I'm sure that's not what exercise physiologists call it but for me, that moment when exhausted legs come back to life after 70 miles of plodding will always be magic to me. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Milngavie to Balmaha.
In the beginning, there was rain, rather a lot of it.
I think all the folk who ran this year's race were watching the weather forecasts with some trepidation. Rain was forecast and rain is what we got.
At the start of the race is was just a fine drizzle, nothing to worry about and my hopes were raised that maybe the forecasters had got it wrong but as we wended our way northwards, the rain got progressively heavier. The night had been quite mild so I'd started off in shorts and a longsleeved shirt covered with a large bin-bag. Not terribly glamorous but it was effective in keeping me warm in rain without overheating. The bag went on and off several times during the early hours of the race and proved very useful.
The back-scatter of light from my head-torch and the heavy rain was annoying and coping with that and wearing glasses was doubly annoying. Eventually I had to just run without my glasses but fortunately I'm not that blind without them and the early stages up to the base of Conic hill aren't technical so it wasn't too much of a handicap. I'd arrived at Drymen just after 2 hours of running which was about where I'd hoped to be.
Approaching Conic hill I was astonished to hear the skylarks singing their hearts out at half past three in the morning. There was just enough light to get by on the forest roads without a head-torch now but it seemed way to early to be proclaiming one's territory! Still, it's my favourite birdsong and it lifted my rather dampened spirits.
All the rain and puddles meant of course that my feet were soaked long before I got to Conic hill but I've never seen so much water coming down the hill before. We were essentially walking up a river which was carrying silt and gravel into our shoes. Consequently, for the first time ever, I decided to have an early shoe change and valseline reapplication. Not that I was kidding myself that my feet would stay dry but there was just too much gravel in my shoes to risk continuing. As ever, it was great to see my wife and all the other support crews and marshals. After a quick banana, chocolate milk and a shoe/sock change I headed out of Balmaha feeling pretty good.
Balmaha to Inversnaid
That feeling lasted all the way to Rowardennan and I was pleased to be a able to push a bit along the flatter sections. The Balmaha/Rowardennan section is one where I've frequently hit low points and if can get past this section, I usually manage to carry on well. Consequently, I was unprepared for what was to happen just after leaving Rowardennan.
I had stopped for some pasta & coffee and because of the midges, had sat down in the car. With hindsight it's clear I hadn't been eating enough prior to that point because it took a huge effort of will to get out of the car and when I tried to run, I felt like a popped balloon. There was just nothing in my legs. Zilch. Nada. It was all I could do to resist pulling out my phone and calling Muriel back to say that I was turning around. For a while I couldn't even jog down hills. Going for a sleep underneath the trees started to seem like a terribly attractive option. I had to give myself a serious talking to but it was hard to remember why I had wanted to do this so bady for so long. Now it seemed like the stupidest idea in the world. No goblet was worth this amount of suffering and I was only just over a quarter of the way there!
The talking to must have worked as I shuffled on. I just walked, and walked some more until gradually the pasta hit my blood stream and started to do some good. As ever it was a relief to hit the end of the forest road and reach the single-track path. I was beginning to feel a bit more human now and I always like this bit. I was back to running again and beginning to actually enjoy myself. At inversnaid I swore that I wouldn't make the mistake of sitting down again and had more chocolate milk and some crisps whist standing and picked up some more energy bars for later.
Inversnaid to Auchtertyre
I was now feeling much much better, possibly slightly manic with relief that I wasn't in "zombie" mode any more.I remember catching other runners and yelling "A goblet will be mine today!" as I went past. Goodness knows what they thought but yelling it out loud helped me. ;-)
Indeed, I was feeling so good the awful terrain after Inversnaid barely impacted on my consciousness. My mind was all over the place and periodically I'd look up and find that I was miles up the path without any memeory of having struggled particularly. It was a relief though to come out of that knarly bit and see Dario's post up ahead. I paused to touch the post and take in the fantastic view down the loch before heading off towards my next dropbag at Beinglas farm.
At last Auchtertyre was feeling close. I stopped to use the toilets are Beinglas (which was a first for me, I've always had to make like a bear in previous races) before attacking my drop bag and pushing on up the road. I was making steady if not spectacular pace and the miles seemed to go past without too much difficulty. I had given Muriel instructions to provide a hot pie at Auchtertyre and the anticipation of this really helped me along.
At the top of Bogle Glen I met an unhappy looking Sandra in a lot of pain with her ankles. Shortly after that I met Ian walking up to meet her and sadly she had to withdraw. I've been lucky that so far, touch wood, I've never withdrawn from the race (although I've felt like doing it every time at some point). Running it hurts, but failing to finish hurts even more I think.
