Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The West Highland Way: Race to Remember

It was hard for me to imagine what running 30 miles longer that I've ever run before in a day would be like, both mentally and physically, but it was easy to make targets beforehand. I love an ambitious goal, but they went out the window (or more likely washed away by the rain) during Saturday's race. Still, I'm absolutely delighted to say I was still able to collect a certain beautiful crystal goblet on Sunday to mark my finish in the West Highland Way Race.

The Friday before the race start was less than ideal. I'd hoped to have a chilled day of sleeping and cooking race fuel etc but predictably awoke early with some major butterflies playing havoc. Instead of enjoying being around the flat I felt stressed and couldn't get to sleep for the rest of the day. The continual rain and growling thunder battering the flat didn't help - weather has such an effect on state of mind! Think I might have to work on the relaxation and meditation side of race prep in the future.

My support crew came round to James' for a quickie meal of deluxe mac & cheese before we headed for Milngavie around 10pm, arriving just after 11pm amidst persistent rain. I thought we had heaps of time but it filled quickly with registering, being weighed, sorting drop bags for the crewless checkpoints, catching up with Andy Cole the younger and donning kit. Given the forecast, what to wear had been a conundrum, but I decided on the OMM long tights, the Kamleika waterproof that saw me through 3 days of steady rain during Run Around Mull and my Brooks Cascadia with Injinji toe socks....James also strapped my toe up as my entire big toenail had come off that day: great timing.

Then it was time: I dashed into the middle of the 172-strong pack and ran into Karl Zeiner and his friend Lex. It was great to see them briefly and we set off into the darkness, a myriad of head torches leading the away against an impressive backdrop of cheers for the unsocialable hour of 1am.

I remember thinking, despite the rain, how much I was enjoying running along this trail again and using my legs after the long taper. The first of two falls during he first 12 miles interrupted my thoughts, and I hit the ground hard, softening the blow with my hand and bottle. I wasn't used to running with a headtorch and the rain was disorientating, so I don't think I was judging my foot placement well.

THE wonder pie
So, to introduce my lovely crew, I was incredibly lucky to be looked after by: James - driver of camper and chef of the daddy of all crew fuel: THE game pie; Julie - driver of second crew car and all-round amazing, supportive, selfless lady who never seems to tire; Gregg - head of crew banter and Dad jokes, and a runner who can bang out 30 miles without any training; and last but not least Cat - head of social media and the health & beauty cabinet of the camper for the weekend.

I first saw them at the Beech Tree Inn - an impromptu stop at 7 miles - I didn't stop but the cheers buoyed me during a particularly torrential downpour. By this point my feet had been soaked already for a few miles. By Drymen and after the second fall - this time on the road section just ahead of Drymen at 12 miles - I was more than ready to see them again. Staying true to the nutritional strategy spreadsheet I'd handed to them earlier, they thrust a gel and refill of Peronin into my hands and I was off again, to face the next 7 miles and Conic Hill before the first official checkpoint at Balmaha.

I really enjoyed this section and in retrospect it was one of the highs of my race. Once I'd adapted to having wet feet I began to enjoy splashing through puddles and got chatting to a friendly Irish guy running the race for the second year and gearing up for the UTMB. It was one wild party up Conic hill, at one point we were all splashing up the path-turned river shin-deep in water, and I had a distinct high as the darkness subsided and the light shone through the clouds. I was uncharacteristically cautious on the way down with memory of the faceplant I did down the hill during the Highland Fling still fresh in my mind.

I had a bit of fun racing a few guys down, we all thought we'd be involved in a massive game of dominoes at any second. I arrived in a midge-infested Balmaha around 4.30am, 20 minutes shy of the gold target split. I downed a quickie bowl of cereal, refilled the Peronin, changed into dry socks and shoes and was off - shouting goodbye to the team, who I wouldn't see until Auchtertyre at 50 miles, around 7 hours later due to the next 3 checkpoints being difficult/restricted to supporters.

My midged, damp crew
I left for the next section, 7 miles to Rowardennan, feeling good and running strong. However, after a brief respite on Conic during which the clouds parted, it began again, this time persistent and heavy. Combined with the unbelievable clouds of midges attacking us as we ran, this really dampened my state of mind. I'd been warned about the midges but didn't actually think I'd get bitten badly whilst running a decent pace. I stand corrected, as they were everywhere, down my waterproof, on the ankles, all over my face, and I'd stupidly refused the repellant at Balmaha, saying I'd get some later. If there is a next time, a midge net will be top of the list.

