Saturday, July 9, 2016

West Highland Way 2016

I wish I could adequately describe how I felt running the West Highland Way this past June.  The physical exertion of running 95 miles, and the sleep deprivation that goes with it, are only part of the experience.  So is the beautiful and austere course.  Even the midges play their beastly role.  

But most important is the feeling of community with crew, volunteers and other runners, all of whom step outside their ordinary lives for a little while to focus on one goal - getting from Milngavie to Fort William.  It is such a special experience, an emotional high that I have never experienced anywhere else.  I feel privileged to have started the race twice.

The Course

Course Profile

My two experiences at West Highland Way could not have been more different, and each one helped me appreciate the other.  Last year, it was raining much of the day.  I made several tactical mistakes, including going off course around mile 51 and running an extra six miles or so, not paying sufficient attention to nutrition, and failing to have the right gear for the cold, wet weather.  I ended up dropping out at 88 miles, at Lundavra, with hypothermia.  This year, the weather was perfect and my race went smoothly.

As strange as it sounds, I would not change one thing about what happened last time.  It was an incredible experience.  That is not to say I would ever want to repeat it.  That's often how life is: an experience is perfect the first time, but trying to repeat it would never work.  It is like going back to school after you've graduated. 

Pre-Race Instructions
12:30 a.m.

So much for the emotional stuff.  Here's the race report:  

I followed a very simply nutrition plan, taking one Gu every half hour.  That alone provides 200 calories per hour.  Add in a bit of Tailwind in the hydration pack, and some ginger beer and Coke at check points, and that was plenty of energy to get me to Fort William.   I had no problems eating, and generally felt good the entire 95 miles.  

Once again, I had an excellent crew: Rhona, Jemma and Patrick. Rhona was my crew chief, and she made sure that everything went smoothly.  Among other things, she provided me with an old mobile phone so that I could call the crew 15 minutes before each check point, a detail I would have ignored but which provided helpful.  

The Start

The race started at 1:00 a.m., in perfect weather, clear and cool. The course begins gently, rolling through the countryside on a mixture of fire roads, single tracks and small country roads.  The sky began to get light shortly after 3:00 a.m.   I took my headlamp off around 4:00 a.m., and only put it on again at the very end of the race.

The first 19 miles of the course are relatively flat and fast.  Even the climb up Conic hill is not too difficult that early in the race, although the run down from Conic toward Loch Lomond is a bit technical for a klutz like me.  I lost a few places at that stage, but felt great coming into Balmaha check point at 19 miles.

The midges came out in full force shortly after Balmaha, and plagued us for about 15 miles. Fortunately, I had used midge spray before the race, and one of the volunteers at Inversaid check point resprayed me.  And, I was running in a long sleeve shirt and gloves for the first 41 miles.  I survived with just a few bites on the ankles. 

Midge Hell

After Balmaha, the course continues along the East side of Loch Lomond for another 22 miles.  The trail becomes more technical, particularly a stretch of about four miles starting after Inversnaid.   

Last year, that technical section knocked me back significantly.  I lost about 20 places in the race, and even so it took a huge amount of energy.  It was difficult year, too, and there were times when I had to walk, and even use my hands.  But even so, there is no comparison with last year.  I lost just a couple of places and felt fine when I left Loch Lomond and headed towards the Beinglas check point at 41 miles.

Leaving Loch Lomond

Beinglas Check Point

My only minor hiccups came in the ten mile stretch after the Beinglas check point.  It was still cool, and I decided that I could get to Auchtertyre with just one water bottle, and no hydration pack.  I also left on my black long-sleeve Lycra shirt.  But the weather warmed up to about to about 70 degrees, and by the time I got to Beinglas I was a bit warm and slightly dehydrated.  I weighed in at about 4kg less than my pre-race weight.  

I also managed to bang the top of my head when passing through the tunnel under the train tracks at around mile 45, despite the fact that there is a very clear warning sign.  The tiny cut on my scalp bled a fair bit, and looked far worse than it felt.  Another running gave me some toilet paper to clean up the mess, and alerted the medical station at Auchtertyre check point to be on the look out for me.

Auchtertyre Check Point
It did not take long for the medic to decide that I was fine. Auchtertyre, about 50 miles into the race, is also where pacers are allowed.  

This year, however, the rules provided that anyone on pace to run under 21 hours cannot have a support runner.  When I arrived I was slightly faster than 21 hour pace, so I waited a couple of minutes so that Rhona could join me for the next section to Glencoe.  In the meantime, I drank lots of water, ginger beer and Coke, and gained back some of the water-weight I had lost.

From Auchtertyre to Fort Williams, the race went smoothly.  Rhona, Jemma and Patrick all took turns pacing and keeping me company. There were times I was frustrated that I was too tired to run on slightly technical downhills sections, but there was never a moment when I was objectively in any trouble.

Subconsciously, however, there was a part of me that thought that something would go wrong, and that I would not finish.  When we got to Lundavra, at mile 88, where I dropped out last year, I started to realize how anxious I had been, but also started realizing that I was in great shape and would actually finish.  I ran through the Lundavra check point without stopping, forcing Rhona and Jemma to run to catch up, and felt great the rest of the way to Fort William.  
It was barely dark when I finished at 11:39 p.m.  Wullie and Davie, who were on my crew last year, where at there, as was Alison.  I was so excited to see them I actually cried; I cannot remember the last time that I was that happy.

Our Team at the Award Giving
Rhona, Me, Jemma, Patrick

I owe thanks to many people.  In somewhat chronological order: Colin, Wullie and Davie crewed me last year, and taught me many lessons I was able to put to good use this year.  Ryan gave me the simple nutrition plan, which even I can follow, and which worked so well.  Marshall, Gwen and Kelley were my main training partners for the first five months of 2016, and helped me get into great shape.  Rhona, Jemma and Patrick crewed and paced this year.  I could not have done it without them.  And finally, Alison, who has been such a good friend for all these years.


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