I had a longish wait to cross the A82 but made fair progress pie-wards and before long I was at Auctertyre getting weighed and getting to my pie! Only it wasn't a pie, it was a beef and onion pasty. Still, by now anything warm and savoury would have done . Muriel had kept it under the bonnet of the car on the exhaust shield as instructed to keep it warm and it was delicious! My feet, although soaking, felt fine and as I only had one pair of dry shoes left, I stuck with my road shoes that I'd put on in Balmaha. It was at Auchtertyre that I met Debbie & Sharon and I tried, rather incoherently, to congratulate her on her fantastic race on the Grand Union Canal. My speech centres aren't too great at the best of times but when I'm running I can really struggle. I think she got the message anyway. I sure the big hug was a strong hint. ;-)
Auchtertyre to Glencoe
As I reached the A82 underpass I realised that the path under the bridge was completely flooded. I considered for a moment crossing the road but given how long I'd had to wait at the previous crossing I decided I would just take the "wet way". It's not as if my feet could really get any wetter!
I hadn't planned to meet up with Muriel again until Bridge of Orchy but I'd left my cap back at the car so I was glad that they'd caught me by Brodies store to return it to me.
The wind was decidedly quixotic along the Tyndrum/BOO section. One minute it would be in your face, the next giving you a welcome shove in the back. Alas it was mostly in my face but I was grinding away steadily forwards and enjoyed the run down into Bridge of Orchy.
George Reid was waiting there for John Duncan and had been telling me along the way how John was catching me. After refuelling, as I turned to go, George shouted out "Hi John!" over my shoulder causing me a moment's panic. Beating John was one of my unofficial goals in this race and George was taking great delight in winding me up. ;-)
I headed off to Victoria bridge and this was the only point at which we had a hiccough twixt runner and crew. Muriel said that she'd meet me by the Inveroran hotel as the long hours of doing nothing were really getting to her. I agreed to this and set off up the hill to see if Murdo the Magnificent was on jelly baby duty. Once again, he was doing sterling duty cheering us all on and as ever, it was great to see him.
I jogged on down the hill toward the hotel but as I approached, I couldn't see any car! This provoked a bit of unnecessary panic and I began to imagine that they had perhaps got the car stuck at BOO. I decided to carry on and pulled out my phone to ring them but there was no reception. Well now I was worried that they'd arrive late at Inveroran and wait for me whilst I ran on ahead of them! So I did what any crazed half mad panicking runner would do, I flagged down a passing bus. What it was doing there I don't know but I asked the driver to look out for our car and if he saw it, tell Muriel that I had carried on.
Happier now that I had done all that I could, I carried on towards Victoria bridge. Of course, in the next car park, there was Muriel who had decided to just go a bit further down the road. Huge sigh of relief!
Now it was time to tackle Rannoch moor on my own. I've done this with and without support runners and whilst I like it more with a runner than without, it always seems a bit like cheating and I wasn't sorry to be on my own. I dislike the cobbled surface up to Ba bridge with a passion but the miles went by without dragging too much and when I reached the top of the pass by the Fleming cairn I phoned Muriel to let her know that I'd be there in about 10 minutes. She told me that she had a hot baked potato with cheese waiting for me and that helped to put a spring in my step on the way down. ;-)
When I arrived the potato turned out to be huge but despite this I still managed to scoff about half of it. I also changed my shoes and socks again (and more vaseline) and was now wearing a brand new pair of Adidas trail shoes.
Glencoe to Kinlochleven
As I shuffled off down the hill with a bulging belly John danced into the checkpoint looking happy as larry. I tried to pick up the pace but now I was affected by the "post-stuffing yourself torpor" and could only make slow progress down hill. As I approached Auchtertyre I decide I needed to pee so after looking around, I stopped to pee with my back to anyone approaching from behind along the route. There had been no sign of John or his support runner, Lorna McMillan, when I had looked back. Unfortunately, in choosing which direction to pee, I had neglected to take into account the wind and I was in imminent danger of soaking my new dry shoes! Consequently I swung around to face back eastwards and lo and behold, John and Lorna hove into view! Fortunately I think a combination of distance and the effects of cold on my nether regions rendered the risk of offence minimal. ;-)
Bill Gerrie, my support runner joined me at the bottom of the Devil's Staircase. I was determined not to make it easy for John to catch me so I put in some determined stomping up the hill. So determined in fact, I realised that we were catching several runners ahead. My stomach was feeling less bloated and my energy levels were on the up.
