Alistair Stewart, The West Highland Way Race 2013
I first learned about Ultra marathons some years ago, I think through an article in the Telegraph. Of the races referenced by the journalist, two really captured my imagination The West Highland Way Race and The Marathon Des Sables.Impressed by the runners but unable to relate to these ‘super-humans’ I no doubt put down the magazine, exhausted from reading the article and picked up a pork pie and bottle of beer to recover, well probably several of each, I was more than a little overweight and decidedly sedentary then.
Four years later having completed an ultra-marathon I recalled reading that first article and was amazed at how quickly perspective changes; now I thought ‘I could do that’, well only one way to find out …..
The Marathon Des Sables was simply a matter of registering my interest and then waiting, details in hand, for entries to open, following the organisers advice I was ready and waiting, refreshing the entry page until the magic moment it went live and I autofilled my way to the Sahara. Getting the pop-up message confirming I had indeed secured a place was a real gulp moment not least as it meant telling MRS S. Never one to let bravery get in the way of cowardice, several weeks later I casually mentioned it and sometime after that, certainly measured in weeks not days MRS S started speaking to me again.
The West Highland Way Race is trickier to enter, quite rightly there are qualifying standards, full details of the entry requirements and process are available here, of the races on my calendar prior to the entry deadline, I felt the Hardmoors 60 would provide the best chance for fulfilling the qualifying standards and being selected to run. I was absolutely gutted therefore when injury forced a DNF and resolved to waiting another year to tackle The West Highland Way Race.
When entries opened for The West Highland Way Race almost out of morbid curiosity I re-read the entry page and found a glimmer of hope 24 hour races looked like they may hold some sway with the entry panel, having run and thoroughly enjoyed The Adidas Thunder Run an off-road 24 Hour race during the summer, I was hopeful I could make ‘the cut’. I duly completed the entry and waited with baited breath for the outcome. Which is of itself, given you are reading this, fairly obvious! I was in.
Training and preparation
At the time of entry I was struggling with a busy job and a near 4 hour daily commute, forcing me to run at a fairly obscene time of day to get in my target 50 or so miles per week. A mixture of work pressures and a lingering hamstring injury reduced my weekly average to between 35-40 miles. The longest mid-week run I could fit in was 6 Miles. I found it difficult at the very early hour I was running, to commit to speed, tempo and hill workouts and logged too many junk miles.
Those work pressures came to a head when, along with my colleagues we lost the fight to save the company we worked for and called in the administrators; what was pretty bad news for my pride and finances would be great news for my training, surely a few months away from work, its stresses and that daily commute would put me in a great position for an awesome time at The West Highland Way Race?
A mixture of other factors the job search, interview preparation and the interviews themselves, school holidays and house maintenance meant that I didn’t ‘smash’ training between March and starting back at work just before the race in June in the way that I thought I would.
On reflection the factors mentioned above must really sit in the excuses box, had I simply got up and gone out before breakfast as I always have, when in work, I could then have hit my mileage, met my other responsibilities easily and found a little more time in which to relax.
Happily though it was not all doom and gloom, I was able to lift my average mileage to 45 miles per week and increase the length of one or two of my mid-week runs. Not as frequently as I had intended or perhaps with the intensity that would truly see improvements, I did also slot in some speed work and hill repeats.
An aspect of my training that I believe was just about spot on was the build-up in terms of long runs, in the ten weeks or so leading up to WHW I ran a trail marathon, forty mile ultra-marathon and three self-supported marathon length or longer runs and paced a friend over thirty-five miles at his hundred plus mile debut .
How then did I feel as I entered the taper? In pretty good condition, if I have felt better I don’t remember when however still some way from where I felt I should be to do justice to the race and myself. Weight wise, whilst not lean I was reasonably happy at 82KG, as an aside I was a little worried at the pre-race weigh-in to learn that in my kit I weighed 85KG, I either packed my heavy shoes or had really enjoyed the taper.
Outside comfort eating was I besieged by ‘taperitis’ and doubts? No, in fact I felt confident and didn’t worry too much, if at all, about completing, it is a race with generous cut-offs, I was however very concerned about how long I may be out on the course. Having reserved a hotel room for the Saturday night, with the race start at 1AM I was anxious I might not see much, if anything at all, of the bed or shower and worse still might miss breakfast!
