Sunday, 6 July 2014

West Highland Way Race 2014 : Race Report: Part 3

This is third part of my West Highland Way Report that will cover the second half of the race.  To read previous parts click on Part 1 : Pre Race, Part 2 : First half.

Auchtertyre to Bridge Of Orchy : 9.26 miles

Racing by heart rate meant that specific splits weren't required so I didn't run with any or try to remember them for each stage.  The only split time I had memorised was 10:30 to Auchtertyre which was the time for a 20 hour even split race.  Coming in a couple of minutes ahead was great news, and although I had aches and blisters to deal with my energy levels were great, not a single dip so far, I was still able to eat and drink and mentally I was relaxed, confident and up for the next 44 miles.  

We just needed to deal with those pesky blisters.  After the weigh in we jogged to the car and I sat down and let the guys get busy around me. Toby got the first aid kit and set about tapping up my toes, while Andrew restocked my supplies and gave me a slice of chicken to eat while Toby finished the ugly business of dealing with smelly blistered feet.  What a way to test one's friendship!

Blister repair at Auchtertyre
After an eight minute pit-stop I was back on my way.  I immediately got back running and was out on my own once again.  I had been running close the 20 hour event splits but now was behind, there would be little benefit from trying to claw back this time with a quick few miles, instead I put my trust in my heart rate monitor, if it was to be my day then I'd slowly make up the time.

I enjoyed the section up to Tyndrum, I was moving well and the various landmarks, twists and turns in the trail all came quickly.  I passed the Fling finish, it was quite eerie it being so quiet, so utterly different from back in April with the buzz of the Fling finish.  Just before the river crossing I caught up with Nonnie once again - obviously she had passed through Auchtertyre rather faster than myself.  I also caught three other runners as we approached and crossed the river and headed up to the A82 crossing at the Green Welly Stop/Brodie's store.

Across the road and past Brodie's store
Tyndrum crew hand over, Toby has had enough of my feet and tell's me where to go!  North!
I crossed the road and met up with Steve and Rob, my crew for the second half of the race, and said farewell to Toby and Andrew as their duties had now been handed over.  I didn't stop, just kept walking and let everything happen around me as I marched on up the hill.  Steve asked if I wanted anything, my answer was "Ice Cream!" so he headed back to the shop, bought the packet of cold delight and caught me up and passed on the heavenly item - it totally hit the spot.  Steve left me to march on in bliss with my second order - a bacon roll.

Once I finished my ice cream I found that I could run/walk the ascent and still stay within HR zone, I caught another runner and then ran all the level and descent.  When the sun was out it was a bit warm, but there was now a decent breeze so I found the going pretty comfortable.  Just after passing under the railway line I passed another runner and then near the bottom of the trail saw Steve and Rob running back up towards me.

The guys were in great spirits, chuffed with having bought the treasured bacon roll and being able to torment other runners on route with the delicious aroma of a treat they couldn't have!  How cruel for them, but how great was it for me to have this delivery service provide hot food in the middle of this amazing place.

Once on the old military road to Bridge of Orchy I was on my own once more, chomping away at my rather large bacon roll.  Running and eating requires a little patience so it took me until I arrived at the Railway station to finish my meal.  Along this section I passed another runner, as well as several support runners now heading back along the trail to meet their runners.

At the Railway station I moved through with lots of cheers of support, no doubt I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat.  I was eating lots of tasty grub, had kick arse support  and was going to see my gorgeous girls in less than a minute.

Arriving at Bridge Of Orchy
I charged down the hill to see Julia and my girls on the opposite side of the road, but the traffic was heavy so I had to wait for what seemed an eternity before a gap appeared and I could get across.  My gleeful hugs weren't fully appreciated, perhaps one gets a bit smelly after 60 miles!

I was still in race mode so rather than stand and chat I beckoned them to join me in a jog to the check point but noone joined me alas.  I checked in and grabbed some supplies for the short stint across to Victoria Bridge where I'd next meet Steve and Rob.

