“I’ll only ever do the West Highland Way race if I think I can complete it in under 23 hours.” Those were my exact words to Gerry Craig in March 2014 when I first ran on the route. Now, sitting here having won the most iconic ultra race in Scotland it all feels surreal.
Race reports are a funny thing to write. They can be formulaic accounts or chronological countdowns – whatever the writer chooses to share. Let me share my WHW 2016 race with you.
Pre-race: There is nerves abound. The sky is beginning to darken. The throng of people hanging around Milngavie is growing as locals witness this once a year natural phenomenon, a visitation of 200 or so illuminated runners all clad in varying hues of the colour spectrum, but with an emphasis on BRIGHT! which serves only to add mystique to the gathering. “What is the purpose?” people mutter in the general direction of the crowd. If they had asked anyone involved, the answer would be simple, “To get to Fort William as fast as we can…”
Every one of the 199 runners starting the 2016 race has their own story, their own motivation, their own battle ahead. Words and platitudes which will be thrown around for the next 35 hours include EPIC, AWESOME, AMAZING, PHENOMENAL and so many others. On a weekend like this it is impossible to over use these words.
The gun goes off: Well, actually, it is a horn. Right away a group of 4 go marching ahead. I settle in behind them for a few miles, letting them push ahead bit by bit. They are moving awfy fast! Hal Koerner and my good friend Davie Gow hook-up with me. Davie is listening to thrash metal in the dark (imagine listening to Slipknot running through a forest with a headtorch on, he is hardcore), so not much chat. Sharing a trail for an hour or so with Hal is an experience I am glad to have had. We talk about life, family and running. Both of us agree the early breakaway group was running a tad fast.
Do your own thing: From Balmaha to Auchtertrye all on my own. No other runners in sight, behind or ahead. I am running in 2nd place after passing 3 of the 4 leaders up over Conic Hill. I am inside my pace plan and am glad to have the Lochside and Bogle Glen sections behind me. I love the course from Tyndrum north. I am thinking Kris, the leader, is well ahead and am entertaining thoughts of consolidating 2nd place. Then my crew tell me Kris is flagging. I kick on. My crew and I chatted many times beforehand, our approach was a pace plan to Auchertyre then a race plan to Fort William. It is time to race. I take over Kris at Bridge of Orchy, a wrong turn compounds his tiredness no doubt. At 61 miles, I finally move to the front.
Whit? I better get moving!: At the Devil I am right on my pace plan, just 2 mins behind. The target is 15:30. In recent years only Paul Giblin and Robbie Britton have bettered that and those boys can shift you know. I get into Kinlochleven (KLL) and my crew tell me Adam in 2nd has closed the gap to only 8 mins at Glencoe, and I know I have gone easy over the Devil so expect the gap to have dropped further. It’s time to shift.
The best 14 miles I have ever run: I boost out of KLL after getting weighed and drinking the best cold can of irn-bru ever. Close your eyes after reading this and imagine the feeling. The heat of the 2pm sun is beating down on me, I am nearly 13 hours and 82 miles in. Everything aches, even my ear lobes. Then, the noise of the can opening. The fizz settles. Patience. And sip. And sip. A wee shudder, like ‘someone walked over my grave’. Aaahhhh. Satisfaction. Take another 30 seconds to finish the rest. In the background I am mentally preparing to run as hard as I can for 14 miles. I cannot let this go now. I may never get into this position ever. How much do I want to win this race? Enough to push to a new level of hurt? Let’s do it!
As I approach Lundavra I am exhilarated and the Taits blasting Rearviewmirror only adds to feeling. I know I have ran Lairig Moor better than I ever expected. And what’s more, I feel great. The step-up in effort has actually reinvigorated me. I get info saying Adam left KLL 5 mins after me. It is a race. But yet, I am cool. If he has matched my effort on the Moor he’s a champion for sure. And he is, I know this after meeting him post-race. I run almost all the way up the hill out of Lundavra. 7 miles between me and something I did not believe was possible just 18 months ago.
Images and emotion: The descent down Glen Nevis is long. Longer than I remember, and it drags on. I keep telling myself the car park is close by. Home straight is near. Then it appears and I know I have it won. The last mile or so to the finish I allow myself to think about all the people who have helped me be here. I don’t mind saying, I well up a bit. I get images of people whose fingers are worn out pressing F5 on their keyboards, all those folks cheering me at every checkpoint with genuine warmth; my friends watching from afar; Louise and the boys and how they must feel; Paul G over in the USofA and how it must be amazing to win it three times then coach the winner; then the honour of handing the last goblet comes into my mind; and on the day my crew who have been there all the way – how proud they must be. How lucky am I?
And there they are. Cheering me on. I cross the line in 15:15:59 to win by 17 mins. I took 16 minutes off of my pace plan from KLL to Fort William. I hurt but it is worth it. Pain goes away eventually.
The aftermath: I get two meals at the pub, a beer and a cider as well – elixir! I can walk, and I can move not too bad up and down stairs. I am ok. We chat about the amazing spirit of those about to enter a 2nd night. Unbelievable endeavour and the next day we get to applaud each and every one. And we did. All of them. Although some of us may have had to stop for a second when Norma Bone got her prize. My story is that there must have been onions getting peeled in the hall…
Big shout to Adam Zahoran who ran an epic (that word!) race in 2nd place, putting me under a lot of pressure. Jacob Tangley as well, great podium place.
More impressive however was the ladies shoot-out with 3 of the top 8 overall being made up of Lizzie Wraith, Morgan Windram-Geddes and Lorna McMillan who all went under 19 hours! Top running and great depth in that race.
Epilogue and recognition: I won the West Highland Way race 2016. That is true. Of course it is. But anyone with the courage to contemplate this incredible event and to then make it to the start line is a winner. 199 started, 159 finished. If you were one of the 199 be proud of your bravery and ambition. If you were one of the 159, remember your goblet is not dishwasher friendly!!
There are a litany of people I need to thank. Sorry, a litany I want to thank.
- Louise, Euan and Caelan: for everything, everyday and forever
- Ian and the WHW race team: for a peerless event
- The scores of volunteers: you guys are immense
- The supporters and cheerers: energy boost machines
- Alison and George: homebakers extraordinaire, it made all the difference
- Paul Giblin: from there to here, together man, and to tomorrow as well
- The tons of folk who sent good vibes before, during and after the race: far too kind
But, last mention goes to my crew. You were there before the race, after the race and most importantly during the race. Encouraged when you needed to, pushed when it was required and kicked at the right time. Andy, Scott, Skoosh and Des, this is my win, your win, our win. Thanks guys.