Tuesday, July 5, 2011

West Highland Way 2011

Carolyn has asked me to write my own race report this year as the WHW 2011 was a solo effort as compared to 2009 and 2010 where we ran together. With that being said, it was with some trepidation that I toed the line in Milngavie with an aired goal of finishing in around 24hrs.

Taking a step back, while we had been active throughout the winter with some major endurance outings, I would not say that I had carried out my desire to train hard and harder still for this years solo performance. However, I tend not to worry too much about such trivialities and after 65 ultras rely on my experience that I may not win but barring disaster, I will tough it out one way or the other! Another consideration was the jet lag. Some say that for travelling afar to run ultras, it is best to fly in the day before and run the ultra right away, not allowing the body clock that inner wrangling as it tries to adjust to a new place and a new time zone. The more we do this, the more I think that may not be such a bad strategy but for us, with family commitments and making the most of our trip, we come the week before and try to acclimatize. This year, we struggled a bit for whatever reason (perhaps the 100km the previous weekend) and it wasn't till race day Friday that I felt "normal"..thankfully.

So, to Milngavie. Race check in done and I was anxious to be off. We met a few of the runners and volunteers that we knew from the last two years and I received some good words of encouragement. I joked with Keith that we would be neck and neck to Fort William. We also met a fellow Vancouverite, Kenneth who we didn't really know prior to the event but he was able to find us as my brother Charles was wearing a Vancouver Canucks (NHL hockey team) shirt! Also chatted with Donald who was wearing classic tartan running shorts. Donald had a goal of 24hrs so I thought that if Donald was around me, I should be OK. With a slightly heavy heart, I hugged Carolyn goodbye for I knew she was very disappointed not to be running this year. However, she and Charles were looking forward to crewing and following the race as it unfolded for all of us.

We were off at a decent clip. However, I quickly fell into "the zone" and did not feel that my breathing was uncomfortably laboured or I was pushing too hard. There was a pack of us, maybe 10 runners, including Debs. This was a bit unnerving as I know Debs is a strong runner and a contender for the female race. However, I put this down to, Debs must start slow and speed up! I had told Carolyn and Charles that I wanted to drink at every stop and so coming into Beechtree Inn I stopped and chugged down two cups of water. Then it was off to Drymen as the sun started to come up. Still our "band of brothers" was tightly on each others heels. One guy challenged us, as we crossed a road somewhere, to finish the race as a unit! Not likely my friend! Going into Drymen, Donald and I were together when he pulled out his mobile and told his crew that he would like a Milky Way at the checkpoint! I thought, gee that must be a Scottish running fuel.....I love Milky Ways!

After Drymen the group started to thin out. Debs passed me and so did a few other runners. I was OK with that as according to Charles I was on track for my goal of reaching Rowardennan by 6AM. The climb up Conic Hill was no problem but the freestyle slide down the other side made me think that wearing road shoes for the whole journey was a mistake! I don't think I have ever slid so far downhill and stayed upright. It was kind of fun!

Quickly down into Balmaha and I did the bizarre act of changing one sock, my right sock. It was an instantaneous decision but going into the event I was paranoid about my feet giving me problems. In the previous two years, both Carolyn and I have had feet issues. Prior to the 2009 event, Dario had told us that the number one complaint from North American entrants was how much their feet hurt. He was right that year and last year! So I changed one sock because I felt a hot spot starting. When I laced back up I got Charles to help me tie my laces (what are big brothers for!). This helped considerably with foot comfort and for the rest of the event, I never gave my feet a second thought! Was it because of the wet or was it because of my Drymax socks which must be the best running socks ever? I don't know but my feet were perfect and for that I was most relieved.

The run to Rowardennan was long. I felt like I lost time. I was sweating profusely and couldn't understand why as it didn't feel too hot so I was drinking lots and taking salt tabs. I wanted to avoid getting too tired too early on and thought logically, that hydration would be a key. Eventually, Rowardennan arrived at just on 6AM so I had met my goal and what followed for the rest of the race would unfold of its own accord and I did not make any further time targets knowing that I had made a good start to the event. I was happy. I ran in complaining to Carolyn and Charles that the problem with WHW is that there is too much running! Give me a 6000ft climb to break up the running please! A quick refuel of soup and a sandwich and then off on the long section to Benglas via Inversnaid.

