Friday, 27 June 2014

"Do You Want to Win?" West Highland Way Race 2014

The start line almost never arrived.  Training had been going relatively well, but my head wasn’t right.  I didn’t feel confident and was worrying too much about what everyone else was doing.  I didn’t feel like I had done enough. I should have done more hill reps. More intervals and speed.  More long runs. Longer long runs.  I was wasting too much time on FB reading about what other people were doing instead of focussing on what I’d done and trusting my coach.  The previous year had been an amazing year for me, I was a different runner now.  What if I couldn’t repeat my performances of last year?  With three weeks to go I knew that as long as my head was like this there was absolutely no point at all in starting the race.  You need to want to finish to start a race like the WHW.  A couple of things turned it around for me.  A solo run in the Pentlands one evening after work where I just went out and ran as hard as I could, stopping at the top of the peaks called the Kips and just breathing, remembering why I run.  A catch up over coffee one evening after work with Adrian Stott who helped me put things back into perspective, and a statement made by my friend Matt Williamson – “just think of it as a nice day out in the hills with friends”.  Ok, so that took the pressure off.  I’d forget about racing and just run.  Then Adrian texted me the night before the race and simply asked me “Do you want to win?”. 

My GB team mates Debbie Martin-Consani and Sharon Law had volunteered to support me.  Having these girls support me was in itself a huge advantage; the girls need little introduction, being experienced at both running and supporting the WHW in previous years as well as excelling at numerous other ultras.  They had helped Debbie’s husband Marco finish 2nd  in last year’s race, so if anything, the pressure should be on them and not me!  I was especially grateful to Sharon who had only the previous weekend been down running the South Downs Way 100 mile Ultra, finishing 2nd lady, and who could probably have found something a bit more relaxing to do the weekend after her race!  And Debbie who had pretty much crammed her weekly mileage into the 3 days preceding the race so that she could come and support me.  Our added weapon was our mascot, Cairn who came along for the ride.

Sharon, Debbie and Cairn at the start line
I left home around 9pm on the Friday night to head to Debbie’s house in Glasgow where we’d meet Sharon, go over my schedule, then head over to register at Milngavie.  After successfully getting myself to Glasgow, I somehow managed to end up on the southern side of the Clyde tunnel, passing Ibrox and so taking the very alternative route to the Consani’s.  Who live no-where near Ibrox.  And are on the opposite side of the Clyde. Not a good start, but also not surprising given my complete lack of sense of direction.

Sharon and I drove over to register while Debbie got the rest of the car all packed up and woke up a sleepy Cairn.  We met Matt Williamson and his girlfriend Dawn in the carpark.  He was already registered and looking very calm.  I’m always a bit of a state before a race with nerves, I really rock the rabbit in headlights look, so hurried over to get registered and weighed.  I bumped into lots of friendly faces over at the hall, including Bob Steel and Davie Gow who I’ve been doing a lot of my longer runs with (2 of the few people who can actually put up with my rubbish chat for hours on end), and fellow GB team mate Robbie Britton who was looking forward to his battle with current race record holder Paul Giblin.

Milngavie to Balmaha
Wrist tagged with my number, goody bag collected (loving the colour of this year’s WHW buff), weight taken (how heavy???) and a few hugs and kisses from folks, some I’ve not seen in far too long, and it wasn’t long until we were heading over to the start line.   With the race underway, I found myself running alongside Bob; we were both targeting similar splits so it was great to have a friendly face to run with through the night.  I love running in the dark (although not on my own, as at 34, I am still, embarrassingly, afraid of being in the dark alone!!), and spend hours every winter in the evenings with my headtorch running in the Pentlands, so this first section never phases me.   The conditions were so perfect anyway, the night was clear and the weather mild enough to start in vest.

The start of the race at Milngavie
The first few sections went smoothly and it didn’t take long until we were approaching the downhill road section before the grassy climb into Drymen.  A quick wave to Sharon and Debbie, swapping of bottles and then we started the climb up the track into the woods.  Again, this section seemed to pass well, I’d lost Bob for a bit as I’d had to dive into a bush (first of numerous stops, today was not going to be a good day for my stomach), but caught up with him again as we began to climb Conic Hill.  It was already light enough by this point to run without our headtorches.  This is one of the sections I always look forward to, the views awarded from Conic Hill are absolutely breathtaking, I’ve taken some cracking photos up here in the past and it pained me slightly to not be able to stop and take some more this morning.  Also, the last time I ran Conic Hill in the WHW race was 2 years ago when it was torrential downpour and the path had literally been replaced by a river.  Conditions could not have been any more different today though, and that combined with the fact that a nice touristy path has since been put in all the way up and over made for much smoother running conditions today.

