West Highland Way Race, Milngavie, Glasgow, Monday, July 24, 2017

95 miles

Aaron Gourley

 

95 miles, 14,000ft – One Incredible Experience

“I’m never running another ultra again,” I muttered to myself as I lay on the floor in the finish hall in Filey at the end of the Hardmoors 60 last September. Feeling totally exhausted and dejected after the wheels of my race fell off in spectacular fashion at Scalby, I’d decided that was enough and I wanted no further part in the activity.

But time is a great healer and before I knew it, I was entering the ballot for the West Highland Way race 2017 after being inspired by the BBC Adventure Show’s coverage of the 2016 race. I also managed to tempt my running partner in crime, Jen O’Neill into entering. With a place secured for both of us, all my focus was on this race alone and I knew I had to seriously improve my training if I was to complete and ultimately, enjoy this race.

But the West Highland Way is a race that comes with many conditions, one being the need for a support crew which is a massive commitment for anyone. I luckily was able to secure the services of Phil Owen whose experience of this race, both as a runner and support crew, would prove invaluable and a good friend who I going hiking with, Brian Shepherd.

As the race approached doubts about my ability started to creep in, a two day Lakeland 100 recce with Gary Thwaites at the beginning of June had me seriously doubting my ability and almost forced me to withdraw, but I stuck by and on Friday 23rd June I set off for the long journey to Scotland.

Arriving at Milngavie station car park was the first moment of real nervousness. I’d tried to sleep in the car on the way up but couldn’t.  The car park was full and there was a real buzz around the place. I went to register, got my timing chip and the first of four weigh-ins and headed back to the car to change, eat and rest until the start of the race at 1am on the Saturday morning. This rest was disturbed when a slightly drunk women drove into the car park and hit mine and another car as she tried to park. Not a great way to relax for a big race like this.

As 1am approached I made my way to the start line at the underpass next to the station for the race brief and met up with Jen who was looking nervous and not confident given the huge problems she’s been having with her knee lately. Soon it was 1am and we were off, through the underpass, up a few stairs and along the High Street before turning off into the darkness of the trails.

The miles from Milngavie ticked by uneventfully, it was dark and the light from head torches stretched into the distance. I kept a steady pace, trying not to get too carried away and running too fast on the fairly flat trail.  Before long we were at the first significant point on the route, Drymen where Phil and Brian were to meet. I didn’t hang around and made off again into the darkness.

Next few miles ticked over until day light broke as we approached Conic Hill, the first significant climb on the route, and provided us with expansive views of Loch Lomond below. The weather had been windy but mild, in fact almost perfect for running in, but the clouds hung low in the distance and looked ominous with the forecast for rain throughout the day. The big plus though was the dreaded Scottish midgies were kept at bay.

All too soon, after a steep drop off Conic Hill, Jen and I reached the first check point of Balmaha at 19 miles. Here we both had a quick refuel and toilet stop before setting off for the next section along the banks of Loch Lomond. The run out was good and the views were spectacular as the sun rose, but all too soon the trail got trickier and more technical to run. We made it to Rowardennan check point together for the first of two drop bag points. I had a square of sandwich and a Boost chocolate bar and we set off once more.

However, I could see my heart rate starting to creep up and was working hard to keep the pace so took the decision to drop back from Jen who was running strong. I really didn’t want to break my race at this point.

As Jen headed out of sight I made my way carefully along the banks of the loch to Inversnaid. This section was really tough and I was feeling tired having been up since 7am the previous morning. I took a moment to refill my water bottles before setting off for the next checkpoint where I would see Phil and Brian again, Beinglas Farm.

I made it in and learned Jen had put 15 minutes on me (she went on to have a storming race and finished in 23hrs51mins – 44th place). I was tired but feeling ok. After a quick sit down and being forced to eat a few fork fulls of Pot Noodle, I was off. From here to the next checkpoint was a bit of a blur but before long I was at Auchtertyre where I was weighed at the checkpoint, I’d lost nearly 3kgs but still within the safe limit. I then found Phil and sat in the car for a bite to eat and a nice cup of coffee and a rice pudding. All was good, I’d gone through a bit of a rough patch getting there but was feeling ok, then as I stood up to head off, I felt an awful sensation run over my body, then before I knew it I was on my hands and knees being sick. The coffee and rice making an unwelcome return.

