bridge, something is up. David’s (one of my support crew), mum has taken gravely ill and he has to leave with my other support, his wife Carolyn. He’s speaking to the race director on the phone as it’s strictly against the rules for anyone to not have support. I tell him just to go and the race is secondary. The RD’s right hand man, Sean a medic and race safety officer is by chance on hand. As I’m looking good, he speaks to the RD and I’m allowed to continue. I’m very lucky not to have been pulled from the race.

Lindley an old pal who I had no idea was there appears. He’s supporting a friend who arrived before me and says I can stick with him. However one look at the lad and I don’t think he will finish so decline to run with him. Lindley does take my gear onward and sadly my support and great friends leave. It’s a short hop over Murdo’s hill to the Bridge of Orchy I realise I have no food on me to see me over Rannoch moor. By chance again I meet a Karen whose runner has already retired and is just enjoying the day helping out. She agrees to drive round and I have the pick of her runners grub.

The Rannoch is long rocky hilly exposed and hard work. I hate it with a passion so do it as fast as I can to get to Glencoe. Lindley’s girlfriend is waiting with pasta and refills my water. I put on a jacket, hat and gloves and head off. I can’t find my head torch and think I’ve left it in David’s car! I always carry a spare micro head torch and although its not great for running with , it will get you of the hills. I say nothing though as I’m not risking being pulled out the race.

Glencoe Ski Lodge to Kinlochleven (10.55 miles) [overall 80.71 miles]

The Devil’s Staircase is next, a zig zaggin rocky 1850ft climb. I usually like this because I know after it is almost four miles of zig zagging rocky downhill that I just love to run. Unfortunately this micro head torch isn’t going to cut the mustard to make that possible so my usual fast decent where I usually over take loads becomes a bit of a trudge with lots of slipping.

Kinlochleven to Lundavra (7.58miles) [overall 88.29miles]
Lundavra to Fort William (6.99miles) [overall 95.28miles]

Into Kinclochleven and weighed again. No change and I still look good so I’m ok. I hear my mate Darren, a Sunderland stroller has had to quit on the Rannoch but David (another stroller) is supposedly 15 minutes behind me. I doubt this because his supports aren’t about. I guess he has also quit and later proved right. I’m fairly sad about this but as one whw runner said:

there is never any real failure, just ongoing series of experiences that enrich our lives

The climb out of killy is another killer and seems to take an age. I know what’s coming as well, nearly seven miles of very rocky way. Again I move as fast as I can on it but suddenly I’m hit by overwhelming tiredness.

I’m not surprised though. On the Thursday I’d had a call to work Friday and had to go so no lie in. I planned to sleep on the afternoon but a neighbour chose that time to take a delivery of paving slabs. In the end I got up and drove the three hours to my supports house in Scotland, had a cuppa and drove to the start. When the race started at 1am I’d been up since 6am. That’s not a good start.

I seemed to kick every rock on that road and hurt my toe a bit. Still I made good time to Lundavra and the turn into the forest & homeward bound. Forest trail with steep drops and climbs follow until a last long climb to the Land rover track and the wonderful view of Ben Nevis. The toe was really hurting now and downhill was a problem. Not good when this track is so high it takes three miles of winding down to get to the road level in fort William. The first time I did this race I ran the whole thing (which is very tough on the quads at this stage) but I now took an age to limp down. Never mind, another finish and exquisite third Goblet is mine when the most wonderful ceremony that takes place later.

The famous WHW goblet.

30 hours running, way over my best with these races you soon learn, the finish is the important thing (as a lot don’t) and a good time a bonus. My future plan is to try and do this near 24 hour pace. Should be fun trying….

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