The Deer Runner

The Deer Runner

Friday, 24 June 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

The calm lasted till Friday morning.  Even with a day off work I struggled to get ready, only just realising the mammoth task of making soup, packing the camper and deciding what to wear for the race.  I wanted to run as light as possible, carry all the mandatory items in my trail shorts pockets and carry a bottle of water in my hand.  It just didn't work so I resorted to my trusty North Face back pack with double bottle holder.  Despite what  I felt was a monkey clinging to my back, this would be a good move for the conditions coming up.

The east coast is wet, rain batters off the camper van as I get it packed for the adventure ahead.  First collect Skye from school then Lynne and my mum from Bucksburn before heading south.  Lynne is driving as I relax in the back of the camper.  We stop at Finavon for something to eat before making our way to Milgavie.  The weather eventually improves, tee shirt weather is reported from Richard my support runner who is waiting at the train station car park.

We arrive on schedule, around 2200 with plenty of parking spaces, things seem quieter than usual.  A quick introduction, team Chalmers is complete.  I'm beginning to get a bit nervous now, registration is as quick and efficient as ever where I weigh in at 84.4 kg.  There's time for a coffee and some lovely home made cracknell made by Linda-Jo my work colleague.  I have more cracknell in my drop bags for Rowardennan and Inversnaid.

It's 1230 am and time for the race briefing, team Chalmers listen before it's hug time (shake hands for Richard) and they make their way up to the High Street to spectate.  Richard will drive to Fort William and catch a train to Tyndrum in the morning.  It now dawns on me the task ahead, I've been here before but in much better shape.  I make my way to the back and wait for the countdown.

0100 and we're off, a blaze of light from head torches (apart from mine because I'm Aberdonian) makes it's way through the shopping precinct cheered on by a large crowd, the atmosphere is amazing.  It doesn't take long to leave the streetlights behind and run through Mugdock Park.

There's not a lot of chat so it's head down and get on with settling into a steady pace.  The night is perfect for running with a full yellow moon looking over us.  I'm the number collector.  Sticky numbers have been supplied to the runners, a film crew is here this year to record an episode of the Adventure Show.  I have three that have fallen from runners but they will be way ahead.  There's no way I'll be able to return them so into my pocket they go ready for the checkpoint bin.

It's the railway track gate section and I'm a bit grumpy.  One runner is following very close to me, I open the gate and turn round to hold it open.  He grabs the gate without a word, passes me, opens the next one across the track and lets it slam shut as I reach it.  This is not what the West Highland Way Race is about.  I try to not let it get to me, so at the next gate I hold it open for a runner who is about 20 second behind me and get a thank you, that's better.

I almost take a wrong turn, there's two runners ahead, we are alerted by another runner advising to turn left, "It's This Way" he shouts back.  Onto the road to Drymen, it's so light I switch off my head torch.  There's footsteps behind, it's John who took a wrong turn with a group, realised their mistake, and ended up behind the sweepers.  We chat for a short while before John runs on to a great finish.

Through the forest and onto the trail to Conic Hill, a Cuckoo can be heard in the distance.  So far I've been running mostly alone, not by choice mind you, no-one seems to be running at my pace.  I walk all the uphills, wanting to save my energy for later on.

First climb of the day, Conic Hill.  It's getting light now although the sun is still to make an appearance.  From the path I can see a Scout Group on the summit, waiting for the sunrise on this, the longest weekend day of the year.  There's a camera ahead, one camera man and a presenter, fame at last I think but they wait till I'm past before continuing and filming, ah well, they've probably interviewed heaps of runners before me.

I carefully make my way down Conic, keeping my quads fresh for other descents later in the race.  There's a runner ahead, says she is pulling out a Balmaha as her knee has packed in.  I encourage her to take some time and think about it, she might recover and be able to continue.

The camper is at the checkpoint, I slide open the door where my crew are having breakfast, good timing.  I steal Lynnes toast and my mums coffee, I'm struggling with my appetite already as that's all I have.