I was devastated by this then I noticed the marshal from the checkpoint coming over and I feared my race was over. But she kindly offered me a wet wipe to freshen my face with, a cup of water from someone who was supporting another runner and a few words of encouragement from Phil and I was back on my way, I had 3 miles before I would see them again at Tyndrum.

At Tyndrum I met my support and they forced me to eat some pasta and soup but I was scared it might make me sick again. I had a little bit, but bizarrely, I really craved an ice-lolly so Brian went off to the shop and returned with a Calippo. I trudged out of the Tyndrum with my Calippo. I must have looked mental to the walkers coming past the other way as the weather had turned again and the wind and driving rain battered from the west. I didn’t really care as I ate it along with a few Shot Bloks and before long I was feeling ok again as the track stretched out ahead of me towards Bridge of Orchy.

Having found my rhythm again I was able to start running as the track was fairly flat and great for running on. Before long I was making great progress and came into Bridge of Orchy full of beans. Here I had a quick turn around and Phil sent me off up Jelly Baby Hill with a handful of Pringles and a sandwich.

Jelly Baby Hill gets its name from the Murdo who makes camp at the top of the hill and greets runners with good cheer and the offer of a Jelly Baby. The wind at the top was fierce and Murdo was camped firmly in his tent, only appearing when runners reached him before disappearing back to shelter. On my approach he came out, greeted by with a firm handshake and sent me off with lovely green Jelly Baby.

The path down the other side of the hill was very runnable but the wind was fierce and biting cold. Phil had opted to meet me on the road side at the bottom and I took the chance to have some food and make a full change of clothes including long leggings, a new top and OMM waterproof ready for the next section over Rannoch Moor as I knew it would be exposed and cold on this stretch. As I left I had a few more snacks and felt good to still be running, I’d passed 60 miles now, the furthest I’ve ran up to now so I was going into the unknown, but I felt good.

There was a long climb up onto the moor and the wind was really getting up but was manageable, but then as I approach the plateau, the wind really picked up and brought with it driving rain. It became really difficult to see as the rain swept across the open moor and the temperature plummeted. I made an effort to keep running as it was really getting cold and the wind was driving the rain hard. It seemed to take a long time to get across the moor but before long I was at Glencoe Ski Centre checkpoint.

I checked in and spotted my support car so made my way over looking to get full change and a hot drink as I was freezing and soaked through. But when I got to the car I realised they weren’t there, so I headed up to the ski centre where I found them about to settle into nice warm drinks. They were both surprised when I walked in as they thought it would have taken me longer to get there but as I explained to them the conditions and the fact that I’d pressed on they both sprang into action to fetch a change of clothes and Brian kindly gave me his cup of hot tea which went down a treat.

I spent the next hour here getting changed, warming through and having a small bite to eat as Phil changed having decided he would join me for the next section to Kinlochleven. All too soon we were back out in the cold and wet as we headed down the long path and up the valley to the foot of the Devil’s Staircase. This was a drag and I’d lost my momentum, the conditions I’d encountered up on Rannoch Moor had really demoralised me. We pressed on and started the relatively short but steep ascent of the Devil, I was really struggling now and more competitors started catching me on this climb.

Each step felt heavy but then I spotted a sign saying ‘Shop 500 metres’. Was I hallucinating? was this some kind of sick joke? We pressed on and eventually another sign read ‘Shop 100 metres’ and then another at 50 metres. I was really struggling with reality then all of a sudden at the top of the staircase were two bright yellow tents stacked with goodies and cans of pop along with an honesty box. This was a tremendous gesture by someone and I’d have loved a can of Iron-Bru that was on offer but neither me or Phil had any cash on us so we pressed on.

