Monday, 13 June 2016

West Highland Way Race 2015 : Race report

This is my long over due race report from my 2015 race, alas I've been so busy with work, family life, training and racing that my blog has had to take a back seat.  So sit back and transport yourself back a year and read on...

West Highland Way Race 20th June 2015

My training in the six months before the race went BRILLANTLY, every single capital is fully warranted.  I was chuffed to bits with how well my body coped with running every day.    My peak weak I managed to hit my target of running 96 miles in 7 days, with back to back half marathon+ of most days.  I've never come close to this mileage before and I felt strong, smooth and efficient.  I was fitter than I've ever been as an adult.  I was ready to knock the race out out of ballpark, confident of going sub 19hrs.

However, things started to unravel on the Wednesday evening before the race - I started to loose my voice, going down with the same cold that my wife had suffered with for the previous 10 days, loosing her voice for much of it.  I ate raw garlic, loads of greens and colourful veg, beetroot.  This onslaught of vitamin and mineral rich veg helped halt the cold getting worse, but I still had a bit of inflamed throat on the night and day of the race.

The grand preparation came a little further unstuck just three hours before the start of the race when I over excitedly picked up a heavy container of food+drink for the race to pack it into the support vehicle.  Don't twist and lift up heavy stuff fast ever, let alone right before your biggest race of the year... unfortunately I did and strained my back.  After all the careful planning, fantastic training I had suddenly through a massive spanner in the works with a split second of stupidity.  The back was sore enough to force me to take pain killers even before I left the house. 

Food and drink all laid out, packing all the drinks into one container is what did my back in!

Thankfully my first half support crew Tom and Toby were on the ball and got everything packed in the car and to the start with plenty of time. At the start I just got on with all prep as usual and this went smoothly, great to see lots of familiar faces and such a great atmosphere.  While I was focused and business like in those final minutes I was also in pain, even walking was uncomfortable.

Race start : 1am, Milgavie

Race start went and we all plodded off into the dark woodland trail of Mugdock park.  A little drizzle meant that I kept my jacket on.  My HR was a bit high, but I was moving well enough, save for every step jarring the back.  I arrived at Drymen in 2:08hrs, a few minutes up on my 2014 split, happy enough but a little disappointed to not be faster.  I wasn't going to force the pace this early though, I just stuck to my target HR range of 135 to 140.

Conic hill, atmospheric in the clearing mist/rain

Conic hill came and went, my descent went well despite my sore back, my quads were feeling strong even if other parts of my body weren't a 100%.  I passed John Kynaston in the woodlands just before the car park and he asked how I was getting on, the reply "It's going to be a tough day at the office" pretty well summed up my physical feeling and resolve.

Balmaha: 19miles, 3:37hr elapsed, 4:37am

Save for the sore back and high HR I was moving OK, and happy to moving and the atmosphere through Balmaha couldn't help perk up the spirits, views help too :-)


On route to Rowardennan

The route along to Rowardennan went smoothly, no problems with midgies this year,  A bit of dampness under foot over the past 5 hours had taken it's toll though with a hot spot on a toe developing as I approached Rowardennan
Keep moving
the midges might catch up...

Rowardennan: 27 miles, 5:07hr elapsed, 6:07am

I arrived 9 minutes up on my 2014 time, but rather than push on did the sensible thing and stopped to get my toe checked over.  This meant I lost 5 minutes, but my crew were great, surgical tape wrapped around the blister on my left little toe and then I was on my way.

I pushed on to Inversnaid and felt that I was now in my groove, the pace felt a bit more of effort than it should have been, heart rate typically in the 140 to 145 zone.  This was above my planned 130 to 140hr zone, but I was still chasing my 19hr target and 10 minutes behind schedule so knew if I was going to up the effort level have any chance of getting anywhere near it.

At a style a couple miles before Inversnaid I caught up with Sandra (now Beattie :-) who had been powering up all the hills ahead but now seemed to be taking it easier on the more technical trails.  As I take the first part of the race easier than the majority of the field I didn't expect to see her again, this was be proved wrong by the end of the day!

Inversnaid: 35miles, 6:37hr elapsed, 7:37am

 I was still in pain but moving OK.  I had been taking a combination of flu tablets and a combination of straight pain killers, alternating the different medications to spread it out evenly.  I didn't want to risk over dosing but also needed to take the edge of pain I was in.  This pain management was working well along the lochside, the pain was stable, my mood was positive despite the discomfort.

Eating and drinking was also still working well, everything I took with me I was able to consume. Unlike in 2014 my path along the lochside was mainly a solitary affair.  I was occasionally catching other runners and exchanging a few words but mostly paces never synced so I just got on with the job of moving as efficiently through the technical trails as I could.  I actually quite enjoyed this section despite the back pain.