As we started to descend Conic Hill, Bob pointed out that he could see Rosie just ahead.  Interesting.  I had worked out all my splits for the race based on a finishing time of 18h30 and planned to stick to them, not allowing myself to be pulled along too fast in the early stages only to suffer for it later on.  Also, Rosie is a formidable runner, well known for her strength particularly in the later stages when others start to fade, a strength which has rightly so earned her the top finishing spot for the past 2 years.    We found ourselves together as we came down off Conic Hill though and ran together for a few minutes, arriving in Balmaha, our first checkpoint, just seconds apart.   This was to be the last time I saw both Rosie and Bob, as I pushed on for the next section to Rowardennan.

Balmaha to Rowardennan
My stomach didn’t feel right, I felt really queasy and had hoped it would pass.  At least I had the gorgeous views out over Loch Lomond to distract me.  And the midges – already they were out and I was glad I had my sunglasses, even though I probably looked silly given the overcast conditions.  Parts of this section I love, other’s I don’t look forward to so much, such as the longer stretches along the road.  It seemed to be passing relatively quickly though, my legs were feeling good, and my head was in a good place.  I soon found myself running with another familiar face for a while.  It was nice chatting as it distracted me from the fact I was feeling sick, but after a while the smell of his Skin So Soft was making me feel worse and I wanted to retreat into my head rather than make conversation so I pushed on, enjoying the twisty undulating trail parts of this section and getting my head down for the road sections.  Straight into Rowardennan and Debbie and Sharon were again waiting for me to fuel me up and push me on.  I had the F1 of support crews and left Rowardennan after a quick rice pudding…..

Rowardennan to Beinglas
....which reappeared about a half mile out of Rowardennan.  I hate being sick, I have a complete phobia about it and an unable to do so without sobbing like a 5 year old.  And so I shuffled on feeling a bit pathetic and sorry for myself but hopeful that it would pass.   This section has some of the most varied and fun stretches in the race.  From the clambering up, down and around boulders, past the vibrant blue bells that carpet the hills, and finally, reaching the amazing views rewarded at the top of the loch as you reach Dario’s post, it’s easy to lose yourself in the beauty of it all.  However, a task was at hand and I rolled back down the hill into Beinglas complaining to Sharon and Debbie about my stomach only to be pushed straight out of the checkpoint and back up the hill towards Crianlarich.

Beinglas to Tyndrum
The track out of Beinglas is rolling but runnable, so I got my head down and started to push on again.  Despite the nausea, which I could only put down to the fact that it was humid, I was pleased that I was still able to eat a reasonable amount.  I’d said to Sharon and Debbie from the start not to let me leave any meeting point without eating at least something, and although finding it hard to find anything particularly appetising, I was still managing to eat.  It was just coming out of Beinglas that GB 24 hour athlete Matt Moroz caught up with me.  Either I was running an absolute blinder of a race, well on course to smashing Lucy Colquhoun’s course record, or Matt wasn’t having a good day in the office.  Given he had finished last year’s race in sub-17 hours, it was clear that Matt was not having a good race.  We chatted for a bit and he explained that things hadn’t gone well and he’d been tempted to withdraw, but his crew had persuaded him to carry on.  Which worked out well for me as we ran together for a while and he helped pass the time on the stretch towards Crianlarich, past the scary cows (which weren’t there) and through cow poo ally (which was surprisingly not muddy!).  He pushed on before we reached the rollercoaster section past Crianlarich and I later found out he had a storming second half of a race, tearing his way back up through the field and finishing in the top 10.

My legs still felt strong going over the undulating hills past Crianlarich, and my head felt good, so despite the rice pudding incident coming out of Rowardennan and a sore stomach, I was still happy with how my splits were looking.  As I ran into Tyndrum and up the slope to Brodies, I saw the girls cheering for me and also another familiar face – my dad Charlie and his partner Grace who had driven down from the north east to support and more importantly, bring my dad’s home made tattie soup (complete with vegetarian beef…!).  A quick top up on soup, cup of tea and I was away again.

Tyndrum to Victoria Bridge
Before the race I hadn’t been looking forward to the stretch between Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy.  It’s not a particularly exciting stretch, and although only around 6 miles, has always felt like it drags on when I’ve previously done training runs on it.  Today felt good though, and there seemed to be more downhill parts than I’d previously appreciated.  I hadn’t seen any other runners since Matt had left me before Crianlarich and I was enjoying retreating into my head, thinking about splits and pushing on.  