I leave the checkpoint in confusion, do I follow the Fling route into the trees or make my way to the shore of Loch Lomond like the past?  I don't want to go off route.  A runner passes me, on her way to the loch so that's where I head.  I always struggle at this section between Balmaha and Rowardennan, today is no exception.  The steep uphills take their toll, I'm not in any better shape than the Fling and I've another 42 miles to go after Tyndrum, the first negative thought of the day enters my head.

The Scottish midge, their reputation goes before them.  With a muggy cloudy start to the day, conditions are prefect for the blighters.  They get everywhere - mouth, throat, nose, ears and eyes.  I take off my buff and wipe them from my face and arms every 10 seconds but they have reinforcements.

I reach Rowardennan, Stan greets me,  my drop is handed over, then there's a massive swarm round my head, millions of midges.  Midge repellent is administered by the marshals, gallons of it. There's a bench inside the toilet block where the midges reduce to their hundreds, I can just about attempt the contents of my drop bag.  I have a Deet egg, Deet flavoured crisps and a Deet coke before I am forced by the swarm to leave.

I'm on my own, Stan says there's a marshal guiding runners onto the low path.  The turn-off is further along the track than I thought, the poor marshal guiding runners onto the track must have drawn the short straw, standing in a midge maelstrom and still smiling through the net.

This is uncharted territory for me, the new low path to Inversnaid.  It's undulating and seems to go on and on.  I can't help but think how much easier the higher land rover track is and how much this lower route will add to my time.  Then the beauty shines through, it's the bird life I notice first as I skirt the loch.  A loud Blue Tit chick screeches at it's mother who frantically stuffs food into it's mouth, it doesn't silence the chick for long.  A gaggle of geese float majestically on the loch, seamlessly changing direction at once.  Narrow wooden bridges transverses rocky streams, the Ben Lomond water just about to reach it's destination.  Eventually the lower track turns back inland and climbs where I re-join the original route.  There'e still a bit to go to Inversnaid, I can see hydro pipes at the other side of the loch and I know Inversnaid is on the opposite side.  Eventually the next checkpoint comes into view where I am efficiently handed my drop bag and refilled with water.  I drop a Nun tablet into one of my two bottles, I'm back to using Nun tablets after a lull due to the heat.

I don't eat much, a bite of a cheese sandwich and a few crisps, scoof of coke then it's time to meet my crew at Bienglas Farm.  The more I run the technical section the longer it seems.  I catch up on a couple of runners who are chatting to each other then I fall into step, I want to try and conserve energy and they are keeping a good steady pace.  There are a lot of walkers on the trail who obligingly step aside and let runners through.

I've cleared Loch Lomond now and enter the mid-day sun.  There's no shade, the trees have been left behind.  I can't believe the temperature, it must be in the twenties, not only that but heat seams to be reflecting off the rocky trail and back up to my face.  I start the climb up to Darios Post, it's like hiking abroad.  I'm breathing hard, concentrating on one step at a time, someone is at the post watching.  I reach the post, say hello to the spectator then soak up the veiw of Loch Lomond, I probably won't see it again till 2017.

I'm not feeling great, I have a headache and I feel dizzy, then I realise I don't have anything on my head.  I move the buff from my wrist to my head, the heat of the material makes me feel worse but I need protection from the sun.  I need a stream and I need it quick, five minutes later I arrive at one, take the buff off my head and submerge it in the water.  I put the buff on my head without wringing it, the relief is instant as cool water lowers the temperature of my head and flows down my back.

I make it to Bienglas Farm, pretty exhausted I meet all my crew, including Richard who has been collected from Tyndrum railway station.  I take my first seat of the day, on a boulder which just about topples back into the ditch but I keep my balance.  My support are very attentive, it's good to see them although Richard can't join me until after the next checkpoint.  The heat has taken a lot out of me so I take a while to drink coke and pick at a few things.  Richard fills my water bottles, I don't drop a Nun tablet in this time.  It's time to leave, I advise my crew I'm going to take it real easy on this section, not because I want to but because I need to.  Another runners crew soaks my buff in water just as I leave the checkpoint which is much appreciated.

The heat is relentless, there's no shade.  I have a system to keep my head cool. Take the wet buff and put it on letting it flop back down the neck.  My head is cooled as drops of water go down my back.  Once the top part is dry, turn it over so the head is cooled and the water drops down to my back once more.  Doing this system means a wet buff lasts around 15 minutes before it's completely dry and I need to find a stream again.