We had agreed that we would meet at Benglas, it seemed like such a long stretch without seeing my friendly crew to go all the way to Auchtertyre. Although the section along Loch Lomond side is amongst the most technical and slow going, I did enjoy it. There were about three or four of us in a loose group that traded places back and forth all the way to Benglas. I didn't know any of them but we exchanged pleasantries and I must commend all of you that Scottish trail running etiquette is of a very high standard!

I carried a pocket digital camera throughout the race and I had decided prior to the event that I would try and take regular video clips and pics of the entire journey. As you know, Carolyn and I like to record our outings for posterity and my WHW was to be no exception. It takes but a few seconds to take a picture that is a memory for a long time after. I particularly wanted to stop and enjoy the view from the head of the Loch beside Dario's marker post. I am glad I did this is as that view is truly challenged by few others in representing the beauty of Scotland.

Into Benglas to the news from Carolyn that John K. had just left. What?! I must be going too fast but felt like I was starting to "dog" it a bit. Carolyn had teased John that I was chasing him down. John, I need to assure you that that type of tactic is not my style! I run against myself and the journey is solo. Anyway, I think at this point I decided that I wasn't getting any cooler and shed my running vest.....good move!

On to Auchtertyre. This was a good section although long. I was a bit slow going up Bogle Glen but that journey was lightened by some happy hiker souls. One gentlemen joked that he wondered if I would trade packs with him! Looking at what he carried I gracefully indicated that my journey was hard enough and wished him luck! Why do hikers carry so much stuff!? I ran solo into Auchtertyre looking for the washroom....they need more facilities there...it was busy and I wasted a good few minutes but that is reality I guess! Here I left my back pack and went with one hand held onto Tyndrum.

It was quite warm and the nice short section was welcome before I saw Carolyn and Charles again. Lots of people around this stretch and it was nice to exchange words as we passed each other by. I always pride myself on remaining upbeat and light hearted as a runner to crew and passers by no matter how rough it may get. I feel that it is important not to take oneself too seriously. This is supposed to be fun...right! Going into Tyndrum, I caught up with John but elected to stop and enjoy some ice cream and french fries courtesy of the Real Food Cafe and kindly purchased by my crew. I should say at this point that I have a good stomach for ultra running and can usually always eat solid food. It is a blessing for sure as power gels surely get sickening for all of us after awhile!

Coming out of Tyndrum the wind was picking up and the skies were darkening with rain clouds. Charles ran after me out of the village to give me my rain jacket which was a lucky deed as it would turn out! Soon after I caught up with John and we chatted for a bit about my expected finish time. John had me pegged at sub 22 hrs! It was at this point that I thought just maybe I could squeeze under 24 hrs if I kept up a reasonable pace. John was not having his best day and I empathised with him before he encouraged me to be off. I wished him well and set my sights on Bridge of Orchy.

Truthfully, I was starting to hurt a bit or perhaps more accurately my legs just ached from all the running. I love this section of WHW as the expanse of Scotland seems to unfold in front of you and Beinn Dorain looms large above you. I could see a runner a short distance ahead of me and I gained on him shortly. This turned out to be Donnie, he of ultra human effort in the name of charity. From this point on to the finish, I had the pleasure of running and chatting with Donnie for large distances. I never got the chance to thank him personally but it was a big help to me and it re-energized me at some times when I was digging deep to keep the momentum going. Half way to Bridge of Orchy it started to rain and the rain running down my brow washed the salt on my face into my contact lens enhanced eyes. Those of you that wear contacts know what I am talking about..it burns big time so I had to walk a bit to clear my vision.