Arriving at Bridge Of Orchy CP to swipe my timing card, Steve awaits with goodies
Estimated 20hr even split for Bridge Of Orchy 59.34 miles : 1:52 from Auchtertyre, 12:23 total.
Actual split to Bridge Of Orchy:  1:54:24 (including blister repair stop) from Auchtertyre, 12:22:02 total.
Position: 21st fastest for leg,  overall: 38th, gained 7 places.
Average Pace for leg (including stop): 12:21 min/mile,  
Average pacing when moving 11:29min/mile.

Bridge Of Orchy to Glen Coe Ski Center, 10.82 miles

I was really pleased to still be moving well and felt I couldn't have lost too much time from my 20hr even splits but was a bit perplexed by what Steve and Rob had said about my progress.  They had been tracking my progress through the morning via the web updates and said I had steadily moved up through the field and was now on for a 20:30 time.  I didn't think my blister stop had been that long, and felt that I had made good progress to Bridge Of Orchy, where had I lost half and hour?

If you look at the even splits for Bridge Of Orchy above you'll see that I was almost exactly on my estimated 20hr even splits, but I didn't have a record of the splits with me and I wasn't paying that much attention to time of arriving at each check point, it's only in hindsight reviewing official timing data that I now know I was tracking so closely.  The information from Steve and Rob is all I had to go on at the time, as they in theory had all the split printouts, but this set up an internal conflict of how I felt I had been progressing and how I would continue.  It wasn't until the end of the race was I able to reconcile the discrepancies.

After whizzing through Bridge Of Orchy I settled down to walk the assent and eat my cheese and ham sandwich (thanks Julia ;-)  I found that I just couldn't keep my heart rate up into the target zone just by walking, but the path was just a little too steep to comfortably run without going above the heart rate zone so I just relaxed and enjoyed the fact that I could walk for a while as I had had few walking breaks since topping out above Tyndrum.

At the summit Murdo was there with a gaggle of supporters, a huge Saltire flag proudly waving in the breeze.  Murdo came down and gave me my single Jelly baby, only one but it was a black one - my favourite - I was indeed having a perfect race!  It was also great to see Caroline Mackay who was part of the summit crew, she ran down and wished me good luck and told me about Paul Giblin having just arrived at Kinlochleven and being on course for another record.  It was great to hear that it was going to be another historic day for the great race, but a bit mind blowing from a personal perspective - I was running well but was 20 miles behind the race leader, how is that even possible?!?

The descent down to Inveroran Hotel and around the road to Victoria Bridge went smoothly, on the flat I was able to keep doing 10 min/miles and stay within my target HR zone.  I met Steve and Rob to collect supplies and take some more pain killers as it had now been 5 hours since I had taken the last batch.

Ready to head up across Rannoch Moor
I was out on my own for long stretches of the ascent up onto Rannoch Moor.  The sun had gone in and the wind picked up so the temperature had dropped which made running a little easier.  The lower temperature also meant my heart rate for a given pace/intensity was lower and I was rather taken aback by just how steep an incline I needed to run to stay within my target zone.  The steeper sections I'd get to walk for 10m or so before I had to get back into running.  This meant my average pace was staying up, but for the first time found myself having to consciously push myself to keep running, prior to this point everything had felt a very relaxed and comfortable pace.  After 13 hours and 65 miles I don't think I can't complain too much...

The trail up Rannoch Moor stretched out in front of me, ascending mile after mile, it looked and felt endless.  I would see people ahead and slowly reeled them in.  Mostly they were just walkers.  A mile or so before the summit I finally caught three runners, the first I had seen since Bridge Of Orchy.  I was moving much faster and more easily than they were so I passed them quickly, but not without getting comments that I was way too fresh and with a spring in my step to have run the whole route, and must be a relay runner or had been dropped off at Bridge Of Orchy.  I guess this light hearted banter was a compliment...