My team consisted of my Uncle Keith, TBTRP co-presenter Phil Turton and his daughter the effervescent Pia , sadly Gary Linacre had been side-lined with a knee injury just a couple of weeks before the event. Tim and Pia were going to join the race from Beinglas Farm onwards.We proceeded with caution hoping that the Phil ‘sicknote’ Turton’s reputation hadn’t reached the ears of Ian Beattie and his team, a man who has injured himself on all but one trail race he has ever run would perhaps be deemed an unsuitable support runner for the WHWR.
Joking aside Phil was not fully recovered from his recent knee issues and whilst capable of meeting the race requirements of finding me in an emergency or supporting me safely to the end at a decent hikeif needed he would struggle to move too quickly. I was setting out very much with the aim to run the distance alone unless it was unsafe to do so, as such hoped, in the nicest possible way not to put Phil’s recovery to the test.
Race plan and time prediction
When I entered it was with a start and finish same day goal therefore sub 23 hours as an A goal and sub 24 hours as the B goal. Two things happened prior to race day excluding my lack of training to substantially dull my expectations:
The second confidence shredder was looking up our very own ‘Man of Steele’ Jon Steele’s finish times. Jon and I had both ran The Dukeries Ultra, a little over a month from the start of the WHWR, Jon finished a good half an hour up on me, if he was putting half an hour into me over 40 miles should I expect the gap to be much wider over 95? Jon’s three WHWR finishes range from 30:27 to 24:25.
With all of the above in mind, I settled on sub 25 and 26 hour finishes as A and B goals.
In terms of race strategy having seen the wheels come off Tim in quite spectacular fashion, you can read my report on crewing and pacing for Tim here, there was no question in my mind that a slow start was the order of the day, I definitely planned to follow the sensible ultra-runners maxim of ‘start slowly and just when you think you are going too slowly, slow down some more’. The only counter point to that strategy came from a conversation with Ian Beattie, eight time finisher and race director who put forward a hypothesis that having fresh legs when it got dark would prove something of a waste and should I be in striking distance of the finish before darkness not to hold back.
I was staying with my uncle in Bridge of Allan and had travelled up on the Thursday so a leisurely Friday punctuated by an afternoon nap were surely the order of the day? That was certainly the plan, a little restless though I thought a nice walk out, might be fun. Somehow this leisurely walk turned into a speed ascent and descent of nearby Ben A’an:
Which was absolutely fantastic fun, the views from the summit more than justifying the effort expended to get there:
I did however finish absolutely drenched in sweat and decided it was definitely time to head back to my Uncle’s, to rehydrate and rest.
It’s under an hour from Bridge of Allan to Milngavie so we were able to set off quite late and still reach the start with time to socialise. It was great to meet up with Garry Scott who I had interviewed for The British Trail Running Podcast just a few weeks earlier and to see his support crew of Shirley Colquhon and Jon Steele, now that is what I call a support crew.
As is observed by nearly everyone there is real pleasure to be derived from the juxtaposition between 180+ runners, with head torches, trail shoes and packs and the urban town centre setting of the start; it meant a huge amount to me, this being the scene at the start of almost every Youtube clip I have obsessed over, to be running under the bridge and out into the town centre; finally a ‘West Highland Wayer’ it felt sublime.
I initially jogged alongside Garry Scott until I remembered our very different race aspirations, Garry realised his ambitions and then some with a 21:10:49 finish, well done Garry, I dropped back a little and let, what felt like every runner in the race, pass me.
In the humid conditions, with a steady drizzle and occasional showers my Montane Featherlite Smock was an invaluable piece of equipment, light really breathable it kept me dry and warm in spite of the rain.
I really focused on running light and easy but slow, I passed through The Beech Tree Inn without seeing my crew but was buoyed by the encouragement of all the support crews and had a little ‘lets see if they are so enthusiastic in another twenty hours’ smile to myself, this born out of crewing and pacing Producer Tim at the recent Hardmoors 110 which was exhausting.
I ran happily enjoying the conditions, warm, a little humid with a light drizzle. The approach to and up Conic Hill in the breaking light is as everyone suggests simply stunning and very energising, perhaps a little too vitalising as I started to push the downhill I reflected on the wise words of John Kynaston, not a direct quote but along the lines of ‘people will push it down Conic Hill, fatiguing their quads, they may put 5 or 6 minutes into you here however you will most likely see them again and you may put 2-3 hours into them later’, I slowed and slalomed rather more casually down the rest of the descent.
I was delighted to reach Balmaha feeling fresh, nice mentally to know you are more than a fifth into the race; when running my mind works very much like this, taking the race and breaking it into blocks of time or distance, one fifth done four fifths to go.