Coming into Bridge of Orchy, Shawn instructed me to not to proceed further without carrying rain gear. No problem....I had every intention of gearing up for the high country. I knew as I left Bridge of Orchy for Victoria Bridge that a highlight of the race lay ahead in this next section and sure enough as I crested the high point of the trail I came upon Murdo complete with St. Andrews Cross and powdered jelly babies. It was blowing and raining hard up there and I commend Murdo for his fortitude and kindness albeit to check that all runners were following the course as they should. I quickly asked Murdo for a pic with the flag and then he hurried me on telling me as I parted that there was a couple of hikers ahead of me from Vancouver wearing luminous green. I never saw them standing out in the mountain heather and bog.

At Victoria Bridge, my crew had a nice treat from the bar...peanuts! They were good! The next section to Glencoe is not my favourite. That old military road breaks the running stride and kills the feet. It was pretty miserable up there but surprisingly there were still more hikers. Their encouragement was very kind as they themselves looked for shelter where there was little. During this section I also met up with Jody and again, he and I would go back and forth and share the journey to Fort William. The final stretch into Glencoe ski area sucks. It is rough and muddy and I wasn't happy when I finally made it up on to the road to be met by Charles. Another runners crew shouted words of encouragement and I don't think I have ever seen such positive support crew anywhere...what a treat... they cheered all of us along the way!

I was drinking a lot of soup by now and despite what I said earlier, my stomach felt a little iffy so I pummelled down a good mix of liquid and solid food before leaving the parking lot with a handheld of Coke to help settle things down. Onwards to Kingshouse where we arranged the plan for the final stages. I could smell the finish, see the barn door wide open and taste the whiskey from the quaich! Exciting!

Always a spectacular section through Glencoe with Buachaille Etive Mor providing an impressive symbol of the Scottish Highlands along the way to Ailtnafeadh. Here I refueled again...think I had some cold french fries....mmmmmm...before heading up the Devils Staircase. Out of nowhere Keith appeared focused and determined. At the rate Keith was going I though he would win the light hearted challenge we had placed against each other all the way back in Milngavie. I was totally fine with that as Keith said in passing that we were on for sub 24hrs! Really? I didn't find the Devils staircase or the run down into Kinlochleven that bad at all. In the last two years when Carolyn and I have done this together it has always been in the dark and has seemed like an interminable journey. However, in the daylight it was actually quite pleasant. Soon I was rounding the corner to the leisure centre and being weighed in by Julia. A quick refuel. I wasn't eating that much by now in my mind although Carolyn and Charles maintain that I ate and drank well throughout the event. My stomach had settled down and I felt OK although energy was not super high.

I climbed at my own pace out of Kilochleven and although I was passed by Keith and Donnie, I found the climb fine and enjoyed the views as I gained altitude. However, the view down the Lairigmor is a bit sole destroying knowing that one has to travel the entire glen and more before reaching Lundavra. A welcome distraction were the three groups of Search and Rescue volunteers along the way. Thanks guys and I hope the picture you took of me was reflective of the utter sense of well being I felt at that moment:) Lots and lots of water through here and I found myself running hard straight through the puddles just to get to Lundavra where Carolyn would join me for the final home stretch. I ran with Jody for quite a bit here and we chatted back and forth. I marvelled at his ability to skip from rock to flat spot while I ploughed straight through the middle. I have to admit that it was getting a bit cold on the feet.

Finally Lundavra at 10.05PM. A quick refuel, more Coke and Carolyn led the way out. I thanked Charles and said those immortal words "see you at the finish"! Now I am not sure what Carolyn's tactic was but she was instantaneously ahead of me and remained a disappearing shape in the impending darkness as I struggled on behind. Is this what pacing is all about between a husband and wife! Anyway, once we entered the thick forest the headlamps finally came back on. There are some steep sections through there, particularly that final push up to the gravel road. From the bottom looking up, that seemed like Mt. Everest! Soon out on the road Carolyn pulled out the camera and filmed a clip of me running downhill.