There's plenty of streams with clear pools of water on this part of the way.  It's so hot I'm tempted to go and sit in one of the pools.  I consider stopping to dip my feet in a pool but decide against it, relying on the wet buff to cool me down.

I now start my run 30 walk 30 method, it's early in the race to begin this which shows how unfit I am, probably more unfit than when I did the Highland Fling.  Negative thoughts are entering my head so I shoo them away and concentrate on reaching Auchtertyre.

The pedestrian tunnel and I can hardly crouch down.  Then it's the climb up to the track to cow pat alley.  I'm struggling on the hills, there's no escaping that fact.  Once on the flat it's back to 30 / 30 again, through a remarkably dry CPA and down I go.  My left foot kicks a stone, my right tries to come to the rescue, also kicks a stone and it's time for a push up in the dirt.  I get up, pride makes me run on and I give myself a quick check.  Other than a dirty shirt and few minor scrapes I am fine.

Donald is ahead, he is supporting Norma Bone who would go on to be the oldest female finisher of the WHW race, a great result.  I chat to Donald for a while then make my way over the roller coaster section.  My pace is slow, I want to get this hilly section over and done with so I can run on the flat again.  I can hear traffic so I must be nearing the road, it's motorbikes I mostly hear, riders giving it all on such a beautiful day.

Once across the road I run walk into Auchtertyre checkpoint where Richard is waiting.  He fetches my weigh in card, time to squash the scales.  80.4kg, I've lost 4 kg and am advised to watch my hydration and drink to thirst.  I take a seat in the camp chair, I feel about as exhausted as I normally do at this point running the Fling.  Ma Chalmers has made sarnies, egg and tuna.  I eat half and have a cup of home made lentil soup then spill it on the ground.  A change of socks is required here, a couple of hot spots have been making their presence felt.  Richard is all set to go, I half joking ask if he likes walking.  Little do I know, we will mostly be walking.

I've been looking forward to running (walking) with Richard, I've never had a support runner start this early in the race.  We make our way towards Tyndrum, I'm unable to keep a steady pace.  We run slowly for as far as I can before my exhausted mind takes over and forces me to walk.  Chat is easy, we talk about the race last year when Angela and I were supporting Richard.  Fiona is ahead, eating mashed tatties as she goes.  I comment on how tough the day has been.  "It's only tough if you think it's tough" the master says, who is well on her way to collect her twelfth goblet.  Such positivity is something I have still to learn.  As we shuffle / walk along the trail I realise how well I trained and ran the race in 2013 as I am well behind that schedule.
George and Karen are at Tyndrum so it's a quick hello, shake hands and a hug before continuing.    We are on the motorway section, the sun is still hot despite it being late afternoon.  My buff still needs soaked in streams which are few and far between here.  It seems longer than I remember which shows what state of mind I am in.  Each bend completed reveals another long straight and I begin to get frustrated.  I apologise to Richard for walking most of the time, I should be fitter and able to keep a steady running pace.  He says he doesn't mind and is enjoying being on the Scottish trails again.

Bridge of Orchy, I head straight to the hotel car park, I'll dab my race chip on the way out.  The car park is bathed in sun, I take a seat in the heat and consume half a sandwich and soup.  On the way out I have a couple of scoofs of coke and head to Hamish, the timing chip marshal.  He says I'm looking good but I don't feel it.  Richard and I make for Jelly Baby Hill.

It's a bit of a climb, once again we are behind Fiona.  There's flags at the summit, I can hear the Star Wars theme tune being played on a whistle.  Murdo is here on his yearly vigil handing jelly babies out to runners.  I accept mine and move on to the downhill leading to Inveroran.  The evening is bathed in sunlight, scenery spectacular but I'm not really in a good place.  We are stepping and stumbling down the rocky descent getting passed by other runners when a sudden urge takes over.  I've had enough.  I've had enough of the stumbling and shuffling and general negativity.  Richard is about 20 yard ahead and I let go.  I'm going to go flat out.  Off I go, striding out, each footstep landing perfectly on this boulder or that.  Richard, hearing my footsteps behind speeds up, probably thankful he can run again.  I pass him by and let fly.  There's a runner and support ahead, I pass them at full pelt, they comment on me having a second wind and the magic of Murdos jelly babies.  Faster I go, I don't want this exhilaration to end.  Richard says we need to send Murdos jelly babies for drug testing.  The end of the downhill is near but I'm not finished yet and I know I'm going to pay for this later on.  Full stride now, I'm going flat out with the sun on my face and wind in my hair on a beautiful Scottish evening, I can hear Richards footsteps close behind.  Once on the level I walk alongside Richard, it takes a long time for my heart rate to recover.  Little did I know it at the time, that descent would be the highlight of my WHW 2016 race.

