Monday, 20 June 2011

West Highland Way Race 2011

So I'm sat here on Monday evening with a bag of frozen peas tied on to my left ankle and a pint of Harviestoun Schiehallion within reach so have no reason to move for the next hour. I've just read John's epic race report and thought I would write mine now before I forget about the bad bits.

Firstly, though, I want to pass on my thanks to the committee, all of the marshals, the mountain rescue teams, the support crews, other supporters, my fellow runners and everyone else who helped to make this race happen and for it to be, on balance, a great experience. My support crew were my mum, dad and sister, and they did a brilliant job - thanks so much. And there were many times on the day that I remembered the things I'd read of others experiences and they helped me to dig in and keep moving - I really appreciated the help John Kynaston gave me with splits and pacing, and the thoughtful and philosophical words of Andy Cole, though at some point on the Way I think I remembered something inspirational from each of the blogs I follow. The thing I enjoy most about ultra-running is the community and carmaraderie of the sport, and last weekend had it in spades.

The West Highland Way Race comes right at the end of the busiest part of the year I have at work, so I was lucky to get away at 3pm on Friday and grab an hour's kip at my mum and dad's house before heading home in time for tea and to spend some time with Jenny and the kids. After one final bowl of porridge and cup of coffee, I headed over to Milngavie with my mum and dad for the start. Here we go...

Milngavie to Rowardennan
I bumped into Norry on the start line and we ran most of the first twelve miles to Drymen together. It was good to get going at last after all of the months of training, and more recently, the days of apprehension. As we chatted away the miles ticked by quickly and easily. I don't know if it was the hue of my headtorch or my colour blindness, but I failed to notice the the difference in colour between a big dollop of mud and a big fresh cowpat at Carbeth and had one very mucky, but quite pleasantly warm, shoe after only 5 miles. The puddles on the old railway were a bit of a relief. There was a quite a gang of us on the road through Gartness, and the support at Drymen - not least from Sandra's santa-cap wearing entourage - was great. We went through Drymen in about 2:10 - bang on the 21:30 schedule I had in my pocket (the Cole Formula predicted a time of 21:34 for me based on my Fling result - I'd optimistically rounded it down).

After the gloom of the forest it was good to get out on Conic and turn the torches off. Gavin McKinlay passed me looking like he was moving effortlessly along the track - I like his quality low mileage ethos and I have found his posts on the things he had learned from previous races really interesting and useful, but he was away into the mist before I had a chance to speak to him. I went through Balmaha on schedule in 3:30, picked up some more chocolate soya milkshakes and water from my mum and dad, then headed on up the loch. As I crossed the road leaving the car park I remembered that I had meant to say hello to Davie Hall at Balmaha but had forgotten - I decided not to do the extra couple of hundred of metres to go back and find him so if you read this Davie hopefully that makes sense - I'll see you next time.

Between Balmaha and Rowardennan I ran a few miles with Donnie Campbell. His run from Glasgow to Portree was just incredible - when we spoke on Saturday morning he thought he'd raised about £1,500. The total on his webpage ( this evening is £7,200!!! - a fantastic achievement. I reached Rowardennan in about 5 hours, doing an extra lap of the car park before finding the drop bags.

Rowardennan to Auchtertyre
I ran out of Rowardennan then had a good fast walk up the hill on the forest road and ran well down the other side. I was on my own along the narrow path into Inversnaid and stopped for a minute or two just to enjoy the scenery and the smells and sounds of the forest, with a vigorous emu oil leg rub thrown in to heighten the experience. Immediately my legs felt looser and I was going well through Inversnaid and on to the rough bit of trail. Ross Moreland and Bob Steel left Inversnaid just behind me, and seemed happy to let me set the pace for the next few miles though I felt like I was holding them up - in retrospect, I think I probably went a little quicker on this section than I would have liked to but having a bit of company made the miles tick by quicker.