The path down to Kinlochleven was long, gnarly and steep making it difficult to get any kind of momentum. In the foot of the valley we could see our destination but it seemed to take a long time to reach it as we passed through the forested hillside and across various streams and by a dam which was in full flow. It was now around 10:30pm but still light enough to see as he reached the village and made our way to the checkpoint which was a welcome relief.

At the checkpoint I was weighed once again and Brian was there with hot drinks and the bag full of food and treats. I have to admit I was seriously flagging now, shear tiredness was really taking its toll. Once more after what felt only a few moments it was time to head off for the last 15 miles to the finish. I knew I’d cracked it but still had a long way to go over what was probably the roughest part of the race, and it was now pitch black.

Phil continued with me for this last section as we made our way up the long climb out of Kinlochleven. On this climb we passed a guy sitting dejected, with his crew partner, he’d decided to call it a day. He simply had nothing left to give, such shame to see so close to the end but it made me more determined to finish than ever. We pressed on into the darkness. The next hour or so was a steady climb until we reached Lundavra where a marshal team were out and their Saltire flags being stretched in the howling wind. They had a table laid with various fizzy drinks. A cup of Iron-Bru was so welcoming as I sat for a few moments to gather myself.

Pressing on, the track for the next few miles began to resemble a river, it got pointless trying to find a dry line as there was so much water. The darkness was disorientating but I followed Phil’s lines. Soon we hit the forest, or at least what used to be forest but work to clear this had torn he paths up making it awful to cross. It was at this point that Phil took a tumble, (in my sleep deprived state, this is how I remember it, Phil believes I’m over playing it!) heading head first off the side of the path down the steep side of the valley.  It was terrifying to see he fall but he managed to save himself and clamber back onto the path. Then as he brushed himself down, I couldn’t help but laugh, childish I know, but I couldn’t help it.

Anyway, with Phil back up and running we pressed on. It was starting to get light again as we made the final little climb out of the forest and onto the fire road for the final 3 miles. The path was steep and we briefly broke out into a trot but I had a stitch so settled for a fast paced walk. Since Kinlochleven, we’d been trading places with various people along the way, up ahead were two runners that had passed when we had a short stop at the final checkpoint. We caught and passed them once again, then a group of around four runners passed us.

As the gradient shallowed I looked at my watch for the first time in a long time, It was after 4am, I was still moving well and though that I had a chance to get back in under 28hrs. This was the only point in the whole race where time became important and I made the decision to try and press on and get to the finish as quickly as possible.

Just as I dropped onto the road heading into Fort William, Phil took a toilet stop, I pressed on thinking he would catch up. As I ran along the roadside I realised I was gaining quickly on two people up ahead and soon I was alongside them as we ran into Fort William.

The group of four were now just ahead and I laid down the challenge to the runners I was with to catch them, so we upped the pace and soon were alongside them. Now, the leisure centre and the finish line came into view and I’m not sure who began it, but all of a sudden we were racing to the finish line.

It felt fantastic to be racing for this final 200 metres, four competitors battling for position at the end of nearly 28hrs on our feet in dire conditions.  I finished in a very respectable 102nd place in 27hrs41mins.

After a few hours sleep we headed over to the Nevis Centre for 12pm and what is a truly unique prize giving. Nearly every competitor turns up and is individually presented with their crystal goblet in order of their finish position. I must admit I felt on top of the world going out to collect mine, it was  a very proud moment. Even more special is the tradition that the person who came first presents the final finisher with their goblet. This went to a lady who showed true spirit and finished a mere 20 mins before the final cut-off and presentation to rapturous applause.

On reflection I learnt a lot from the experience. Yes, I could have trained better, yes I could have spent less time at checkpoints, I most definitely need to learn how to eat better on big runs but none of those things matter if, especially in this race, you don’t have a good support crew. I’ve never really appreciated how important a support crew is. Phil’s experience really helped and Brian’s commitment to the full weekend ensured I made the start line. Both waited on me hand and foot, made me eat when I didn’t want to and encouraged me to keep going during low points and I will be eternally grateful to them both. At the time I said I’d never do the race again, but writing this report has me thinking that I may have unfinished business, 2018 might be a possibility!

Results are available here

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