It's now evening and the sun is still doing it's best to overheat me.  We walk the long gradient onto Rannoch Moor.  It's far longer than I remember and in my negative state I start to get annoyed at the trail, annoyed at the distances involved, annoyed at my exhaustion.  Once on the flat it's time for the 30 / 30 method which works quite well for a while before fatigue shows up again.  The sun dips behind the hills and the temperature begins to drop.  There's a bit of a breeze, on the one hand I'm grateful for respite from the sun, on the other I don't recognise my core temperature drop.  We are walking into Glencoe now, my legs have nothing more to offer than a stumble over the rocky trail.

We are nearing the checkpoint, Richard runs ahead to alert Lynne, Heather and Skye.  I reach Glencoe in a bad way, probably worse than I did during the 2012 race.  I don't go straight to the van, Richard brings my request for a coke as I make my way to the facilities.  I'm hoping to get composed before seeing my support.

I bump into Lois on the way back who remarks how good I am looking with the last two sections to go,  looks can be deceiving as I am exhausted.  I'm still in a tee-shirt and begin to cool.  I put on a puffer jacket and sit in the front of the van with my legs covered.  I start to shiver uncontrollably and request a hot cup of tea, I don't need anything else.  I sit sipping the tea, the mug cupped in my hands.  My crew are concerned as I drink the tea, I watch the surface ripple in circles due to the shakes.  I can see the devils staircase out the van window, menacing and taunting in the fading light.  I inform my crew I need a 15 minute nap and drift in and out of sleep for the next 10 minutes.  It doesn't revive me, in fact it does quite the opposite.  I take another look at the hills ahead, I don't want to be a casualty or have to be rescued from the hills, I've been in this game long enough to know when my race is over and when to pull the plug.  "I'm sorry, it's a DNF folks" I announce, the words taste bitter.  There's some discussion where Richard offers to walk me to the finish but I don't think I can even make it up over the Devils.

My chip and tag are cut off and handed to the marshals.  The engine is started and the van makes it's way to Fort William.  Along the access road we drive slow, passing runners about to enter their second night with their support.  Half asleep I wish them well and wave through the window.

So where did it go wrong?  The answer is contained right here in this blog.  Lack of running and practically no hill training.  No preparation, leaving it till the Friday to start packing and thinking about getting into race mode.  An attempt to get through by experience alone which just isn't enough.

Every cloud has a silver lining as they say.  If I had completed the race, I might have thought such a low training regime was an acceptable way to prepare for a big event and stumble along not training properly.  As it is, I have been given a kick up the backside.  I need to take my ultra running seriously and put the miles in for events.  I need ultra running in my life, I have to make room for it, I have to force myself to get out the door and get back into shape.  I'll be back.

I'd like to thank Ian Beattie and all who organise and put on Scotlands number one ultra running event.  I'd also like to thank all the marshals, volunteers, medics, photographers and anyone else who helped stage this iconic race, even though I didn't see you all.

Most of all I'd like to thank team Chalmers (Lynne, Mum, Skye) for feeding and hydrating me and for just being there at the checkpoints.  Thanks to Richard, who drove all the way from Leeds to support and run with me, it was much appreciated.

Tues 3, Sat 71.  Weekly total 74 miles.              


  1. Brutal and honest. I'm shedding a tear in the airport reading this so god only knows how much it hurt. You've the truths right there though, there's no hiding place if the training and prep hasn't been right. And I've no doubt ultra running will be in your life for years to come. It's in your soul.

  2. Thanks for the comment Amanda, very nice of you.