I arrived into a drenched Rowardennan to pick up my drop bag, refill with Peronin and gels and drink some coke. Needing a toilet stop, I tried the toilets to no avail - locked. Leaving the checkpoint, I ran strong for a few more miles before passing a campsite and veering off down to its toilet block - again, locked. I gave up and headed for the trees, wasting more valuable time.

I was prepared for the next section, knowing it well know through training and the Fling - the first year of which I remember finding the gradual incline out towards Inversnaid a real struggle. I'm happy to say I quite enjoy this part of the trail now, and was running some of the gentler inclines and chatting to Donald Sandeman as we kept passing each other. I was surprised when I popped out of the trees and spotted the bridge leading over and down into the checkpoint - Inversnaid already.

Coming into Inversnaid
The lovely Mountain Rescue Team were a welcome sight, as they ushered me to a seat with my drop bag and offering Skin So Soft, next to some other runners munching on sandwiches and coke. I couldn't help laughing with them that we looked a picture, a random selection of folk out for a bizarre picnic in the monsoon. I sat only for a minute - much better to walk and eat. I set off down the trail, attempting to eat one of my race fuel creations of a tattie scone/peanut butter sandwich and heading for the iconic but difficult lochside section, thinking "I'm welcoming you". Clambering over boulders, tree roots, huge steps and through streams and rivers bursting at their banks on their way down the hill to the loch was of course difficult but I always find the seemingly endless couple of miles into Beinglas checkpoint after the lochside worse. No matter my nutritional intake, I always seem to arrive into Beinglas with low blood sugar, feeling everything is becoming a struggle.

It was pouring again, and I sat beneath the awning whilst a lovely marshall refilled my water, handed me my drop bag and offered me snacks from a table overflowing with fudge, bananas and chocolate. I was hungry by then, and had a couple of pieces of fudge, banana and stashed a Mars to take on the speed hike out the checkpoint up the hill. I think I ate it too fast as almost immediately begain to feel nauseus. Looking back I think I was pretty cold by that point too after 10 hours of running in the rain (although the trusty OMM jacket and tights were doing a fantastic job) but became worried that my stomach had stopped absorbing properly.

Team multi-tasking: feeding me and patching me up
Over this long section of 10 miles, I ran when I could and speed hiked the many hills through the forest above Crianlarich until I was nearing the next checkpoint at Auchtertyre, a few miles out of Tyndrum. On one of the sharp downhills I had a sudden pain in my right toes, which felt like I was running on glass. Blisters. It would have been a small miracle if it hadn't happened, given the rain. I made the mistake of sitting on the trailside to take my shoes off and look. A massive blister had formed over my big toe where we'd taped it prior to the start. I promptly put it back on, gritted my teeth and got down the hill and the further mile to the CP. I met the team shortly after midday, whom I hadn't seen for hours, since Balmaha. The poor guys were soaked and huddled under umbrellas. but were fantastic - taking me to the weigh point, dealing with the blister and feeding me. My waist pack had been bruising my back after running with it for 11 hours so I swapped to Gregg's camelbak and set off with a feeble hobble until the toe pain numbed, then I was running again, through the final miles into Tyndrum, to cross into the eagerly-awaited northern half of the WHW.

I tried in vain to keep my feet dry but the flooding on the trail was unavoidable. I chatted to a friendly chap (can't remember his name) up from the midlands to run the race, we kept passing each other but when he ran it was at a faster pace so it wasn't possible to stay running together. I pulled my ishuffle on at this point, and despite the distracting sounds of the rainfall, the upbeat electronica sounded amazing, and really gave me a boost. My pace picked over the more runnable section 9 miles to Bridge of Orchy. I was so excited about arriving into the BoO, as I'd been thinking during all my prep that if I could get there relatively comfortably and in a decent time, even if I really struggled afterwards I could walk it in in under 35 hours. This part of the trail was exposed and I was now running into a brisker wind. I passed at least a couple of guys who were walking huddled and shivering - asking if they were ok they said they were, just cold and couldn't run any more. I think they had to call it a day at BoO which was really sad.

Bridge of Orchy checkpoint: 60 miles
I ran past the hotel over the bridge but couldn't find the team. Sean Stone advised me to check in the hotel carpark as a few support vehicles had had to park there. As I started back up the road, I saw the welcome blue jacket of MeJulie, running towards me waving. Behind her trotted Cat, James and Gregg, with all I needed in hand. I refilled with Peronin, munched another tattie scone (too good!!) and decided a quick stop into the hotel toilet was in order. Gregg had decided to support run with me - which we thought was 9 miles to Glencoe. I asked him if he'd taken into consideration we now had a long ascent out of BoO - he hadn't but was game anyway! It was fantastic to have company and we marched up the hill, surrounded by another bank of rain clouds.