There were some runners ahead and I confidently said to my support runner that we'd pass them in the next half mile. In actual fact we passed them in the next 200 yards! Words cannot really adequately describe just how much I love this section when I'm feeling good. I was flying now in full downhill racing style loving every second of it. Sometimes I do this and I'm spent by the time I reach KLL but at that moment, even though I knew the risk, I didn't care. After so many miles of plodding it just felt so wonderful to have air under my feet and to be catching and passing folk all the way down. I left Glencoe in 81st position and arrived in KLL in 64th place. Three of those gains were down to retirements but it was still a good move in the right direction!
I checked in at KLL and had a great cup of tea and a couple of custard creams. It's amazing just how good simple comfort foods can taste at times like these. The community centre was absolutely hooching with midgies though so I didn't hang around too long. I think I got all my bites during that one stop!
Kinlochleven to Fort William
Bill and I walked out of the community centre and I took my time easing back into a jog. I really wasn't certain how much I had left in me. I can never decide if the climb out of KLL is worse than the Devil or not but whatever it is, it didn't feel too awful that night. Once up on to the Larig mor I was pleased to find that my legs still had some push left in them so we set off in pursuit of more runners. It was still light enough to run without torches and I generally try to go for as long as possible without. Not because I'm an Aberdonian concerned with the cost of batteries (well, not too concerned), but because I think you can see the irregularities in the path much better by the light of the sky, almost no matter how weak the light, than by torchlight.
Still, it was pretty late by now and we did have to give in eventually but wherever possible we were running rather than walking and passing other runners. The lights of the Wilderness Response team did cause us some puzzlement as we approached. For sometime now I had been seeing animals shapes in all the rocks and was beginning to wonder if my eyes could be trusted. As ever though, the WRT are a welcome sight up there on the Larig mor. It's a long and dreary stretch and I wasn't sorry that I couldn't see the path stretching out in front on me.
It's not the end of course but it marks the beginning of the last stretch and it's always a welcome sight. No Duncan Watson this year and just a small fire but perhaps that's just as well as it can be too tempting to linger here.
My memory of the next stretch from previous races is obviously a bit shaky as I told Bill that the next bit was more runnable. Well it is, once you reach the forest road but I'm afraid we didn't do much running in the dark until then. I think it's mostly down to the difference between torchlight and daylight.
As we'd left Lundavra George Reid had said that Andy Cole wasn't too far ahead. Every year I hope that Andy will have the WHW race that he deserves and I was genuinely sorry to hear that he was doing as badly as me. Still, that didn't stop me wanting to pass him (again). ;-)
We did catch Andy and went on to catch a few more runners. One group that we'd passed earlier re-passed us and I told them that I'd catch them later but a look at my Bill suggested that this wasn't going to happen. I had perhaps been a little "economical with the truth" when I'd asked Bill to be my support runner. He's a great hill runner and has a respectable time in the Pentland Skyline, a very tough and long hill race. I had told him however that I hoped to finish around 24 hours and that he'd have no trouble keeping up with me by the end of the WHW. Well, we were heading for a 26 hour finish and the unaccustomed miles and hours were beginning to tell.
I thought it wouldn't look good if I left my support runner out on an unfamiliar road in the middle of the night (it's probably a disqualification offence!) so we jogged down the glen together. As we neared Fort William I could see that we would probably make it inside 26 hours, however "probably" isn't good enough so we upped our pace to guarantee a sub-6 finish.
As ever, I had to have a wee sprint at the end. Looking a bit gaunt so probably significantly dehydrated.
I hit the doors at 25:55:53 feeling great. I had a slightly sore foot from over tightening my laces but honestly felt the best I've ever done after a WHW race. Amazingly, considering all the soggy miles covered, not a single blister either.
I think the choice of the right gear helped me enormously in this year's race. From the feet up I was wearing my Adidas Kanadia Trail shoes which although not wearing terribly well, are very comfortable. I'd covered my feet in vaseline and wore ordinary short slightly cushioned cotton socks. I had treated my "undercarriage" to a bit of Bodyglide and was wearing some seamless polyamide/polyester underwear beneath my Skins shorts. On top I started with a long sleeved Decathlon "Kalenji" shirt which I've found great in many races. Even when soaked the woven texture of if seems to retain enough air to provide just enough insulation for me. I had a micro-fleece that I wore later in the race on top of my long sleeve top and a Montane Mimimus jacket to finish off. I also carried (and used) a pair of fairly heavyweight Berghaus over-trousers.
Despite the wet, I finished in the same shirt, underwear and shorts that I started in and had no problems at all with chaffing. The only thing I think I'd change if racing in similar conditions again would be to use a cheap hooded plastic poncho rather than a bin-bag.
My heart goes out to all those who tried and failed this year. It wasn't an easy year and I hope you'll all be back to try again.