Beinglas: 41 miles, 8:14hrs elapsed, 9:14am

By the time I arrived at Beinglas my assertiveness on pace had was now 11 minutes ahead of my split in the 2014 race.  I was now 11 minutes off my 19hr splits though, I'd need to keep the effort up.

A mile out of Beinglas I caught up with Stuart Chalmers and Myvanwy Nenton-May.  Myvanway stopped for comfort break so Stuart and I moved on together.  Stuart was going well and moving assertively especially on the ascents.  For the first time I had found another runner working at the same pace so we settled and catching up on all things running and life.    Cow poo ally came and went without fuss, we attacked the ascents above Crainlarich and stormed down the descents.  It felt like we were pushing on a bit hard as passed the mid point of the race but it was fun, more like play than racing a 95 mile ultra.

Auchtertyre: 50 miles, 10:11hrs elapsed, 11:11am

We trotted into the check point and got weight right after each other and then split up as we met up with our crews and restocked.  I was through quicker and left on my own feeling strong and with positive as I was now 16 minutes up on my 2014 time, and while I was still 10 minutes off my splits for 19hr and now likely out of reach, it looked like a time of 19:15 to 19:30 was still on and well worth chasing.

At Auchtertyre I took a single Co-codamol pain killer and a cereal bar that I munched on the way to Tyndrum,  the familiar landmarks before Tyndrum appear quickly and then I was past the Fling start in 10:44, 2 minutes quicker than my first Fling time back in 2012.  Back in 2012 I finished with a death march and couldn't contemplate going a step further.  Fast forward to June 2015 and I was feeling strong and looking forward to the next 42 miles.


At Tyndrum my north and south crew were changing over so it was good to see every one in good spirits together.  I dropped off empties, picked up drinks and food and a ice cream.  The day had transformed itself from a drab start to a warm beautiful day so the ice was welcome.  Unfortunately the ice cream was melting so as I walked up the road out of Tyndrum I gobbled it down before it turned into total mush.

All seemed good with life, but then my stomach just decided to protest strongly.  My stomach hadn't been 100% up to this point but was pretty good considering the abuse my body was going under but there wasn't any hint that I was pushing my luck.  Back in 2014 my stomach didn't cause any problems even when eating ice-creams and bacon rolls.  Summer 2015 was going to be a different story.

Working on the assumption that my my stomach just needed a bit of rest from constant feeding and my blood flow to my stomach was probably compromised by the higher effort that I had been putting I just began sipping water and dropped my target HR zone back to 130 to 140.  My stomach didn't get better but I was still able to run flats and descents so I was I just hoped this would be a short lived hiccup.

Bride Of Orchy: 12:02hr elapsed, 1:02pm  

As I was still 20 minutes up on my 2014 splits and still within 4hrs of race leader, Paul Guiblin, at BoO I couldn't get a support runner over Rannoch Moor.  Initially I tried to keep jogging on where possible but the faster I moved the worse my stomach got.  I finally decided that I had to stop racing and just walk off the problem and hope that once my stomach had calmed down I could get back racing.

It was fun to see everyone at Jelly Baby hill and get my 100k treat but even the a single Jelly Baby was not an easy proposition to get down.  I ate my sweet and a sip of water but it just increase the pain levels, anything hitting my stomach now was just pushing stomach pain levels up.

Across Rannoch Moor the miles passed very slowly, I lost a number of places, including Stuart and Myvanway would trotted by both looking strong.  Despite taking things very easy my stomach got no better.  It was like having a brillo pad stuck in my stomach, any up and down movement was really painful.  At one point I just wanted to find a hillock and crawl into a ball to sleep it off.  I resisted temptation and kept walking on, hoping that things would sort themselves out.  Thoughts of DNF'ing if I couldn't get back drinking played on my mind as I still had 30 miles to go.  I also considered just getting to car and sleeping for several hours.

Things turned around a little as I got into view of Glen Coe Ski center - an almighty gurgle from my stomach and suddenly my very fuzzy head cleared and the pain in my stomach reduced down several notches.  I got back to a very gentle jog down to the check point.  My stomach was still painful on every foot plant but at least I was able to move.

Glencoe ski center:  70 miles, 15:01hrs, 4:01pm

Once I arrived it was good to be with my support crew and my wife and three girls had arrived to give support.  I took a few minutes to try and work out what I should do next, what I could eat and drink.  My crew and family were great and were really positive.  There was no talk of anything but finishing, my DNF demon’s weren't shown any respect or time, it was now about getting things done.

Up to the Rannoch Moor crossed I had been 100% focused on going sub 20hrs, given my training and good Fling race a PB has looked easy.  I now 24 minutes down on my 2014 split, with the prospect of walking the rest of the way.  In preparation I hadn't really given much thought to the possibility of the not racing all the way to the finish.  Mentally I had to find resolve that I hadn't prepared for, just finishing even if walking being a achievement worth suffering for.