Whilst not quite consuming the volume of liquids I had planned I was close and slurping on my food of choice, for long efforts, Perpetuem.
At Rowardennan the midgies announced themselves in molten black swarm clouds, I was quickly covered by the critters, it felt like my bald head was being covered by a wriggling black toupee of biting insects.
I tend to take a fairly nasty reaction to bites, during my time in Asia I virtually had to bathe in insect repellent to avoid the mosquitoes, I therefore hoped that the good Scottish blood in my veins would be deemed far too tawdry and domestic to these wee critters and that they would go after the more exotic juices flowing through the English runners. Either I was right or they just weren’t hungry, as in spite of being covered by the buggers I didn’t seem to pick up a bite.
After a quick stop, a little way down the road I remembered my promise to MRS S to at least manage to check in with her at home once or twice. I dialled her up and we had a quick exchange ‘how do you feel?’, ‘fine thank-you’, ‘how far have you gone?’, ‘around 27 miles’, ‘is that all, I thought you would have managed at least forty miles by now!’, ‘catch you later’. Suitably motivated by my wife’s support, on I ran phone in hand, intrigued by the app, that would post my time and position through the checkpoints I brought up Facebook and read that I was in 145th position, whilst wanting a conservative start, I was pretty bummed to be so far back, time then to push a little, I consulted my handy double sided pace plan and profile map (I’d recommend the production of something similar to anyone attempting a long ultra, it was brilliant to have a sense of where I was and what was coming up as a very easy reference, I really missed it later when fiddling with my pack I must have dropped it), noting a decent flat section, let’s make make some time up I thought …….
This was one of two surprises of the race, midge, rock and tree root infested here was the only section of the race where my sense of humour left me, keen to press on, inhibited by the terrain and besieged by midgies I worked myself up into a fairly foul temper. Luckily for the crew, you don’t see them through this section.
Reaching Inversnaid, I took full advantage of the chairs in the tent to rest and consume the contents of my drop bag, hungrily destroying what became my fuel of choice throughout, liquorice and Peparami. I was happy to swap the Perpetuem in the bottle on the front of my pack for Lucozade Elite (not that I am a big fan but the bottles it come in are great and fit the front bottle holders on my Nathan vest perfectly) once emptied I use them for Perpetuem.
Onwards then, very much restored, I now started for the first time to realise I was consistently passing other runners not something that I have managed in any other race for a prolonged period of time, I of course have read how motivating this is, it was so much better in practice than I had imagined.
My crew chief Uncle Keith, had done a very fine job to this point, and continued to do so, however it was great to see Phil Turton and the little ray of sunshine that is Pia his daughter. Uncle Keith wisely, was taking a nap, Phil and Keith would alternate support over the next couple of crew points to facilitate some well-earned rest for each. Phil guided me down from the trail and provided me with the most delicious ham sandwich. Phil saw me off with real enthusiasm, which added to my general feelings of strength and wellbeing.
The West highland Way was much busier now with walkers who in the main, were very courteous and encouraging, earlier runners, of which there were many, had clearly explained where these smelly, shaggy runners had started from and were going to as a result many walkers clapped or offered kind words of encouragement, there were however some notable exceptions with several walking groups seemingly determined to make at least this pesky runner ‘yield’ and let them, four or five stern faced people abreast, pass. In such good humour I refused to allow this to dampen my spirits and greeted and passed them all with cheery words about the beauty of the day, West Highland Way, joys of being outdoors and sharing the joys together hopefully this shamed them a little and they provided some space for my fellow runners to pass further down the route.
One set of very sociable runners invited me and a chap I had just caught up with to sit and enjoy the West Highland Way, as in their opinion it should be, midgie nets on, butties out and cans of cider to the fore, the runner with me, wide eyed at the sight of cider took them up on their offer, respect but not for me.
I entered the checkpoint and jumped on the scales for the mandatory weigh-in, very Intrigued to see the result I was happy to learn I had only lost just under 2KG. A quick change of socks, regretfully Phil had the plasters and lubricant, shoes back on and a quick munch on a tub of cup noodles and I was away. I would regret not paying more attention to my feet here and at Bridge of Orchy where I did get the plasters and lube from Phil.
Bridge of Orchy
The approach to this section provides great opportunity to run and I was delighted that both my mind and legs were in a cooperative mood. More positions gained, inspired by the runnable terrain and incredible scenery I pressed on whilst not floating on euphoria certainly enjoying a healthy runners high.
Another quick stop here, more encouragement from Keith and Phil punctuated by the effervescent smiles and entertaining chat of Pia.