Finally we topped out and then turned towards Glen Coe, a magnificent sight but the trail becomes very stony so you can't look up.  After seeing so few people on the Rannoch Moor crossing suddenly I was guided up to the bustling White Corries Ski Center carpark.  Julia was waiting with the girls and took some video of me approaching, still in race mode I head on passed up to the checkpoint.

It's clear from the video that I'm still moving well and focused on moving quickly through - the video captures a wee slip that amused my girls no end, strangely I don't recall loosing my footing at all. I am now a bit embarrassed by just how little time I spent with the girls, over 14 hours running and I couldn't spare 30 seconds.  It wasn't a bad mood that made me unsociable as I was still really jolly and thoroughly enjoying the day, there wasn't any internal or an external negativity - I was just too focused on racing.

Estimated 20hr even split for Glen Coe Ski Center 70.16 miles : 2:10 from Bridge Of Orchy, 14:33 total.
Actual split to Bridge Of Orchy:  2:14:04 from Bridge Of Orchy, 14:36:06 total.
Position: 17th fastest for leg,  overall: 34th, gained 4 places.
Average Pace for leg: 12:23 min/mile

Glen Coe Skie Center to Kinlochleven : 10.55 miles

After checking in, and exchanging supplies on the hoof I headed passed my family again,  alas again nobody joined me for a little run and looking at the GPS trace I was doing 8 min/miles down to the road crossing so I obviously was meaning business and pausing for noone.  As we crossed over the A82 I was joined by a relay runner and we ran most of the way down to Kings House together.  I was now feeling the effort of running without any extended walking breaks and had to let him go and focus on reeling in other WHW runners.  As I arrived at Kings House the lady in front of me peeled off to join her support and I over took.  Later I found out this was the lady who came in fourth.

I jogged past Kings House and on the gentle incline after the bridge I rewarded myself with a short walking break.  I used it to eat and drink.  The sun had come out and it was warming up again.  I really didn't have much of an excuse for walking and with my heart rate below my target HR zone I coaxed myself back into a run.  I now focused on reeling in the runners several hundred yards ahead. The first I caught before the WHW path heads uphill away from the road, but the two runners further ahead were moving well and wouldn't be so easy to catch.

However, I slowly reeled them in just by using my HR zone as a guide, and as I approached I could see it was two women both looking strong and committed, but not quite matching my pace.  I was expecting to catch them shortly after heading up the hill but suddenly a shooting pain from my big toe on my left foot almost stopped me in my tracks. Something had clearly gone wrong with the toe blister on my left foot, thankfully I only had a couple of hundred yards to run before meeting Steve and Rob as every step was painful.

Grimace replaces smile, have to do something about that!
As soon as I arrived and had called for blister repair, the chair and medical kit were out, my shoe was off and damage inspected.  The blister on my left big toe had burst, on applying plaster and then tape to secure it, plasma oozed out from the dressing, gross.  Testing Rob and Steve's friendship now...

Blister repair completed, no gory pictures here, it's a family blog!
I took a little under 3 minutes to get my toe taped up and get back on my way.  Initially, my toe was just as painful so I wasn't looking forward putting up with it for another 21 miles, but nothing was going to stop me now.  The guys were pleased with my progress and suggested I had moved up to 20:15 pace. However, still I couldn't quite figure out exactly why their figure didn't quite tally with my own expectations - in my head I was still on for a sub 20 hour time if I ran the next two sections as strongly as the rest of the race.

In determined mood I headed up the Devil's Staircase, I felt if I could get over the Devil's Staircase and down to Kinlochleven before 6pm then I would still be in with a chance of my dream sub 20 hour time. I had taken a bottle of home-made strawberry yoghurt drink and some Tangtastic sweets with me and drank/ate them on the assent.  There were absolutely delicious, sweet nectar.  What a joy to be loving the race and still enjoying eating.

