Monday 20 June 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

"Running is how I renew my soul. I come back a new woman, a better mother, a better wife and a better friend. It gives me confidence, makes me realize how endless the possibilities are, and what can be achieved, even when I’m so tired and feel like I can’t go another step there always is another step, another hill that can be climbed."

Terry Toffelmire, thanks to Sally McCrae for this quote from her site

Like so many other ultra runners, there were many times in the second half of the West Highland Way Race where I questioned why we do this. What am I doing to my body? I just want to be sitting with my feet in that river instead of hiking this hill. I want to rest at the top of the Devil's Staircase like the walkers I can see, rather than starting to run again as soon as I reach the top.

Training had been good. Through May and June, since the Highland Fling, I'd focused on hills and climbed over 42,000 feet. I felt great physically, although more than ready to taper and rest. I'd run a decent Fling, a hard fought 8.54 finish not without one or two mistakes. I felt strong and ready to test my strength and endurance in trying for a sub-20 hour West Highland Way, but I'd always maintained a healthy respect for the 96 mile route after my first attempt at it in 2012.

Pre-race I was excited, just to be out there on the trail all day from start to finish in what were promising to be beautiful conditions. This forecast was such a relief to see. My 2012 race featured pouring rain for over 20 hours, macerated feet, an amateur endurance level and an Achilles injury, and I dragged myself over the line in 26 hours 45.

Some highlights, some struggles

The start, 1am in Milngavie (credit: Phil McCloy)

The first few sections were a beautiful joy to run. I was enjoying running steady and easy, and talking to people along the way. The night sky was so bright with a near-full moon that we hardly needed head torches. Even a fall four miles in whilst chatting to Lorna didn't phase me too much, fortunately I managed a roll into long grass and came off lightly.

Approaching Conic Hill the moon's reflection was cast across Loch Lomond and it was spectacular. I hoped Julie and Liz - my morning crew - were enjoying the views in Balmaha and not being eaten alive by midges. After a fast-hike up the hill I came down to the CP in 3:03 and it was great to see them there - oats, coffee and encouragement - and I got to ditch the headtorch and head forwards for a fresh day ahead.

Rowardennan at 27 miles came along in good time, 1 hour 28, a section run so many times but today to be enjoyed and not raced. I was feeling good still. But just as soon as Lorna and I had been talking about the midges not being bad so far we were hit by clouds of them. Only a few minutes in the CP were bearable to wolf down a few bites, replace fluids and take supplies for the next 14 mile stretch to Beinglas, which would be without support (the next CP Inversnaid is too remote for crew access).

Then 14 miles of MIDGE TORTURE - out in volume I'd never seen before due to the absence of any wind and the still cloudy early morning conditions. Black swathes of them hitting the eyes, nose, mouth, legs constantly, from the moment we left Rowardennan to Beinglas, only easing a little as we approached the checkpoint. My cap was pointless in staving them off and every few minutes I had to try remove them from my eyes as couldn't see properly. Ahead, Lorna had grabbed some bracken and I followed suit, trying to bat the clouds away. The Adventure Show were filming this year's race and I'm glad they weren't here for this part, although I'm sure it'd be entertaining.

Those creatures (courtesy of Monument Photos)

Beinglas farm with Julie

By Beinglas I was praying the midge-fest was over (it was) and after a quick hike through with pasta and pesto I decided I needed music to see me through this tough section - still under halfway with 9 miles of tricky undulations to the next CP at Auchtertyre. I'd planned to only put the iPod on after halfway but I needed something to lift me up from the difficult miles before, and it worked. Ahead I was excited to see Julie & Liz again at the Crianlarich deer fence and also couldn't wait to see Giles and Fraser (crew for the second half) for the first time. The rollercoaster hills rolled by and after 9 hours 22 of running I'd reached half way at Auchtertyre, greeted by Giles full of beans and positivity at the gate. A brief few minutes of being weighed and re-stocked before heading onwards for Tyndrum and the northern half.

After seeing Giles and Fraser again at Brodies in Tyndrum for a dose of sunscreen and Coke, I set off over the most runnable (trail) section of the route. I usually love this section (especially in the Devil O' The Highlands when you're fresh as a daisy) as it's such a reprieve from the earlier undulations but with the dramatic glens and highland hills unfolding for the first time before you. But it was getting hard and it was getting hot - I began to think how exposed the entire trail ahead was - Rannoch Moor, the Devil's Staircase, the Larig Mor - and how there were no clouds in the sky. Hotter than forecast, apparently it reached 24c yet I'd been expecting highs of 17. Focus on the 7 miles to Bridge of Orchy alone, I reminded myself, you CAN do this.

Lorna was running a fierce race, with such tenacity in the second half. I could see her just two minutes ahead of me leaving Tyndrum but this would be the last time, she reached Fort William in 18 hours 23 - a stunning run!