At the top of the hill a Scotland flag marked the spot where Murdo McEwan was standing, handing out jelly babies to the runners, with lovely words of encouragement. I was fading a bit on the downhill that followed, but the constant chat with Gregg kept me distracted. Despite the bleak weather, the landscape around us was lush, green and beautiful, and the trail led us onto the road section and up the steady climb onto Rannoch Moor. Now the last time I'd run on the Moor was a fantastic training run with Antonia, in excellent weather conditions, and despite it being the second 30 miler of a back to back weekend I felt great and loved the scenery of the moorland and enclosing mountains of Glencoe.

It wasn't the same this time: there were more inclines that I remember, and the trail just went on and on. I was desperately searching for the landmark of the bridge that had been our turnaround point, but it didn't come for miles. I had to have one or two walking breaks, and a gel. I then ran out of Peronin and started to feel thirsty. We finally made it into Glencoe quite a bit behind my schedule, realising this section had been 11 not 9 miles. My ability seemed to now be closely connected to knowing exactly what to expect.

Glencoe was not a happy checkpoint experience. First I wanted to drink lots, eat and change my shoes. I'm not even sure I changed my shoes - my mind had started to go and as soon as I stopped running I felt dizzy and sick, and my quads were seizing. I brushed my teeth and didn't know what to do with myself but decided I had to start running again. My quads were agony as I set off but I only got 100 metres down the road before I realised my teeth were chattering and I was absolutely frozen. I felt my clothing and it was soaked - I hadn't changed clothes at all. Gregg - who'd continued on with me - called the crew camper and it came speeding down the hill. I jumped in and whipped my clothes off, changing into two new dry and thermal layers, dry gloves and back into my waterproof. Instantly I felt better and set off, attempting a slow jog. At this point we met Karl Zeiner and his support runner Fiona Milligan. His knees had gone and he was struggling to run. I said I'd probably see him on the Devil's Staircase in a few miles time but later heard he'd pulled out which was a real shame - but sure he'll be back.

We took the opportunity of the Devil to crack open some crisps which I was craving by then, and catch up on Peronin consumption, which by now I was mightily sick of. When we eventually reached the top I vowed to try run the entire downhill but comically as I sustained the jog I found Gregg was speed walking at the same pace. My quads were still struggling and a few miles later I began to have the familiar walking-on-glass feeling again. This time it felt like a large section of the soles of both feet were forming blisters.

The neverending stretch into Kinlochleven was all downhill and my state of mind was quickly going the same way. We could see the tantalising lights of the village long below us, nestled between the beautful hills, but it didn't seem like we'd ever reach it. Poor Gregg, I don't know how many times I fired questions at him about how far is this, how far is that, what is your estimate of this etc - he'd never even run on the WHW so I don't know what I expected! I began fantastising about being in a room. I didn't care what room, just any dry one. With a cup of tea. I don't ask for much, Gregg said.

I felt close to tears as we ran into the village and thought I'd be tipped over the edge when I saw James jogging towards us. i just wanted a hug but didn't think any sympathy would be a good idea. I didn't feel I could continue from KL without my blisters being dealt with and feet strapped up. The race doctor Chris Ellis is based in KL and at the checkpoint all night for any runners needing treatement before continuing. James asked him if he could deal with my feet and I was taken into the gym where I lay on the medical bed and immediately felt like passing out. I was aware my head was lolling and I people's voices were fading in and out. I then thought I was going to be sick and a second younger doctor helping Chirs brought me a sick bowl. Chris explained that after such long endurance efforts, when the body stops said effort the heart can slow down/fluctuate so much that blood pressure drops and fainting/sickness can occur. Its not dangerous but felt horrible.

Chris looked at my feet and said there were no blisters on the underside, which felt unbelievable to me given the pain. He said the skin had been wet for so long it was very loose on both feet though. He re-strapped my toe and strapped up both feet. If he'd told the team I couldn't continue I don't think I would've argued, but I got up and tried to force feed a peanut butter roll and a can of coke. Someone mentioned only 6 women had made it through KL so far and up to 50 had DNF'd the race out of 172.

Gregg had become my trail angel and decided to continue with me for the next section too, probably because I looked like such a state by now. James led us out onto the road to the base of the steep climb out of KL and said goodbye until Lundavra in 7.5 miles. Just walking again felt better, and the sickness subsided as quickly as it had come. We reached the peak of the hill and I began seeing large white crates lining the hillside. "What are they?" I asked Gregg. Glancing up, the response came "rocks, Caroline, rocks". A while later I felt inclined to ask what the huge angular objects on the left side of the trail were. "Is there a cable car up here?". No, said Gregg - these again are rocks. I cold have sworn this white cable car was rising up towards the trail. I became pretty obsessed with the objects on the hills, and felt like I was in some sinister cartoon.