Devil's Staircase, looking back, but no turning back, Kinlochleven here I come

The weather conditions on the ascent were near perfect - the sun had gone in, there was a gentle breeze and I felt a bit tired but remarkably comfortable considering I now had 75 miles under my belt.  By the summit my toe had stopped screaming at me and I had closed the gap substantially on the two runners ahead.  The view back towards the Buachaille Etive Mor was so glorious I had to fish out my phone from my race vest and take my second photo of the view.  Not quite in focus... perhaps the lens had got a bit sweaty sitting on my back for 16 hours!

Nearing summit of Devil's Staircase, looking back to the Buachaille Etive Mor and the White Corres Ski Centre
Once over the summit the two ladies were just 100m's ahead, and steadily I whittled it down to 50m, then 25m, then 12m, but the closer I got the faster they went.  When we finally got off the stony broken path to the track I was able to catch them and they didn't respond.  When I caught up we introduced ourselves - it was Keziah Higgens, 3rd placed lady, and her support runner.  They explained they had thought I was the fourth placed lady who had been swapping places with Keziah for much of the race and they were mighty relieved that it was me.

I then moved ahead running the downhills strongly, it felt really fast, but looking at the GPS trace I only maxed out at 7:30 min/mile pace on the final long straight before crossing over the pipelines and into Kinlochleven.  I was really pleased with how well I was running, my quads were feeling it after the long descent but were still holding together and my energy levels were still rock solid.

I made it into Kinlochleven and was initially doing 9 min/mile pace along the flat road but steadily found myself in more and more pain.  The outside/front of my right calf was screaming at me. One minute earlier I had been running strongly and now I could hardly run.  I tried mixing walking breaks in with short jogs but as I went through the last wooded section before the check point found it almost unbearable to run more than 5 meters.

I met Rob at the road and relayed this new problem that had appeared out of the blue.  I was fine walking fast so he hiked to the check point where Steve was waiting with the weigh in card. As we walked through the entrance to the hall Keziah and her support runner charged past us and through onto the scales first.  I stood waiting patiently for a few seconds then realized that I might as well swipe myself in.   We then swapped and I jumped on the scales.  I had gained a little weight so the marshals were happy and Steve and Rob were well pleased.

I don't think I had drunk more since Auchtertyre, instead I suspect it was just a little cooler so I was loosing less fluids.  I guess inflammation might have begun to mount as well.  Overall I was in pretty good shape, well hydrated, plenty of energy, blister had calmed down, legs mostly in descent enough shape for the last fourteen and a bit miles - the only problem was calf injury that I had picked up.  I could walk fine so a finish was in hand, but my 20hr perfect day dream looked to be gone.

Estimated 20hr even split for Kinlochleven 80.71 miles : 2:21 from Glen Coe, 16:54 total.

Actual split to Bridge Of Orchy:  2:15:40 (including 3 min stop) from Glen Coe, 16:51:46 total.
Position: 13th fastest for leg,  overall: 24th, gained 10 places.
Average Pace for leg: 12:52 min/mile
Average pacing when moving 12:36min/mile.

Kinlochleven to Lundavra : 10.55 miles

On leaving the checkpoint I was asked if I wanted anything from the chippy or shop, and as it was still pretty warm I requested another ice cream, which appeared in an instant - what a crew. The pictures below says it all,  - we were all having a great time.

Ice cream and day out on the trails makes for one very happy team!
After finishing the ice cream Steve and Rob headed back to the car to race me around to Lundavra.  I kept trying to jog but would only get a short distance before the pain was too much to continue.  I ended up mostly walking through Kinlochleven to the assent up the hill.

I was able to walk strongly without discomfort so handled the climb out of valley without drama.  I could hear Keziah and her support running behind but I was still comfortably in front by the time the trail levelled off.  I attempted to get back running but right away my right calf screamed at me.  Back to walking.  Having to walk runnable trail meant that Keziah soon caught up with me and then disappeared into the distance.

