Monday, June 22, 2009

The Journey of the West Highland Way Run - 95 miles

Warning...this is a long blog...after all it was 95 miles! 60 hours with no sleep. 2 Sunrises, 1 Sunset. Put your feet up with a cup of tea!

This tunnel at the Milngavie Rail Station is the official starting place of the event.

Graeme, Neil's brother and crew member helping me prepare for the journey.
The journey began when we left the flat in Edinburgh at 9:30pm on the Friday night after enjoying a pasta dinner (no Wine!) in the Grassmarket. The skies were grey and it was raining on the drive to Milngavie. We arrived at the starting point to a buzz of activity in the parking lot. I recognized many runners whom I had come to know in the past few months by way of WHW blogs, and forums. I tried to greet as many of them as I could and was particularly pleased to meet John Kynaston an experienced WHW runner who through his blog provided great information, insight and enthusiasm about the event which really helped prepare us. At check in we were greeted by Dario (race director) who provided us with the goodie bag and the "sports tracker" which was supposed to allow GPS tracking of us throughout the event. When giving it to us he suggested we not turn it on for a few hours as it had limited battery power. Neil and I looked at each other and confirmed our concerns that this device may not work! We were very impressed by the detailed instructions and safety measures we were given. They weighed us at the check-in and gave this information to our crew to present at other weighing stations along the journey. This was my first experience with being weighed (I didn't look!) in an Ultra event. One thing I noticed at the start was there didn't appear to be that many females in the starting line-up! Back to the car to say good-bye to the crew (Graeme, Fiona and Charles) until our first stop.
At 1AM Sat June 20th we were off! The headlamps were on as we left the train station to be greeted by the local late night Pub patrons who graciously left their beer to come out to give us a big cheer as we ran by! We ran through a dark woodland park and found a nice comfortable pace. One thing that I really noticed and appreciated was the silence from the runners. Everyone was focused on the task and what lay ahead. My experience with runs in North America is that the starts are full of chatter about what people have accomplished, how their training has gone, their race expectations, that they are not feeling well, they weren't racing today, their injuries etc...I really appreciated the focused silence. We found a comfortable pace and I felt my lungs were good and the asthma meds were working. We were running on a path that took us through beautiful pastoral country side. We had perfect conditions, the temperature was aprox 10 degrees, I was really enjoying the night running and the picture perfect scenes. At one point we were running along and Neil started pointing to the right, I looked and there appeared the glowing lights of Glengoyne Distillery in the field. They were one of the sponsors of the event. We were appreciative of the runners around us who knew their way as there was great potential for us to make a wrong turn in this section.