I then marched on, now with my support runner, Andy, jogging where I could, albeit it at pitiful pace as my stomach was so painful at any other pace.

Still the views were pretty epic, sure helps when otherwise suffering

At Devil's Staircase Craig took over to run with me with Andy driving around to Kinlochleven.

Trying to find something I might be able to eat...

We made it across to Kinlochleven slowly, but still moving forward.  I regularly kept trying to sip water and nibbling bits of food but anything I consumed soon made my stomach worse.

Kinlochleven: 81miles, 17:57hrs elapsed, 6:57pm

At Kinlochleven I felt a bit jaded but my legs still felt strong and my head was in the game.  However, I was really concerned about not being able to eat or drink anything substantial.  I felt I was living on borrowed time as I had hardly eaten or drank since Tyndrum, so over 6hrs and 28 miles over on perhaps a hundred calories and just sips of water.  I fully expected my body had to crash and burn.

At the Kinlochleven weight in my weight had gone down further but still within limits and I was still lucid so there was no problem with me continuing.  I tried to eat and drink bits but nothing really went down easily.  Out of desperation I also tried a swig of coke but this burnt my stomach like it was molten larva so really wasn't a good move.

Looking at my watch I realised that if I was to finish in the same day I'd need to get moving, stopping to eat/drink hadn't helped so there was no point delaying so I then headed on.  This thought process I didn't pass on to my family and crew I just got on with a march in my own little private world.  Taking to them later they were all taken by surprise by my departure, I just left walking briskly away packing my drinks for the next leg.

Despite hardly drinking or eating my legs somehow were still strong and got up the ascent out of Kinlochleven OK.  Once the trail flattened I started to jog a little and then off all of sudden I started throwing up everything I had tried to consume.  It burnt on the way as much as on the way down.  Dry heaving I tried not to strain by back and stomach muscles, funny how the utlra-marathon brain can function in an almost detached way to the rest of your body, think how on minimizes the damage from the current problem to compromise the rest of the journey.

This grim point was turned around when a support runner for a fellow runner arrived and gave me a small bottle of soda to sip.  I was able to drink this bottle a sip at a time without it causing my stomach to go in knots so it was progress.  It was still too painful to walk fast or jog any faster than 12 min/miles so progress was slow.

Craig was doing a great job of nursing me along.  My pace was abysmal though. I was passed by several sets of runners and crew.  Sandra passed with her support runner with total commitment, none of the polite gate opening back at the Lochside, she was blowing the barn doors off her PB, complete focus and determination.  Inspiring to see other having great races, but well made my miserable pace seem pretty pathetic a faint shadow of the athlete I had expect to be.

Before arriving at Lundavra the rain came on/off and with it my jacket had to go on/off as I tried to avoid overheating and getting cold in quick succession.  The last half hour before Lundavra I finally started to feel a bit vague and fuzzy headed.  My legs were still strong but clearly by blood sugar level was getting low.  I just sipped my soda and clung on to as a lifesaver even after it was empty, I got a few tangtastics down but still anything I ate caused lots of discomfort. 

Lundavra : 88 miles, 20:28hrs, 9:28pm.

My second crew member Andy had run back up the course after leaving the car in Fort William, this way both Craig and Andy could join me for the final 7 miles.  Andy was really concerned how much I had deteriorated since Kinlochleven, my colour had left me, I was withdrawn and talking in less coherently.

Andy forced me to consume one of his gels.  I didn't want to eat it but he wouldn't let me go one till I had.  I totally expected to bring it back up, but I did what I was told and drained it all - there would be no cheating under Andy's watch!

I wasn't really in a place for chat so Andy and Craig walked ahead up the hill, occasionally checking back to make sure I wasn't being left behind or struggling.  With an hour and half left to cover 7 miles It looked like I might still be able to squeeze in before 11pm if we push on.  This was a goal that I clung to, but one tempered with the expectation that I pushed on too hard that my energy levels would crash and leave me walking like a dead man.

The gel had mad my stomach more uncomfortable but I kept it down and bit my bit I think the 100 calories of sugar that it provided perked me up a little.  I didn’t particularly notice it by Andy saw a change for the better.  We got through the woodland walking the ascents and gently jogging the descents.  My stomach was still painful on each step but my legs were solid and happy with the pace.

We finally got to the wide forest track that leads you down into Glen Nevis and on to Fort William.  We worked out that I had a bit over 3 and half miles to go and only 34 minutes left to do them in, it was doable just if I could run the whole of the rest of the way.  This just seemed tantalizingly out of reach, chances of pulling it off remote.  Andy and Craig were really positive, I wanted to try even if if it going deep into the hurt locker.