Both Gregg and myself quickly became tired of the terrain, and the concentration required not to fall on loose rocks, deep puddles and stream crossings. There were a lot of slippages and I was worried about Gregg's dodgy ankle. The last few miles wore on and at last we saw the glittering lights of the bonfire at Lundavra. I realised it was 1am, and could have burst into tears again at realising how long I'd stayed at KL and how behind my gold and silver targets I'd become. But mainly I was worried about my crew being tired.

As soon as I stopped in their cosy huddle, I felt sick and like I was going to pass out again. I just needed to keep going until the end now, so set off up the hill with a pocket full of jelly babies and some Peronin. Gregg said he'd carry on with me and I was delighted, I'm not sure I would have made it without him, without crashing into a river or off the trail. By this point my achilles and quads were really struggling, so I was speed walking all parts of the trail that weren't completely flat (not many). Then, on a sharp uphill leading into the forested path before the downhill into Fort William, I felt a sharp pain in my right achilles, with horrific twinges right up my calf. This time I did burst into tears, as thought I'd torn it. Gregg came to get me and took my arm as we decided what to do. We calculated only a couple of miles left and there was no way I was going to DNF now. I put weight back on the foot but whilst still on the uphill it was agony. When back on flat or downhill the twinges subsided. So we started the long walk into Fort William, which turned out to be 3 or 4 miles rather that 2. I began imagining what type of room I'd be in tonight (Cat's B & B) and what it would feel like to be indoors. Gregg called the team and warned them we might be a while.

95 miles later - and confused!
Like KL, the sparkling lights of Fort William took an age to descend to. But we did, and emerged into the town with the Lochaber leisure centre ahead of us. I was quite confused but Julie and Cat were shouting at me to knock on the door, and I was greeted with a hug by Ian Beattie to a backdrop of claps and cheers. My time was 26 hours 45 minutes and 7th lady position, a good deal past my sub 24 target but I was just happy to finish at all. Even the achilles pain seemed to go away with the delight of finishing.

I really can't say thank you enough to Julie, Gregg, James and Cat for giving up their weekends to support me. They must have been exhausted as the normally super healthy team resorted to not one but two McDonalds breakfasts on Sunday morning. But they were constantly cheerful, always there with exactly what I'd asked for, and took care of everything - James and Julie were the sole drivers of both vehicles for two days solid, with sleep of just 4 hours. And I truly don't think I would've made it through the last section if Gregg hadn't beensupport runner extraordinaire.

Me and Doctor Chris, who saved my race
So what have I learnt? That running in the rain for 24 hours WILL make you cold, and regular warm up's/shoe/clothes changes should be priority - but the beautiful OMM Kamleika still does the job. That I need sturdier trail shoes for the West Highland Way, possibly Roclites. That Peronin is excellent race fuel. That I should not stop for more than a matter of minutes at checkpoints. That it is possible to go through a hellish low and recover enough to continue. I was reduced to an incredibly low mental and physical state at certain points, which has since made me really appreciate the simple comforts in life - like being in rooms and drinking tea. Despite going back to work on Tuesday with some major projects on my plate, I feel like nothing can phase me after Saturday's endurance. I do wish it would stop raining now though!

THE Team (minus Gregg, who should be in this!)


  1. Great post Caroline well done - your comments about the rocks made me laugh, I saw penguins, people standing with umbrellas, more people, sheep...nope, all rocks! Fantastic performance in tough conditions.
    Hope you are recovering well and see you on the trails again soon!

    1. Thanks Carrie, the same and more goes back to you - what an amazing time you achieved, well done! Good to hear it wasn't just me with the rocks! Yup hopefully see you at another...maybe we could organise a Pentlands outing one weekend if you're in Edin too :-)

  2. Was looking for reviews for the OMM Kamleika range and they don't come much better than your endorsement :-). Thanks. Now to find a good deal, so far this is the best I have found: Looking forward to trying mine out in the Dales.

  3. What an amazing achievement Caroline!!! That was some weekend last year for the weather! A great read and I'm going to have to look into the Peronin, for my 1st attempt at the WHW this year. Peronin has been mentioned during a Marathon Des Sables presentation, I was at, but still haven't tested it yet on any long runs. I have however been trying out baby food, which believe it or not seems to be fueling me well! O_O I also like "rooms and a cup of tea!" ;o)

  4. Thanks to anonymous poster above. I went for the OMM kamleika race jacket and absolutely love it. You wouldn't believe how lightweight.


The North Face Endurance Challenge: a shortlived high and many lows

4am in a freezing park in Sausalito, Marin County, 12 hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco, two days after running a work event...