I knew at this point that all was good but that a sub 23 hr was even possible if I could keep pushing. What! Could it be!? With that, Carolyn led the way at a pace I struggled with. My quads were done and I started to sweat profusely with the aggressive pace. As an aside it was interesting to note a number of headlamps slowly descending Ben Nevis. If those people were seeing our lamps they hopefully recognized that we were going much faster than they! On the flat to Braveheart at a fast pace. I had to stop a couple of times unbeknown to Carolyn who continued ahead of me. However, I set my sights on the 30MPH lights that mark the outskirts of Fort William and soon enough they were upon us and there was Charles to run us in. I was home free! Blazing down the pavement to the cheers of a sizeable crowd for that time of day and I was touching the glass door of the leisure centre. I was done!

Adrian and Midge welcomed me in and did the necessaries. 22:47! For me, I was over joyed! I had no delusions going into this of how I would do but as I said at the beginning of this epistle, I started with some trepidation but I finished with much pride and gratitude to my dear Carolyn and ever supportive and kind brother Charles. I couldn't have done it without you guys.

Now a lesson learned. In the past two years I have always been respectful of not taking too much whiskey. This year, I thought what the heck, I will have a good slug. Big mistake! That whiskey, albeit good to taste, hit my stomach like a brick and I shortly felt both nauseous and spaced out. We were staying at the Best Western in town. Nice hotel but too many stairs! By the time we got to our room I was close to collapse from the whiskey and exhaustion. It was a very weird feeling. However, I managed a bath while Carolyn and Charles kindly went out to brave the drunken out pouring from the closing Fort William pubs to find yet more french fries from the Fish and Chippie as I was hungry and needed some refueling!

And so it was with a pleasurable feeling that I passed out with a tray of chips and a Coke by my beside to dream of a fantastic journey that was. There is truly something about WHW that makes it a very special event. The people, the scenery, the camaraderie, the incredible journey.....all of this and I thank the organizing committee and all the volunteers for all they do. It is most appreciated and as a heads up, we will hopefully both be back next year!

On Sunday morning we were having breakfast at the Nevis Centre (bacon rolls for me) when Carolyn spotted a runner crossing the roundabout. This turned out to be the last finisher who we cheered loudly in. For anyone that toughs it out for close to 35hrs is a remarkable achievement. The awards ceremony was a slick and well run show. I now proudly have three crystal goblets (Carolyn has 2) on display in our home as a testament to WHW.

Then on to the pub night with my brother Graeme and wife Fiona, Charles and Carolyn. It was a fun night that ended abruptly at closing time with the bar staff pushing us out the door. It was great to share trail tales with many runners and a congrats to Ritchie on another spectacular race win.

So that is the cathartic memoir of WHW 2011. Apologies for the delay in transmission. It has been very busy since we departed Scotland with work and our niece's wedding last weekend. On the weekend we ran on the North Shore in preparation for the KneeKnacker 50km next weekend which we are both entered in. Race report to follow!




  1. Incredible Neil! A good read of a great run. How did you remember all that I wonder. Looking forward to our next run on the North Shore together this weekend at Knee Knacker.

  2. Congratulations Neil on a superb run this year.

    It was great to run with you for a few minutes and I had no doubts you were going to be under 23hrs!

    I really enjoyed your report so thanks for sharing!

    Well done to Carolyn and Charles ... I appreciated seeing them at various points even if it meant you were catching me!!

  3. Solid confident run Neil and a great report. Hopefully meet up again next year

  4. Absolutely fantastic. Such a riveting account of the run. I was glued to the screen reading. Neil and Carolyn, you are both my heroes for sure. Love you guys.

  5. Mike - it's Knee Knacker on Saturday - want to join us? ;-)

  6. BRAVO, Neil on a very fine result on that great course and a fine blog posting!
    And a nice four-week streak of the Vancouver 100; WHW; and Kneeknacker. I'm a little disappointed that you aren't flying down for Badwater, too, tomorrow, but we'll toughen you up eventually.

  7. Thank you for the amazing read Neil! I bet it was an amazing feeling to hear "see you at the finish"! So well deserving of the whiskey (even if it didn't sit 'quite' right) and the bacon rolls after a smokin' run!