I kept trying to run each time I crested a little hump but couldn't manage more than a few meters. I stopped and massaged the injured muscle, but this provided no benefit.  I tried running on my toes, tried running on my heels, running on the outside of my foot, inside of my foot, flat footed but nothing eased the intense pain when running.  A few more runners + support passed and I could do nothing to respond.  All I could do was keeping marching northwards.

I figured that 15 miles at walking pace would take me around 5 hours, this would still give me a 22hr finishing time, a bit outside my gold target but still very respectable for a first West Highland Way Race.  With the prospect of walking for many hours and rain clouds looming above, the issue of keeping warm added another dimension to managing the last part of the race.  Neither I or my crew had thought about taking my jacket for this section, I regretted this mistake but could do nothing about it now.  I had my space blanket in my race vest and could wrap this around me if it started to rain - darn good call that race rule.  I also made sure I was still drinking and eating regularly so my blood sugar wouldn't drop and create more problems if I did get cold.

I kept marching on and was surprised not too lose more places.  Resigned to marching the rest of the way I no longer fretted about times, my race was over but for sure I wasn't going to stop enjoying the great journey.  I got to the Tizer stop and told them about my calf not expecting any particular help but got a reply that some freeze gel was really popular during the Fling, and without delay had this blue gunk applied generously across my calf.  I never did catch the ladies name, but THANK YOU :-)

I left the Tizer stop and kept marching on, trying out running regularly but every time it was the same story, best I could get was 5 to 10 meters before I'd have to pull up.  I might not have been moving as fast as I would have liked but I was still moving, still had good energy levels and the brisk walking was keeping me warm.  Another half hour passed and another couple miles covered and I came to a gentle and long descent, and as was now custom I tried out running and found that I got to 5 then 10 meters and rather than screaming pain just got dull pain.  I kept my very gently jog going and couldn't quite believe it, somehow my calf pain had subsided to tolerable.

Not long after finding that I could get back running the woods before Lundavra came into view and I knew it wouldn't be long til I saw Rob and Steve, and John and Katrina Kynaston who were marshalling.  My confidence in being able to keep running was still weaker than soggy tissue paper so I walked even the gentle assents and gently jogged the descents taking care with every footfall.

Then Lundavra came into view and the music rang out my arrival, I found the whole pantomime thoroughly amusing.

Arriving at Lundavra, Steve and Rob provide service with a smile, photo courtesy of John Kynaston

Estimated 20hr even split for Lundavra 88.25 miles : 1:48 from Glen Coe, 18:41 total.

Actual split to Lundavra:  2:03:26  from Glen Coe, 18:55:32 total.
Position: overall: 27th,  lost 3 places.
Average pace for leg 16:25min/mile.

Lundavra to Fort William : 7.03 mles

I had been looking forward to seeing John and Katrina so it was great to finally get there, and couldn't resist just chatting for a couple of minutes - the longest non medical stop for the whole race.  To my surprise John suggested that 20:15 was still on if I got a move on.  I couldn't quite take this in.  I had walked almost all the way from Kinlochleven but somehow a time well under my Gold time was still possible.  Ya what?///?

This got us back into gear, but I have to say I was still totally out of race mode.  Rob, Steve and I walked up the hill out of Lunavra and after a couple hundred yards they wished me well and headed back to the carpark.  Shortly after they left my phone beeped a warning about low battery.  Argg.... I had been meaning to get my battery charger pack to top up my phone since Auchtertyre and forgotten at every checkpoint.  I called back to Rob and Steve, but they kept jogging on, so I ended up running after them and calling loader.  They eventually stopped and got the message to go pick up my charger and catch me up.

