I've known Wilson for a while, not drinking buddies as such, or running buddies for that matter, we never quite managed to meet up and run despite living comparatively close to each other. Our paths crossed at the SUMS awards last November while waiting to be served at the bar. Wilson said he had applied to run the WHW race, his name was in for the ballot. I said I'm available to support and something just clicked, we shook hands on what would become an incredible weekend in June.
Out but not out
The WHW ultra is so popular it uses a ballot for entry. More and more people are putting their names forward during the month of November. While popularity and the rise in participation of ultra events is a good thing, the more hopefuls in the draw, the less likely your name is coming out. Early December is a nerve wracking time, if you're serious about giving the race a good go your training has already begun, despite the possibility of not gaining a place. Yes, you've guessed it, Wilson Dornan was not confirmed as a starter for the race, a disappointment that is difficult to hide in these days of social media. All was not lost though, Wilson did get on the waiting list, he would get in if runners failed to confirm and pay for their place.
Good news bad news
Wilson kept me updated, he was quite far down the waiting list, eventually the iphone alerted me to the message "I'm in". Excellent news, I knew what I would be doing in June and could imagine myself supporting Wilson then getting to run some of the West Highland Way. Regular readers (about 10) of this blog knows what happened in January so no need to go into detail on this post. Eventually I had to advise Wilson I can't run but will still support the whole route, I felt I had let him down and was worried he would struggle to find a runner.
It didn't take long, another message from Wilson advised he had a couple of runners, not just any runners but Sarah Louise Grigor and her partner Chris. I knew we were in for a tough weekend but hearing Wilson had arranged the back-up and expertise of Sarah and Chris meant his chances of completing the ultra increased significantly. Things were looking good for team Dornan.
I was unable to train with Wilson but was glad to see Alan Cormack accompany him on hill runs as reported on social media. I was at the Cateran where Wilson crossed the line in just over 14 hours so the miles were being done and he seemed on target in getting ready for the race. The hurdles to overcome and take part in the race would come from elsewhere.
Nothing is guaranteed, life throws in some ups and downs for us all. Wilson was no different, during the months leading up to the race I began to doubt if he would make the start line. Both parents ended up in hospital at one stage, I knew the race was approaching and if still on he would need a meeting with his support. I didn't want to be the one to suggest a meeting, I wasn't sure if all was well or if he would be running.
Wilson messaged, all was well so I suggested a meeting, we needed to get a plan together. I met with Wilson and his partner Hazel. With no motor homes allowed till after Bridge of Orchy, my camper van would be Dornan HQ until Glencoe. Hazel, Sarah and Chris would be at Glencoe, ready to support till Fort William. I passed on some hints and tips to Wilson and asked for a detailed plan which duly arrived a few days later.
I didn't have spare days to take off work, we planned to drive to Milngavie on the Friday evening. Wilson took the day off however and used it to rest before taking on the WHW race. I picked Wilson up along with his son Jak who would assist during the weekend. We stopped in by the hospital on our way, Wilson needed to visit his mother before making our way south. We were up against time but managed to stop for some food to make sure the fueling got off to a good start. The evening was fine, I knew sunshine, showers and high winds were forecast, little did we know how bad it would get.
Registration and selfies
I'm writing about Wilson as if you know him and if you're in the Scottish ultra scene you probably do. He is the type of guy who posts on FB and gets hundreds of likes and lots of comments. He knows a lot of people, registration consisted of Wilson saying hello to just about everyone he bumped into and getting some great selfies including one with last years winner James Stewart. Jak must have felt like the paparazzi following Wilson and taking pictures with his phone. It wasn't long before it was time for race briefing which included the famous line "there will be weather". This got a small cheer from the crowd who probably didn't realise just how much weather was coming their way. Jak and I bade farewell to Wilson and made our way to the High Street.
The European Cup
Jak was tasked with taking a video of the runners coming through. He'd been playing a lot of football on his phone, at one minute to one I advised him to get ready. I've only got 1 % of my battery left he said, but all was okay, his team were in the European Cup semi final. I used my phone to capture the runners coming through and heading off towards apocalypse.
What? No midges?