My amazing support crew :)
I’ve always really enjoyed the section between Bridge of Orchy and Victoria Bridge; the climb up ‘Jelly Baby Hill’ is fun and I love the downhill section back down off it onto the road.  It wasn’t long until I saw my support crew waiting at Bridge of Orchy, my dad playing traffic warden and helping me to cross the busy road at the hotel.  Sharon and Debbie were again waiting for me, topping me up with fuel and pushing me onwards up JB hill.   Cairn challenged to race me up it.  He beat me.  It didn’t take long until I could see the top of the hill and the welcome face of Murdo, handing out his jelly babies.  He’d kindly saved me two black ones, my favourite, what a star, which he held out for me as I trotted past.  It was also great to see Caroline McKay at the top who was cheering on the runners, as well as Thomas Loehndorf who was taking some superb photos.  The section off of JB hill is so much fun and I raced down it, to find my support crew waiting to top up my juice, in preparation for the long, lonely stretch towards Victoria Bridge and over Rannoch Moor to GlenCoe.

Murdo and Caroline, supporting at the top of 'Jelly Baby Hill'
Top of JB Hill
Victoria Bridge to Devils Staircase
Rannoch Moor is where things started to unwind a bit.  Again, my legs still felt strong, but my stomach didn’t feel good and the nausea had got worse again.  There was a runner ahead though so I had someone to focus on and again got my head down and pushed on.  The sun had started to come out; so far, the weather had been almost perfect.  Apart from the humidity, it was relatively cool and the sun was hiding behind the clouds.  Here though, on one of the most exposed sections of the course, the sun had decided to shine.  I started to worry as well as I’d picked up a pouch of Vimto for this section instead of my usual larger bottle, and it wasn’t long until I had run out of liquid.  I could still see the runner in front though, so tried to focus on him and pushed on.  Soon I could see the long path wind up to the skyline and I knew as soon as I got to this point it was the fun downhill stretch into GlenCoe ski centre. 

I got into Glencoe and I felt wasted.  I didn’t feel good physically and mentally I was starting to worry.  Sharon saw me wobble in and guided me up to the checkpoint.  I was worried as I couldn’t face eating anything, I felt far too sick, but I knew unless I did eat, my race would be over.  I managed to eat a chip which my dad and Grace had kindly sourced from the ski centre and Debbie and Sharon changed tactic and tried topping me up with Coke to see if the sugars would keep me going.  I complained that I didn’t feel right, I thought there was something wrong with my stomach and couldn’t understand why I felt so sick so early on.  The response I got was the response of the most caring, most professional support crew a girl could have.  Sharon told me to stop moaning, accept the fact that my stomach was going to hurt and I’d probably feel shit now for the rest of the race, and just get on with it.  And with that, I was pushed off back down the hill and towards Kingshouse.

I reached Kingshouse and felt absolutely broken.  I couldn’t run.  The frustrating thing was my legs felt good.  I felt reasonably strong.  But I was sick again and mentally I just couldn’t go on.  The thought of getting to the Devil’s Staircase now seemed a challenge in itself, never mind the climb up and over to Kinlochleven.  There was no way, even if I got that far, that I could then get myself over the Lhairig Mhor to Lundavra and then the final stretch to the finish.  My race was over.  I felt like crying.  I felt bad for my dad and Grace who had driven all that way to support me.  To Debbie and Sharon who had given up their weekends and their precious training time to crew for me.  I wondered what I’d say to the guys I run with and how I’d feel when they all finished and I had DNF’d. I stopped running and walked a good 3 miles on this easily runnable section, feeling absolutely miserable and pretty disappointed in myself, and expecting folk to come running past me.  They never did though.  And after a much longer section than scheduled, I soon saw Sharon who had run out to look for me.  Before I had a chance to tell her I was withdrawing, her and Debbie had me topped up with Coke, a bag of crisps in my hand and along with my Dad and Grace were cheering me off up the Devil’s Staircase.

Devil’s Staircase to Kinlochleven
As I marched up the Devil, I realised that I’d never really had a choice.  No matter how bad or miserable I felt, there was no way that Debbie and Sharon would ever have let me quit, it was never even an option.  As I’d got to the foot of the Devil and saw my crew, I felt a part of me revive again and it felt like the fight was back on.  Rosie hadn’t caught me, my stomach had (relatively) settled and I felt determined again.  In the grand scheme of things, I’d only really dropped time over a 12 mile or so stretch, it could have been much worse, and I was starting to feel ‘ok’ again.  The Devil has always been one of my favourite sections, I love the climb to the top, which is rewarded by the fun downhill section, pretty much all the way down into Kinlochleven.  This was a section where I could claw back some of the time I’d lost and I started to gain back some of the confidence I’d lost in the previous stretches.  I dug deep and started to believe I could win again.