A minute at Bridge of Orchy was spent refilling water and being force fed almond butter by Giles - this got me out of the CP fast. I was not eating well and instructed to think about what I most want to eat at Glencoe. Giles & Fraser were amazing - as proactive and intuitive as a crew could possibly be. From Glencoe to the finish they rallied to source the widest array of foods that might tempt me into eating - a different selections of gels, ice creams, savoury food I might fancy ranging from veggie burger and chips, dips and hummus, soup to cous cous, and coffees. From this I barely handled a couple of chips and a few bites of ice lolly before just coke, ginger beer and a couple of gels over the final 25 miles. When I think about the time spent cooking and preparing as much variety as possible the week before - everything from sweet potato to veggie haggis pies, pasta and pesto to all varieties of flapjack, dried fruit, nuts, bakewells etc. it seems ridiculously wasteful. I guess sometimes in heat, I can't eat. Liquid nutrition strategies needed.

After the boost of seeing Murdo after Bridge of Orchy and one little red jelly baby to give me fire to the finish, I ran strong over Rannoch Moor, jogging the uphills until the final big slog into Glencoe when I'd drained both soft flasks and hit a real energy wall. I was slipping a little behind schedule and wondering how I'd restore my energy for the final 25 when I was so thirsty but couldn't eat.

By Altnafeadh I felt bloated and over hydrated, things weren't feeling right at all and I constantly had a raging thirst no matter how much I drank. Giles gave me an anti nausea tablet and sent me on my way, telling me to fast hike the Devil's Staircase. The heat was getting to me and I just wanted to stop in one of the streams but wasn't sure I'd get up again. Despite how I felt I managed the hike in 30 minutes and forced the running again, negotiating the technical descent until the welcome fire road down into Kinlochleven.

I felt more bloated and sick than ever, on the scales I was 2.5 kg up from Auchtertyre despite not eating, but I was determined not to have a repeat of 2012 when I stopped here in the medical room due to low blood pressure for 45 minutes. I had to keep moving. Giles walked me out to the foot of the 1000ft climb and not for the first time I desperately wanted him to be able to run with me but the new rule of no support runners for those running sub 21 hours put paid to that.

I know we seem to forget the pain and discomfort of long races pretty fast, but I won't forget this section for a while. My stomach was in bits and it took all my effort to keep moving steady. Up on the Larig Mor it took a while to get running again but when I did I found I could sustain an even 11-12 minute mile pace for most of the undulating miles, it was cooling down and the mountains were stunning. And like all the struggles, it passed - fuelled by Fanta from Jeff at the wilderness response team base - and before long I could see Giles' waving arms again and hear the tones of Cyndi Lauper blasting out from Lundavra. A hug from Gayle Tait and all the friendly faces helped and I knew I still had a decent chance of a sub 20 hour finish, unless I imploded on the final 7 miles.

It's a tough 3 miles of short, sharp ups before the long descent into Fort William. I just had to run all these and then I could hurt myself on the down and it wouldn't matter anymore. At Braveheart carpark, the whole crew were back and I surprised them by being 7 minutes up on schedule, sub 20 was achievable after a final mile along the road to the Leisure Centre.


Fort William finish line
I crossed the line in 19 hrs 34 minutes, 16th position overall and fourth lady behind Lorna. Then sickness! I'd wondered if I'd get the same post-exertional low blood pressure as in the 2012 race and it was back with a vengeance, perhaps worse due to the heat and stomach issues - I'd held off being sick for over 20 miles.

Delighted to have run this time in spite of what my body was doing. I've struggled again and again in the past with pacing and this time I succeeded in running steady in the first half, moving from 30th position at Balmaha, 19 miles, to 16th position at the finish. And although I'm disappointed not to have been able to enjoy and savour the entire trail as I'd hoped, this has been another adventure that I'll always remember with my crew.

And on the plus side, I didn't experience any hallucinations this time round, and not much sleepiness to speak of at all. My body and muscles are recovering fast and well, although the stomach is taking a little while to catch up. But does anyone ever run a race like this with a perfect day and no issue? Perhaps not, or perhaps we should keep trying to find out. But for now I'm going to be happy with the way this race played out for all its struggles, and enjoy the achievement :-)

I'm amazed and proud at the women's achievements this year. The standard was superb, with the top 3 ladies running under 19 hours and in the top 10 overall, led by Lizzie Wraith in 17.42. And not forgetting overall winner James Stewart with an incredible run of 15.15. Full results here.

The lovely crew
Prize giving

**Thanks to Ian and all who organised/supported this special race. And another enormous thanks to my crew - Julie, Liz, Giles and Fraser - without whom my finish would not have been possible, and more than that - not as memorable or with as many laughs
(ok not so much during but before and after) **


  1. The women's results were spectacular indeed! Your journey from 2012 to this is astounding, you are amazing!

  2. Brilliant result in challenging conditions on the trail and in the body. Well done! X

  3. Fantastic performance Caroline. Heat and midges certainly added to the challenge this year. Well done :-)

  4. Great report and race, Caroline. I was scratching just reading about the midges!! Speedy recovery xx

  5. Great and honest report Caroline. Congratulations on pushing through. As I finished one place behind you again after the Fling was interested to read how you felt and dealt with all the challenges along the way. I think I had quite a similar race to you. Oh and the midges were hell. Recover well. Robbie


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