Jelly Baby Hill (Murdo’s Hill)
On the approach to greet Murdo, passing runners with ease, whilst not running uphill, I was certainly managing the ‘speed-hike’ I have read, particularly American runners allude to. Passing a charming young couple and enquiring as to the runners condition, I received ‘surviving’ as the response to which I responded ‘me too’ and got in return ‘hardly, you are looking a good deal better than that, the pace you are moving at’, pacer to runner as I carried on up ‘he looks like he is going to break into a run’ well it would have been rude not to. As I passed Murdo he commented that I was the first person he had seen running up that section for a long time, the euphoria ebbed away and some nerves set in, I had been moving well and passing runners for some hours now, had I overcooked it, I started to focus on the distance to go and slowed markedly; happily common sense and the pre-race talking to I had given myself settled in and I resolved to think only of the distance to the next check point.
Like I am sure many a runner before me and no doubt many after, has and will report this is the quiet assassin of the course, the trails look wide, and well groomed, your feet quickly tell you another story this is one rocky stretch of trail, race surprise number two. These sections exposed a mistake the wonderful Patagonia Forerunner Evo I had worn throughout simply provided too little rock protection and were working my feet too hard. After several miles within metres of each other the blisters that had come up on the heel of my feet burst, a most disconcerting rush of bloody puss flowing through the heel of my socks. This focused my attention on my feet and a realisation that they were feckin well hurting, I decided though the damage was done and there was no point dwelling on it, I have found before that the body will take over after a time and consign the pain as not significant; you still know it’s there but can carry on relatively unaffected, must have been some more ‘runners high’.
I was delighted to arrive at Glencoe and somewhat charmed to see Uncle Keith taking a power nap. I opened the boot, quietly and went about getting the provisions I required. Clearly not quietly enough though as quickly I was joined and looked after by Keith and then Phil. My consumption of food and pertpetuem had started to tail off for some time, I had been emptying the contents of my perpetuem bottles before check-points to at least give the illusion I was getting some calories. Keith and Phil gave me the ‘hard word’ as they had been instructed to do, I appreciated this and ignored it all the same. They insisted on heating up some of the stew I had prepared, I talked them into driving down to Kingshouse, so that I could get on my way and promised to eat some there – Liar!
I waved the the guys off telling them I was going to press on, result I thought, pesky crew thinking they could dictate to me. As ever in life just when you think you have been clever, really clever you realise you have made a mistake. In my rush I had not picked up the next section of map or my headtorch. Whilst, so long as everything went to plan I was confident I wouldn’t need either, mindful that things often don’t go to plan I thought it sensible, given I didn’t have a support runner to pair up with the runners in front.
The Devils Staircase
Simon and Garraint were fantastic company, after seventy or so solo miles of running it was really lovely to have a chat, we swapped backgrounds and motivations as we ascended the The Devils Staircase. Simon (runner) and Garraint (pacer) were ascending a little slower than I might have on my own, I was enjoying their company a great deal though and resolved to stay with them. Which I did almost to Kinlochleven, Simon was fading quite badly though and after the third runner past us just outside Kinlochleven I reluctantly let the chaps know I felt a little fresher and would press on, I felt a little guilty having enjoyed there company so much but just couldn’t let anyone else past, where had competitive Archi, emerged from?
On reflection not picking up the map and torch, so as to feel I should and did sensibly pair up was in terms of finish time a huge mistake. I am certain I could have ascended and descended this section much quicker on my own and taking that additional daylight into Lhairigmor would have been invaluable.
On the approach I caught one of the runners who had passed me and we both glugged as much liquid as we could to ensure that we didn’t fall foul of the ‘weigh-in’. Great news at the weigh-in this tactic had worked and according to the scales I had put on 1KG from Auchtertyre. As it turns out, this was not good news. Ascending out of Kinlochleven I was aware that my hands were quite swollen and I was very, very thirsty in spite of the large volume of fluid just consumed. A run through of what I had been drinking pointed to the reason, I had planned to alternate the fluid in my bladder between water and electrolyte solution (for taste this was prepared at half the recommended strength), what in reality I had done was finish up the ten litres or so of water and then switch to Electrolyte. Judging that should I attempt to slake my thirst I may head towards hyponatremia, I ate more salty peparami and took confidence from my self-assessment that I had enough fluids I just needed more salt, I sipped the Electrolyte solution through the rest of the section.
I made really good time out of Kinlochleven and almost couldn’t believe how well I was moving across Lhairigmor, the light started to ebb away, I left my head torch off as long as I could, much longer than those around me and I was passing. Finally I had to yield and switched on the torch.