Where's your midge net? I asked. I haven't got one Jak said. Pffft, wait till we get to Balmaha I said, you won't believe what it's like, I've got a spare net. We set off with me following the sat nav. There was no hurry, the Oak Tree did not open it's doors till 0200. We found a space in camper van city and had a roll and coffee, I do like sitting in the Oak Tree with fellow support teams in the early hours of the morning. We got some rest, I set my alarm in plenty of time for Wilson arriving at Balmaha. The alarm chimed, wearily I got up and put on the midge net expecting the onslaught. Tentatively I opened the camper door and looked around. Not one net was being worn by support crews, the high winds kept the biters away. The first checkpoint is always a bit of a worry, Conic Hill is in the way and your runner needs to exit it safely. Wilson arrived at 0520, I was glad to see him, 40 minutes before cut off. I was perfectly happy with that. I followed the race plan, fed Wilson what was advised on the sheet and said farewell, until Bienglas Farm anyway. He was in good spirits and looked in great shape. Wilson had a drop bag for Rowardennan which meant quite a long stretch before he would meet his crew again.
A phone call
After a rest at Balmaha Jak and I made our way to Bienglas Farm. That was when the weather started to close in, the wind started to rise, we could only just glimpse the other side of the loch as we made our way north. Race organisers request support crews arrive at Bienglas Farm roughly at the time their runner comes through. We arrived slightly early, enough time for some breakfast and a seat in the bar. Jak answered a call, I was not sure who it was so didn't take any notice then the phone was handed to me where I saw "Dad" on the display. My heart sank, was he injured? Has he taken a tumble? He's went through a rough patch, didn't feel great between Balmaha and Rowardennan. He picked up a bit but he was not sure of the mileage to Bienglas Farm, he was getting different distances from runners and was sounding down. I asked if he was at Inversnaid yet, no was the answer, he was about 33 miles in. I advised him to keep going, don't worry or listen to other runners, just keep going and get to Bienglas Farm where his crew would see to him, there's plenty of time.
A close shave
1300 is the cut off at Bienglas Farm, not a minute more. Jak and I stood waiting at the checkpoint, watching and cheering runners through. The checkpoint emptied to just a few support teams. I had left the phone call saying there's plenty of time, I was now eating my words. 1230 passed, now I was getting worried, I strained to see back down the trail, looking for the familiar orange jacket. At 1240 I was seriously worried, I wanted to run down the track, meet him and escort him back before 1300. I couldn't remember the race rules and how far support could meet their runner outside the checkpoint. Was it 200 yards? Half a mile? In desperation I asked one of the marshals who wasn't too sure. Two minutes later, sure enough orange appeared on the track much to his support crews relief.
No time to hang around
Considering the phone call Wilson was in good enough shape. He needed all his time though so we gave him a quick 5 minute turn around and gave him some stats - 10 miles with just over 3 hours to cut off, keep it steady, see you at Auchtertyre.
The weather gets worse
Auchtertyre is an exposed field, the rain meant support vehicles needed pushed out of the mud. I manage to park away from the mud right next to the checkpoint shelter. The wind was strong, the direction it was gusting meant runners were travelling straight into the gale. Sporadic showers came and went. Crew sheltered in the lee of vehicles to service their runners, it was cold. Jak watched a film while I sat and watched runners check-in, weigh-in, see their support and leave. It was so bad outside I prepared the van for an indoor service, Wilson may need a change of gear.
Another close shave
It was getting to be a familiar feeling, sitting in the camper van willing Wilson into the checkpoint, this time a 1600 close off. I had binoculars and found myself looking through them down the open field hoping to see the bright colour once more. There were plenty of yellows and blues, mostly walking into the wind but I had to wait before Wilson appeared, he was running at this stage, something very few were doing because of the strong wind.
No time to hang around
Again he was in pretty good spirits and shape, he was dry so didn't need to change, his jacket was fine for the conditions so we fed him and gave him another relatively quick turn around. We gave more stats - 10 miles to Bridge of Orchy and 3 1/2 hours to cut off.
A surprise for Wilson
With nothing better to do, Jak and I decided to meet Wilson at the crossroads in Tyndrum. There was good news, Hazel and Sarah managed to find a parking space on the outskirts of Bridge of Orchy, (unfortunately Chris couldn't make it), reinforcements were in the area. We parked at the Tourist info and walked to the road crossing. Rather than stand and wait, we ran / walked back along the way to meet our runner. At the large gate we met up where Wilson was suffering with a tight hamstring. We gave Wilson the good news that his support were at Bridge of Orchy which gave him a lift. I left them to make their way to the crossroads while I ran back to the van for freeze spray. Treatment was administered at the crossing before Wilson departed for Bridge of Orchy. Jak and I drove up the hill, parallel to the West Highland Way, tooting the van horn at every runner we could see, including Wilson.