Our crew met us at the first stop at the Beechtree Inn, 11.8km. We refilled our water and headed out. Next stop was Drymen at 20km. The midges were starting to appear. I had heard about midges many times over the years but this was my first real experience. They are smaller than mosquitoes, and nip away at you at every angle and skin exposure. I was swallowing them by the mouthful at one point and thought oh my this may break me!!
After this we climbed up Conic Hill to be greeted by the beautiful views of Loch Lommond below us. I think this is one of the most spectacular views I have ever experienced on a run. It gave me an appreciation of the vastness of Loch Lommond and yes we were going to be going all the way along it's shore. We then joined the trail along the shores of Loch Lommond for some spectacular and varied trail running. We ran with a guy who has done the event several times and figured we were doing well and heading as predicted for a 28 hour finish. From Rowardennan to Carmyle was the longest section without seeing our crew. There was a section near the north end of Loch Lommond that was very slow due to the terrain of boulders and continual ups and downs. We reached Carmyle feeling good (70 km now completed) and were greeted by our crew with chants of "Go Team Canada Go"! We also met some familiar faces from the Carnethy Running Club and Murdo McEwan who had provided some valuable support earlier in the week. We were glad to finally get to Carmyle as we thought that somehow we had missed the meeting place for our crew and were feeling the need for more fluid and food. I had been eating and drinking well along the way. I was running with 2 bottles, one with coke (ultra runners favourite fuel!) one with water.
At the 80km check point we were weighed by the race officials and we were both maintaining our starting body weights within the limits. There were baked potatoes for the runners and wow did they taste good! We were both pleased that we had made it this far without any serious issues. Cheers from the passersby to this point were comments as "you're looking fresh as a daisy" and "you are looking good and strong". We were on our way to Tyndrum then Bridge of Orchy. I was looking forward to this section as we ran this at Christmas time when we were over. However, at this point (aprox 90km) my feet really started to hurt. They were so sore on the pads near the front. They were burning, shooting pain and throbbing all at the same time! I have never experienced such intense pain in my feet. It hurt when I ran, it hurt when I walked. Well may as well run with the sore feet then! Tried my best to keep the legs turning over with the run for this section. I must have really been compromising my gait as all of a sudden my right knee stiffened up and I couldn't bend it to run. I touched my knee and the lateral side was very tender. It really concerned me as I have never had any knee discomfort before. The leg would not bend. It was a walk into Bridge of Orchy and Neil ran ahead to inform the crew I was suffering. I got there, sat on the lawn chair and decided to change my socks and shoes. I think there may have been a few tears at this point as well! The crew were awesome and went into immediate planning mode of "now what?" Does Neil continue ahead with Graeme as his pacer at night...does Carolyn pull out because she appears to have injured her knee so she can no longer run and the feet are so sore! At this point I couldn't imagine tolerating the pain for another 10 hours or more. Big brother Charles was a saint and convinced me to forget about the next 55kms and just see how it feels for the next 5km to Victoria Bridge. Graeme has now joined us as a pacer runner and the guys were very patient as I struggled my way to Blackrock Cottage. During this section I had so many people stop and encourage me to carry on. Many told me that if I walked the entire remaining 50 something km's I would still make it under the 35 hour cut off time. Well that sounded like an option worth trying. Thank-you to all of you who took the time to encourage me at perhaps the lowest moment for me in the entire event. I still had a hard time thinking of having such intense pain in my feet for such a long time. How would I cope with the pain? I tried Advil - it didn't work. I tried the British version of Advil - Anadol - it didn't work. A runner came by me and suggested I try "strapping my feet". (We call it taping.) What a brilliant idea...too bad we didn't bring any tape! Graeme ran ahead to Blackrock Cottage and found a crew that just happened to have some gauze like bandages and tape. (I actually met this hero at the celebration dinner). Charles had my socks and shoes off and was taping the pads of my feet like he knew what he was doing. It helped a lot...for awhile! At this stop we put on a few more layers of clothing in preparation for nightfall. The decision was made that Charles was now going to join in to be my pacer for the night and Graeme would keep an eye on Neil. We were all staying together (it was a family journey!) Fiona was now going to be alone in the car driving from point to point. It was not ideal but what appeared to be necessary at the time. As we headed into Glencoe to approach the Devil's Staircase Graeme commented that he never thought he would be going up into this area on a Saturday night in the dark! Something most people would only attempt during daylight. I managed the climb no problem as it wasn't too sore to go up and my strength was still there. Once on the top I stopped for a pee and had the most amazing view of the silhouettes of the mountains from the squat position. Red sky at night Shepherd's delight! We crossed over some really rough terrain on this section. Neil's feet start to hurt. The pain was in his heels and he became very quiet. The down hill into Kinlochleven was very dark and quite steep, killer on our feet. Graeme had gone ahead and Charles, Neil and I were uncertain if we were on the route. Finally we see a WHW post...what a relief! As Neil described going down into this area was like going into the bowels of the earth! From here on the journey becomes a bit of a blur. At Kinlochleven we hear there is a Dr. there and perhaps he could re-tape my feet and do Neil's. Unfortunately there was a bit of a wait for the Dr. so we decided to carry on. I must mention another runner who was suffering from feet problems. I'm not sure of his name, I heard he was from Ireland, we were travelling close throughout the journey and wow he was a trooper! We shared pain stories each time we met out there. His humour was getting him through and it was helping me too! I passed him on the decent into the finish and I said to Charles that if I see him at the party I am going to buy him a drink!
Some other moments I recall are coming across the Mountain Rescue folks in the middle of the night offering us chocolate, crisps or fluid! I asked for pain meds but they didn't have any of those! Comments now were "you are one determined soldier" longer was I looking fresh as a daisy! I have heard of ultra runners experiencing "hallucinations". I had a few. A few times I said to that Fiona's car over there? (hopeful for some food and a rest!) On the descent into the finish Neil was stumbling along ahead of me and I thought he was wearing a kilt! Apparently he had his light jacket tied around his waist so it looked longer on his legs than his shorts. I also recall the feeling of incredible plaque build up on my teeth on both buccal and lingual surfaces. Being a Dental Hygienist this was a concern for me. I was also cognisant of the fact that I had been sipping on coke for about 20 hours...not a recommended habit! The last check point seemed to take forever to get there, the rough rocky road was endless. Charles heard some choice words from me and tolerated my crabby disposition. I can't thank him enough for how he got me to the end by breaking it down section by section when I was in such pain. When the finish line was in sight I dug very deep as Neil grabbed my hand and we ran in together. Dario greeted us at the door of the Leisure Center and offered us a drink of Glengoyne Whiskey from a quiach (a cup of friendship). I usually can't drink Whiskey but I sure managed to gulp it down with no hesitation. We were finished! A bit longer (31:59:45) than we thought but that didn't matter. I can definitely say with confidence that "Pain is temporary and Pride is forever." An amazing discovery of my personal determination to succeed and complete the task. Of course I could not have done it without the amazing support of our crew; Fiona, Charles and Graeme. And a huge thanks to my loving husband Neil for believing in me that I could accomplish this and hanging in there with me for all the training and events leading up to this event. It has been a great journey! Thank-you to Dario and team for such a great event. You do a fantastic job with the organizing the race, the prize giving and after party. Looking forward to having a drink out of my crystal goblet. What's next...well as I was reminded by a friend's email today STORMY 100 is only 6 weeks away!! Will I do WHW again...yes! But next time I will bring some tape! ;-)


  1. I'm sure we met at some point on the journey.
    Your injury problems were similar to mine; i.e. blisters on the forefoot and ITB pain affecting the knee. The descent from Kinlochleven as you described it was a bit more colourful in my blog but I got the gist!
    Congratulations on your goblet. Hopefully we'll all do it again.

  2. Well done - great achievement. It was great to meet up in Edinburgh pre race, and I'm delighted you both completed it. Hopefully see you back here soon - give us a call if you are, Ian

  3. Well done you two - such an amazing journey to share together!! Pain is only temporary - you're so right - and you deserve every ounce of pride! What an achievement for you guys!! Hope you are treating yourself to some well deserved rest and relaxation.

  4. Congratulations Carolyn & Neil on a great run. You showed true character in battling through and getting to Fort William.

    I promise you it will be easier next year as you will be more confident of the way and have the experience of finishing.

    I'm glad my blog helped you in your preparation. When I started it 2 and half years ago I was hoping that it would help others as I shared my journey so it was encouraging to read that it helped you!

    I look forward to following your blog over the next year!