Ian Beattie’s advice was at the forefront of my mind instantly, with the torch on, I lost depth perception and on the rocky trail found it incredibly difficult to keep to a pace. This is a tough section, it was by now raining heavily, water was coursing down the mountains and across the trail. I tried to keep the running pace up however on my third and very nearly final ankle sprain, I decided that finishing without a broken bone took precedent over time at this stage.
Reduced to walking I was pleased with my decision to swap to the heavier waterproof jacket and for the first time ever ran in full length waterproof trousers; these were perhaps overkill however I thought this sensible as I had opted not to have a support runner, better to be slightly warm than wandering around on the cusp of hyponatremia and hypothermia; I can’t tell you how close the margin of error was, should I have tried to slake my thirst and had not decided to err on the side of caution with my attire, I am certain I could have ended up in trouble at this point.
The walk up to Lundavra, the final crew point really dragged, without time reference, the Garmin had given up at Glencoe, my pace sheet and profile map, out in the dark on a very remote section, unable to maintain a run in spite of feeling strong my mood really dipped.
It was therefore so uplifting to see the bonfire and hear the music of the Lundavra crew point, I jogged up to the stop, to the Rocky music and went straight for the car. Several handfuls of salty crisps and a good swig of electrolyte I felt restored and again turning down real food I picked up some gels, topped up the bladder and headed for town.
I picked up a second head torch, regretting bitterly that I had not taken up Phil’s offer earlier of taking his bike torch, which over Lhairigmor may have kept me running, using one around the waist and one on the head, I could again make some good progress.
I absolutely loved the section from Lundavra to the fire track which takes you down towards and ultimately in to Fort William. There were what felt like a group of runners who must have left Lundavra just after me, I could hear them and see their lights, this spurred me on and through the single track forest paths, I pressed as hard as I dare on my now swollen and sore sprained ankles, the single tracks were interspersed with steps and rocks and I did my best to build a gap up on the runners behind.
Gradually I could no longer hear or see them and I eased off a little. As I approached the wide, fire track that would take me down, past the Braveheart carpark I saw a light behind me again, not wanting to provide a target, I switched off my lights and ran the first few stitch backs, able to get by on the well groomed trails without further damaging my ankles.
Emerging from the trail startling a young lad walking up the road, I asked for and was given directions to the leisure centre, lucky I asked, as left to my own devices I would have missed the chalk mark and set off in the wrong direction. I managed a very slow jog to the roundabout, picking up my feet a little as I got closer to the leisure centre, only to be accosted by a group of lads, presumably a support team, in a van who wanted directions to the Nevis Centre, where they told me I must be going, I patiently explained it was the leisure centre I was going to and they probably wanted, twice, they seemed set to argue the point with a shake of my head I carried on leaving them to work it out for themselves.
In to the carpark and up to the doors, I checked in, was weighed and read my finish ticket …….. 25:23 for 80th place. Any disappointment I had over the finish time, was overshadowed by having made up sixty-five places from Balmaha.
I was blessed with a great race, I felt strong throughout and was in no doubt I would reach the end.
The sense of achievement was heightened by not using a support runner.
I just scraped in food wise, I should have eaten more. I will in future reverse my approach, where I usually start on pertepuem until I am sick of drinking my food and switch to real foods I will start with real foods whilst my stomach is in good condition and switch to drinking calories when eating becomes tougher.
Monitoring fluid levels and salt intake is really important; I just caught myself in time. Once again, my confidence in my feet coping with minimal shoes over a long race was misplaced and I really paid the price, finishing with blisters and bruises on the pads of my feet.
The race was everything I expected and more, it truly is a privilege to run such an incredible route in the company of so many likeminded people.
I will be back to do the race again and with the right preparation prior and correct pacing on the day am certain I can go under twenty three hours.
The West Highland Way Race was the first challenge of three I am running for Framework an East Midlands charity that help some of the most vulnerable members of society. The three challenges are:
1) Run the 95 mile West Highland Way, non-stop - complete
2) The British Ultrafest, a 48HR non-stop race around a 400m track (yes, 48HRS running in circles) - August 2013
3) The Marathon Des Sables, one of the toughest footraces on Earth, 250KM through the Saharan Desert - April 2014
Please visit: www.justgiving.com/allyrchi
Where you can read more, if you can donate to Framework it will make a difference to someones life and provide some much needed motivation to me throughout the training for and completion of my challenges.
Some images of The West Hghland Way