The Deer Runner versus Rannoch Moor
It's a beautiful landscape, a vast wilderness, but we have history.
Back to 2012 and my first WHW race, another wet one. I arrived at Glencoe - cold, wet and broken after enduring 12 hours of rain and hallucinating on the Moor. It took my support a lot of work to rejuvenate and get me going again. That race was a draw - 1 each.
I returned to the race in 2013 and had a ball, cruised all the way over the Moor and into Glencoe feeling great, the score was now 2 - 1 in favour of the Deer Runner.
2016, not so good, I took a beating over the Moor, after suffering with high temperatures all day, the setting sun and the Moor destroyed me, I withdrew at Glencoe exhausted and bordering on hypothermia. The Deer Runner 2 Rannoch Moor 2.
So, the score was 2 each, all square but I was concerned. I knew how desolate Rannoch could feel and I knew this was the stage which Wilson had not done a recce on. This part
of the race can play with your mind, it can undermine you and make you want to withdraw. Not only that but Wilson was going to be heading onto the Moor in what was probably the worst conditions the race has known, I couldn't let Rannoch Moor win, no way did I want Wilson to feel the way I did and withdraw from the race. I considered leaving my van at Bridge of Orchy and accompanying Wilson over Rannoch Moor but with my ankle I would be a liability to the runner and the race
Plans over coffee
After meeting Hazel and Sarah, team Dornan were at full strength, Wilsons dream of completing the WHW race took a step closer. I discussed my Rannoch Moor concerns with the crew over coffee in the hotel. Sarah decided she would be ready to run from Bridge of Orchy if required, Wilson would have to make the decision on whether he wanted company over RM when he arrived at the checkpoint, it was his race after all. The rain was pouring down when we made our way to the checkpoint gazebo. Hazel went to meet and escort Wilson in, I heated a portion of Hazels famous Mac n Cheese on the stove. It wasn't long before Wilson arrived, no cutoff concerns this time. Wilson was fed the warm dish then asked if he would like Sarah to accompany him over Rannoch Moor. I breathed a sigh of relief when Wilson said he would love Sarah to accompany him over RM.
It was quite a long stop and it was needed. Sarah got ready to go, Wilson changed into gear more suited for adverse conditions including a more suitable jacket and waterproof trousers. At seven o'clock Wilson and Sarah left Bridge of Orchy and headed into what would become known to Team Dornan as Storm Bastard Rannoch.
Mac n Cheese at the Ritz
We were at Glencoe, it was feeding time for the rest of the crew. I named Hazel's motor home the Ritz. It was freezing outside, some after race reports said 2 degrees and it felt like it. Hazel, Jak and I sat in central heated luxury and ate M & C with garlic bread. I returned to my van for some rest, listening to the howling gale and heavy rain outside wondering if the weather was going to give the runners a break. It was getting dark, just after 2200 I decided to get out the van and wait for their arrival. I couldn't wait, I started back along the trail willing to meet them at every turn. I passed David Searil who was struggling and determined to walk the rest of the race. Not long after I was relieved to meet our runners, in good spirits despite the stormy conditions and head on wind. For obvious reasons this was another long stop, we needed to make sure Wilson was changed into fresh clothes, fed, warmed and given first aid to aches and pains.
Wilson was very stiff and sore when he left the checkpoint, something I can relate to. Hazel and Jak departed for Kinlochleven to get some kip, I decided to stop at Altnafae. I wanted to give some support before they tackled the devils staircase. I wasn't expecting problems but would be available if any arose. I found a space in the layby but couldn't settle. Vehicles passed with their lights dazzling my mirrors. I decided to get out into the strong wind and rain, it was way too early, I wasn't sure when they would come through but didn't want to miss them. I stood with my brolly and a torch, peering up the trail. Some runners had very bright torches, I knew Sarah had a powerful torch, I convinced myself every bright torch coming my way was Sarahs. The wind tried to relieve me of my brolly, David Searil came through and I wished him well, other runners and support came and went. Finally they arrived, all was well, I could hear Sarah encouraging Wilson every step of the way.