Each step was painful, even going downhill at 10 min/mile pace hurt on my stomach, but my legs just kept spinning over.  We hit the flat through the woodland and hadn't earned any safety margin from the descent so still had to push on.  My legs kept responding and I was winning the battle with my stomach, sure it was painful but there was less and less distance to put up with it.  Light was failing now as we went through the final tree cover before Braveheart carpark.  I was torn between stopping for head torch and tripping, I was also really aware of burning out of my less energy reserves.

We hit the road, we weren't sure exactly how far to go, we thought around mile? We had less than ten minutes left to get there, there was no letting up now.  I sent Criag ahead to locate Julia and the girls to tell them of my impending arrival and here tore away at 6 min/mile pace.  Turns out he went straight past them!  It was now dark as he headed up the hill past the 30mph sign, I had to run every step up that cruel incline, as it levelled off I picked up the pace, now down 7mile pace, all pain and exhaustion had gone, I was no-longer conscious of what my body was doing or the pain, I was just running. 

At the round about Julia and the girls were all waiting to run in with me. It was such a glorious sight to have them around me and I finally felt awesome.  Getting in before 11pm was still on the cards, and my pace just got faster and faster, not all my family could pace as I hit 6 min/miles, with only my youngest running at my side.   I was charging down the street in full flow.  It must have been quite a sight a family at full pace, jackets flaying in the wind with a possessed runner at the front.

My strava records suggest I fit 5:30min/mile in the last quarter of mile as I tore towards the entrance to the Leisure Centre.  I tapped my card on the timing unit and was done.

Fort William : 95 miles, 21:58:26, 10:58 and dark!

It was a crazy last mile and all to just squeeze under 22hrs.  It was worth it though, what a turn around to finish so strong, charging along a dark Fort William street with my family is such an amazing memory to have.

Once inside the Leisure Centre I was well taken care for.  There was quite a buzz as Sandra had just arrived before me and had ran the race of her life with a huge PB, it was such a happy atmosphere despite the carnage of runners sat in chairs on massage tables.

I tried to eat and drink but soon regretted it and headed to loo to empty the contents of my stomach.  Craig was a star and waited outside the loo as I prayed homage to the porcelain god, he was there concerned that I might end up in more trouble such as fainting etc.  That's what a great crew do - they look after and out for you, even we the going gets unpleasant.

I showered and changed then headed back with my family to our accommodation.  Craig and Andy set off back home.  Passing through Rannoch Moor past midnight they recall seeing all the head torches out there toiling through the darkness.

Prize giving

What I can say other than it's Awesome!  Paul Giblin ran a stunning race to lower the Course Record yet again, but there were so many other amazing performances with people setting PB's or struggling through to finish despite some pretty unpleasant over night rain.  I never been to another race prize giving like the West Highland Way Race one, it's a real celebration of every single runners achievement from first to last.

Lessons Learnt

The Rolling Stones lyric "You don't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need" seems to resonate with my 2015 WHWR experience.  I was confident of a 19hr finishing time, I really wanted it, but it wasn't to be.  A sub 22hr time is well off what am capable of on a good day, but in the circumstances it was all about learning about what reserves of mental and physical strength I have within me.

I trained to burn fat efficiently in training, but never planned to have to run the final 42 miles on just a couple hundred of consumed calories and the rest off my fat reserves.  It was fast and it wasn't pretty but my legs never faltered - they were strong and full life right through to the end, the only thing that really slowed me down was the stomach pain.

Looking back what caused my stomach so many problems?  I believe the Cocodomol pain killer that I consumed along with paracetamol and aspirin that were the main culprits rather than the ice cream.  The pain killers I took for back pain, so had I not strained my back I wouldn't have needed them, so likely wouldn't have had the same issues with my stomach.  It all stems back to that stupidly lifting a heavy box the wrong way when packing the car, had I not done that there the house of cards likely wouldn't have fallen at the half way point.

This year I'm lining up for the West Highland Way Race again.  Training hasn't gone quite as smoothly as in 2015 but somehow I've ended up in similar positive place fitness wise.  I should in the shape to go chase 19hrs once again.  This time I'll be doing everything I can to avoid having to take pain killers, so making sure I don't do anything stupid in the final days or hours before the race.

Physiologically, this year, finishing is the foundation stone upon what my race is built rather than an after thought.  Tapering well, running a sensible race, looking after my body and letting the time happen.  I am planning to race to the best of my capability, but the bedrock will always be getting my 3rd West Highland Way Finishers Goblet.


My thanks go to my crew Tom, Toby in the first half and Craig and Andy in the second half, and to family, especially for that last crazy run together into the finish, what a memory to cherish!

Thanks also to the WHWR committee and all the army of voluteerrs that make it all possible.  Without these people how give their weekends for us to do what we love none of these great races would happen. THANKYOU!!!

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