With the mud and slippy rocks this section seemed much more difficult than I remembered it from the Fling - it was almost impossible to find a smooth rhythm. Ross and Bob moved ahead of me on the climb past Dario's memorial post (I couldn't resist pausing for a few seconds to take in the view) and were out of sight as I approached Beinglas. I was suprised to see John Kynaston at Beinglas as I expected he would be a few miles ahead of me by now. I was feeling okay so picked up my bag and headed off up the glen after some encouraging words from Ian and Adrian - I was still pretty much on my 21:30 schedule at a little over 8 hours.

I felt good going past Derrydarroch and up to the gate at Glen Bogle, then started to struggle a bit. I find the bit through the woods hard as you can't see yourself making progress against the surrounding landmarks because of the encroaching trees. Also, I started to get really bad pains and cramps in my hamstrings (which I'd never experience before), which after a while I realised was being caused by my Skins underpants (though they are advertised as shorts) that I was wearing - the pain was just below the hems. I was moving a bit stiffly into Auchtertyre and decided to use the ten minute cushion on schedule I'd built up to have a short break (and change of underwear). I left Auchtertyre after 10:20 of running and ten minutes of sitting down.

Auchtertyre to Glencoe
Heading across the moor just south of Tyndrum I saw that I was catching Mike Raffan - I thought I'd have been miles behind him by now since Mike had recorded some brilliant results this year. He'd been having a few stomach problems over the morning. We ran together out of Tyndrum and it was good to chat about how us pair of newbies where finding it so far. Mike was obviously not firing on all cylinders when I left him but I was pretty sure he'd catch me back up again soon enough. The pains in my hamstrings started to ease, though every so often my right hamstring would cramp and lose all power and my leg would buckle underneath me. It started to rain as I approached Bridge of Orchy (I couldn't believe it'd held off this long given the forecasts over the previous few days), which was nice and refreshing for the first five minutes, but less so for the following three hours.

I went through Bridge of Orchy in twelve and a half hours, still right on schedule, and felt good going up and over the short hill. I'd put a knee support on my right leg which helped a bit with the loss of power and buckling though it kept on happening for the rest of the way to Fort William. It was good to see Murdo, his saltire, and his Belgian groupies dishing out jelly babies on the summit, then have a nice run down to Victoria Bridge. I walked most of the way to Ba Bridge, but since I was walking at just over 4mph I was quite happy with that. I worked out that if I walked the rest of the way from Ba Bridge to Fort William at 4mph I'd get there in 21:30 - my target time. My sister ran out from Glencoe to meet me - it was good to have someone to chat to on the run down the hill to Glencoe, though I forgot to take on some fuel while we ran together. I reached Glencoe in about 15 hours - my feet were starting to really hurt now so I changed into a pair of Inov-8 running boots with sorbothane insoles and heelpads.

Glencoe to Kinlochleven
Just as I left Glencoe I saw Mike running in looking really strong, then he and Pete Duggan passed me as I stopped at Kingshouse to sort out a shoe problem. On the road after Kingshouse my feet at first still really hurt then by the time I was at the bottom of the Devil's staircase they'd eased off. I started to feel very tired and out of energy but managed to drink some cola and get into a good rhythm going up the hill (a quote from the Disney movie "Cars" kept coming back to and got me focused - "Find a groove that works for you kid, and stick with it" - one of the few advantages of having young kids).

I really enjoyed the descent to Kinlochleven. I tried to stay loose on the hill and was glad of the extra confidence having my ankles supported gave me. I kept telling myself that the descent wasn't as bad as the final descent on day two of a LAMM carrying a 14lb backpack, and I'd managed a few of them. I ran the final mile into KLL with my dad and sister feeling pretty good and just wanting to keep going as I felt like once I got up the next climb it was in the bag.

Kinlochleven to Fort William
I left KLL ten minutes up on schedule and I was still feeling good on the climb and was soon up it and on the easier track - I was glad of some of the training runs I'd done when I'd made sure I had a big climb near the end when I was tired. I felt better and better as I started along the big track to Lundavra, and figured I should make hay while the sun was shining so went as quick as felt comfortable for as long as I could. I saw Ross, Pete and Drew Sheffield on this section - I think Pete was having a bit of a bad patch, otherwise we were all moving well and were feeling more upbeat as we got closer and closer to Fort William.