I set off back up the trail with the promise of only walking until I had been caught up.  The minutes passed and I progressed up the trail past the summit and heading towards the forest.  Rob was charging up the hill after me and was about to give up as he hadn't spotted me where he expected to but thankfully he rounded one last corner before giving up and there I was 100 meters ahead.  Rob caught up and was out of breath but otherwise loving the opportunity to get running.

I plugged in my phone, restarted my GPS trace, stowed the phone and we were on our way.  Rob still didn't want to intrude on my race, which was crazy as I was looking forward to him joining me.  With the extended walking break I was feeling relaxed, energy levels were good and the pain in calf was no longer stopping me in my tracks so we started jogging all the flats and descents.  Through the forest we went, down the big steps that I was dreading and found my quads able to handle them without problem. I couldn't quite believe it, 90 miles into a very hilly race and I was moving freely and lightly on my feet.

We emerged from the forest and up the final ascent, and then we on the wide forest tracks that take you down to Braveheart carpark.  The view down Glen Nevis to Fort William was magical and I just relaxed and let gravity speed us up.  We glided round the wide bends picking up speed, with an ever wider grin on my face.  We were chatting freely and cruising down the hill at sub 7 min/mile pace.  I just couldn't believe how my race had turned around, or how it was possible that I could be running so well with the finish almost in sight.  A struggling runner and support runner appeared in front and we were past in a instant.

Shortly after this the trail levelled and I was aware that my heart rate was well into the high 150's, oopps I was having a bit too much fun so I consciously slowed a little.  We were still gaining on another runner and his support who was a couple hundred meters ahead but they were regularly looking back and saw us coming and responded my charging down the next descent.   We may have got have to 50 meters behind but didn't close the gap beyond this - I was only playing and wasn't trying to over take anyone so decided to just run relaxed and stick to my original hear rate zone and make sure I finished without any more drama.

Once the trail levelled off the gap hadn't changed and I just focused on running at my own pace, I felt a bit guilty that my glee at running strongly down the hill just for fun had forced the poor runner ahead to have to push harder than he felt comfortable for far longer and was probably making his last few miles hell.   With backing off on pace he opened up a gap and we didn't see him once we arrived at Braveheart carpark.

Not having any runners around me and knowing that I had a good time in the bag I just relaxed and enjoyed the last mile along the road to the finish.  We walked the final hill, even though I really could have run it comfortably, ran to the roundabout and we were in the final straight.  I didn't know how far the finish was down the road so when I saw Steve ahead I was taken a back at just how near we were.

I was the same height as Rob when I left Milngavie, look how much I shrank!
Round the bend and the finish was right there in front.  My family were cheering me on, and Julia caught my finish on video:

I ran strongly to the finish and swiped my chip: 26th of 157 finishers, 20:18:46.  One very happy man.

Estimated 20hr even split for Lundavra 94.28 miles : 1:18:55 from Lundavra, 20:00 total.
Actual split to Fort William:  1:23:14  from Lundavra, 20:18:46 total.
Position: overall: 26th,  gained 1 place since Lundavra, was 26th fastest from Kinlochleven
Average pace for leg 11:31min/mile (2nd fastest leg of whole race)

Part 4 will cover the time directly after the race, the ceremony and my post race reflections.


  1. This is an excellent report, really enjoyed reading all 3 parts so far. What a great journey you had.
    An unexpected strong finish as well after a tough walk to Lundavra!

    Currently training for Glenmore 12 hour race and have been using heart rate on my long runs, you have proved it gets good results so going to try it out and see how I go! Thanks for writing such a great (and detailed) blog.

  2. I remember a race report by Stuart Mills, he too had a video of passing his family and he almost blanked them, so much so that his wife inquired afterwards if he had been irritated by their presence. The opposite was the case, he found meeting them very invigorating, but was too much in race mode to actually acknowledge them - very similar to you.

    Great race report to match a great race, though I really think you did not have to pay so much attention to your heart rate in the last couple of miles!

    Overall, very well done my friend, an excellent first WHW for you.