Kinlochleven to Lundavra
I dropped into Kinlochleven and ran straight into the checkpoint to get weighed.  My crew were anxious to get me moving as Rosie’s crew had also arrived.  I wasted a bit too much time here, stopping to eat more of my dad’s soup, and taking the opportunity to use a real toilet (!).  The girls soon shooed me out though with Sharon coming out a short stretch while I finished my soup and headed towards the climb out of Kinlochleven.  It was here that I saw Jo Thoms who was supporting Hugh McInnes – she told me that he’d just started the climb and so I pushed on again, wondering if I could catch him.  As the long undulating expanse of the Lhairg Mhor came winding into view, I spotted Hugh up ahead, head down and digging deep.  After a few minutes I caught up and we ran a while pushing each other on. 

The winding track of the Lairig Mhor
After 80 plus miles, the rolling Lhairig Mhor can be a long, long march for tired legs, and I was pleased to still be running at a good pace at this point and feeling relatively good.  The section was passing quickly.  And then we saw the Japanese runner, Hiroki Ishikawa, curled up asleep at the side of the track.  We tried to wake him and encourage him on but he seemed reluctant to get moving again.  Sensing we were wasting time and conscious that I was at this point the leading female, Hugh kindly offered to see to Hiroki while I got going.  It later turned out that Hiroki had only flown over to Scotland on the Wednesday and on the Thursday had decided to climb Ben Nevis.  Possible reason’s for him being so tired at this point….! I left Hugh to see to Hiroki and ran on, soon reaching the Mountain Rescue crew, having a cup of Tizer and stopping to pose for photos (my Dirty Girl Gaiters being the source of interest).

Posing with my Dirty Girl gaiters and new
Brooks PureGrit 3s.
Hugh caught up again just as I was leaving and I began the final winding stretch to Lundavra and the final checkpoint.  As I ran through the felled forests I knew I was almost at Lundavra and soon saw Debbie who was keeping a lookout for me.  The girls seemed very keen to get me moving, so I figured Rosie wasn’t too far behind.  I’d made it this far, just one final push and I’d be home.

Lundavra to FortWilliam
The final stretch home can be fast – a few miles downhill into the Braveheart carpark and then a final mile or so stretch along the road into Fort William and the finish.  But before that, there are just a couple more cheeky climbs to negotiate out of the forest.   I’ve never enjoyed this section, and am glad it is short. The forest is ugly, the trees all crudely felled and there is something slightly cruel and depressing about the landscape and the steep path that winds through it.  I pushed my hands down on my thighs and marched up the hill as fast as I could, starting to get excited now that the finish was so near!  I knew if I could get to the top without seeing Rosie then the race was mine.  I got to the top and pushed down the hill. It didn’t matter now if I went too fast down the hill and trashed my quads, I didn’t need them anymore, I was almost there. 

As I ran down and down, finally reaching Braveheart car park, the girls were waiting in for me, hands out the car window, high fiving me and tooting the car horn.  A quick goodbye and see you at the finish, and I turned the corner for the final, final stretch along the road and to the finish.  Jo Thoms caught up with me and ran on ahead to the finish, she’d run back to find Hugh who wasn’t too far behind me.  As I ran up the road into Fort William, I saw the roundabout and the familiar street where the Leisure Centre sits.  I could see my dad on the corner waiting for me, cheering me home, and as I turned and ran into the car park, my team were waiting for me. 

I did it!!
I had done it! 18h45 min, only 15 mins off my original plan, earning me the 3rd fastest female time in the history of the race.  Rosie also had a stormer, finishing only 17 minutes behind me, narrowly missing a sub-19h finish and also smashing her previous PB. I was also delighted to hear later that my Harmeny AC club mate Keziah Higgins had finished in 3rd place in her debut West Highland Way race, finishing in 20h 09mins.

Proud dad at the finish line
My amazing crew
My response to Adrian’s initial question, "Do you want to win?",  was “Yes, very much”.  
Probably the most important lesson I learned from the race this year was to dig even deeper, because even when you think your race is over, if you really want something badly enough, you just have to dig that little bit deeper.   Or else have a mean support crew who don’t give you the option….;)


  1. Fantastic report. It was a pleasure to be a part of it. Although we just drove about and threw food and abuse at you, it was all down to your commitment, hard work and sheer determination.

    Remember the team moto. "You're only allowed to quit if you shit yourself" :-)

    Happy recovery xxx