I struggled a little on the hill coming out of Lundavra for the first time on the run - I wasn't going to complain about that since there were only 7 miles to go - and my ankles had started to ache now and every step of the run down the forest road to the Braveheart car park was painful. I tried to run like I had seen Gavin run on Conic, with a loping, effortless stride which worked for a mile or two, then I started taking the longest strides I could manage since every step was sore so the fewer steps the better. My sister and dad ran with me from Lundavra - it was great to have the company and since my dad had finished the Race six years previously, he knew exactly how I was feeling. Just before the car park Drew came past looking really strong.

As we hit the "pays des vaches" I tried to remember something about each of the mini sections of the way that I had been using to pace myself (the John Kynaston mini-split method) - mostly who I'd been running with but also how I'd felt and what I'd seen, heard or smelled (the wild garlic just after Inversnaid, for example, and of course that cowpat at Carbeth). Before my reminiscince had got as far as Glencoe, I could see the roundabout and my sister said to me "I don't want to worry you Al, but there's some guy catching us up", so I had to get my head down and leg it as I didn't want to lose a place at this stage.

I arrived at the leisure centre in 20 hours and 43 minutes - I'd made up a lot of time on schedule between KLL and Lundavra - which I was delighted with. I think three of us (Drew, then me, then Pete) finished within a minute or so, with Ross finishing really strongly just a few minutes behind us.

Post race
After finishing I had a quick chat with Ross, Pete, Drew, Adrian and Ian, then went for a shower and change of clothes. While I was putting my socks on in the changing room, Murdo the Magnificent inspected my bare feet and declared them in great shape so that was encouraging (though it was possibly a hallucination). We were staying in Newtonmore for the night and the hour in the car on the drive there was a bit sore but not too bad. I walked into the house and immediately fell asleep, fully clothed, on the first bed I came to - it was just before midnight.

I got up at 7am and had porridge, orange juice and coffee for breakfast. It was a beautiful morning and my legs felt okay considering so I went for a three mile walk with my dad. Then we drove back through to Fort William for the prizegiving. It was excellent - I remembered thinking when I ran my first ultra how great it is that there is no elitism in this sport - the top runners seem to recognise that everyone who takes part in these races has to try just as hard, and has achieved just as much, as everyone else. The prizegiving captured this sentiment perfectly. It was also good to find out how everyone else had got on, put a few faces to names, and hear about some of the other runners' adventures over the past 36 hours. Some of the performances were awesome - some for how quickly they covered the ground, and others for the strength and will power they had to keep going when things were really not going well.

I've reflected a bit on what wen't well on the race, what didn't go so well, whether I'd do the Race again and if so what I'd do differently, but that can wait since my glass is empty now (Harviestoun Schiehallion is seriously good beer) and the peas have melted.


  1. a great account ali of a great effort and fantastic time. well done. you should be well chuffed with that.i am for you! and you got andy cole as part mentor..i didn't realise he knew a bit about ultras too ;)
    hope you refilled that glass a few times!

  2. Congratulations on an excellent run Ali.

    Sorry I didn't see you at Beinglas. I thought you had been ahead of me all the way when I saw the results.

    You have been spot on in both the Fling and whw with your pacing.

    Well done.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. What a great performance Ali, and it was good to meet you and your dad on Sunday morning. I'm sure you'll be back for more next year!

  4. Great race report and a great time.

    Very well done and i hope you decide to do it again next year

  5. What a great run. Welll done, the beer was more than deserved. It's good to hear of others little 'tricks' that keep them going :-)

  6. Nice report Ali and great run. You got everything pretty well spot-on. Well done.

  7. Great blog and a cracking race you had! Hope you're recovering well, see you next year?

  8. Congratulations on a great race and a great time! Enjoy your goblet.

  9. Ali, thanks for spotting the time travelling mistake on my blog. I confused clock time with running time :-)
    A very impressive result in particular for a first attempt. In particular "finding" that sweet spot for a strong finish is just priceless. In paricular between KLL and Lundavra (which reminds me of my own race) Well done and welcome to the "family" :-)