Lost but not lost
I drew into a space at Kinlochleven community centre car park, set my alarm for 0400 and settled down for some kip. The rain was relentless, beating on the camper van roof, the runners were getting no respite. My alarm went off and I was looking forward to a coffee in the community centre. I exited the van into the rain and made my way to the entrance. Hazel was standing in the street, looking worried and on the phone, my heart sank. I was dreading bad news, Hazel approached, advised they were lost then handed the phone over. It was a rude awakening, with blurry eyes I looked at my watch, 0415. Sarah was on the other end, they hadn't reached the water pipes and thought they took a wrong turn. Before this a runner was ahead, Sarah and Wilson tried to warn them they were on the wrong track. I needed to think, it was four years since I was last approaching Kinlochleven and now getting lost threatened our race, the clock was ticking towards the 0500 close off. I advised them I was not aware of a wrong turn, it just goes downhill towards Kinlochleven, I'm running up to meet you. In a panic I set off as fast as my ankle would allow, our race couldn't possibly end here, it would be a massive disappointment. Through the streets I ran, onto the trail and up to the large water pipes which were so elusive to our runners. My heart was in my mouth, conscious of the time, looking ahead and willing them to be there. Much to my relief they appeared following the pipes downhill. They were never off trail, the pipes were farther than expected, a new forest road across the valley added to the illusion of being lost, the WHW dream was back on.
Wilson weighed in, a coffee was made in the community centre but it was easier to do the pit stop in the Ritz. Our runner got fed, hydrated and a fresh pair of socks. He was suffering with a sore leg so took paracetamol. Hazel asked if I was going to Lundavra to which I answered no, I didn't want it to be an option for Wilson to pull out of the race. Wilson exited the motor home with Sarah, ready to take on the final leg. The final runner, they walked up the street as signs were being removed. Wilsons gloves were found in the motor home, I ran and caught up to hand them over. Wilson looked in pain and was limping slightly, I was concerned, I was going to Lundavra.
Hazel and Jak got some rest at Kinlochleven, just in case they were needed by Wilson, I would drive to Lundavra. I've never driven to Lundavra before, I left after getting directions from Graeme (first roundabout in Fort William, turn right, keep going till the road runs out), and what a steep twisty road it was for an old camper van. I didn't dare take the van off road, opting to park on a grass bank just below the Lundavra checkpoint. After a quick visit and chat to the marshals (who have been there since around Saturday lunch time), I returned to the van for some sleep. I had to set the alarm, after some thought I settled for 0830 figuring they would come through around 0900. My sleep was unsettled where I dreamt every scenario going, what if he comes through at 1000, two hours to do six miles. If he comes through at 1100? What next? Keep going?
I woke at 0825, 5 minutes before the alarm went off. I began to get ready to go the the checkpoint. There was a knock on the window. It was Melanie who shouted "Wilson is here"! I asked Melanie to tell Wilson to keep going but he wanted to see his support. I jumped out of the van and scrambled up the hill. Wilson was standing with his hands in the air. I'VE BEASTED IT! he shouted, IV'E PASSED TWO RUNNERS ON LAIRIG MOR! That's when I knew it was job done, six miles from Fort William on a rain soaked moor nothing was going to get in the way. Sarah advised me to catch up as they pushed on, I ran onto the WHW and put my arms around them both announcing I could greet.
Back down the twisty road to Fort William, I headed for the car park looking for the Ritz forgetting they were camped up at Kinlochleven. In a moment of panic, I phoned Hazel who just happened to be a few miles from Fort William. The Ritz was parked at the leisure centre before making our way to Brave Heart car park. We walked up the Way to meet our runners, take pictures and escort them back to Brave Heart.
34 hours 24 minutes and 09 seconds after leaving Milngavie, Wilson Dornan realised his ambition to complete the West Highland Way Ultra and crossed the finish line to applause from all in attendance.
To the race organisers, marshals, sweepers and volunteers for yet another epic race.
To Jak for your help and company in support of Wilson.
To Hazel for bolstering support of Wilson and Sarah and looking after team Dornan.
To Sarah for taking care of Wilson through awful weather for a longer than anticipated distance.
To Wilson Dornan for allowing me to share his epic journey.