2018 West Highland Way Race Report

It was dark and quiet, except for the distant sound of rushing water.

And my sobbing.

I was doubled over, hands on knees wailing again and again, “I don’t want to quit! I don’t want to quit! I don’t want to quit!”

It was somewhere around 2:00 in the morning and I was a couple miles out of Kinlochleven (mile 81) but my right knee had gone wonky about an hour before. Every downhill step had become tortuous, and I was certain I was destroying my knee. I’d never had a pain like this and I was confident this meant that Kinlochleven would be the end of my West Highland Way adventure.

But despite my mid-race fantasies about stopping, I really, really didn’t want to quit.


24+ hours earlier, the race had begun well, passing the early miles quietly through the countryside just out of Milngavie (a suburb of Glasgow), and beginning the climb up Conic Hill as light began to spread over Loch Lommond and the Trossachs National Park. This kind of climbing is what I do nearly every day of my training, so this lift in topography was a welcome change from those flat first miles.

I was dutifully eating my gels and chews every 20 minutes or so, but already the constant flow of sugar was turning nasty in my stomach at scarcely 15 miles into the race. I shot a quick text to my crew to have noodle soup ready, along with the oatmeal and coffee I’d requested before the race.

Speaking of my crew. Wow.

My niece Bethany and my sister Carolyn agreed to fly over to help me and they were simply fab. They showed up huge even though they’d never crewed an ultra, let alone one that is “self-supporting” (supplying your own food/ drink), and one that is in a foreign country where they drive on the “wrong” side of the road! It was definitely trial by fire for them, and they were amazing. I’m eternally grateful.

My amazing crew…so grateful.

So, I rolled into Balmaha (mile 19) with a queasy stomach and I abandoned my gels and chews. For the remainder of the day Cup o’ Soup noodles, instant rice, Pringles, bread, fruit and Tailwind would see me through. Along with some magical ginger chews prepared by my friend Christy Hires of Superior Earth Essentials. More on those later…

The Balmaha checkpoint was buzzing with people AND midgies, Scotland’s infamous and relentlessly irksome flying insect that seeks out any exposed flesh to feast on your blood with a painful bite. We’d heard the tales of misery about them, and in Balmaha they were out and about in force. They’re so relentless and so tiny that they were working their way THROUGH the little holes in some of Carolyn and Bethany’s netting they’d purchased ahead of the race. Since I was continuously moving, they weren’t too much of an issue for me, but I felt terrible for the girls. It would be a long day for them doing battle with the little monsters.

Balmaha was a quick exchange and I was on my way again to see them in about 8 miles in Rowardennan. This stretch of trail was really engaging…a little wider here, a little narrower there, punchy uphills followed by flowing downs. And it weaved in and out of the trees coming right up to the shore of Loch Lommond on many occasions. It was beautiful and this section passed quickly with some great conversation with other runners.

Coming into Rowerdennan (mile 27), the change in fuel sources had begun settling my stomach and I was feeling quite well, apart from a big blister on the second toe on my right foot. Thankfully, Liza Howard had recently posted an amazingly helpful article on blister management on iRunFar.com and following her recommended fix meant that it wouldn’t be a problem for the rest of the race! If you’re a runner, check that article out. Amazing.

Also, the midgies at Rowerdennan were brutal, making for a fairly miserable pit stop. Again, though, the girls performed wondrously and I was on my way quickly enough. I was on point for my hoped for times and was, as they say over there, chuffed!

Which leads to a confession. I had high hopes for my overall time.

Understanding that the race was a little shorter than my previous 100’s, and understanding that it was at sea level, and understanding that the elevation profile was relatively tame compared to my previous 100’s, I was hoping to be somewhere in the 24 to 26 hour range, but figuring that would likely turn into 26-28 hours. Now, I’m always, always, always figuring a finish is the A goal of a long ultra, but I confess I had hopes for something faster.

Hopes that were about to be dashed on the gnarliest section of trail I’ve ever encountered in a race.

Looking at the race elevation profile, one barely notices the mileage from 30-40. But, as I was about to learn, the elevation profile is only part of the story.

The first couple of miles out of Rowerdennan were much the same as the miles before, but somewhere the nature of the trail along the bonnie banks of Loch Lommond turns vicious. There are roots and rocks. There are awkward little ups and downs where you have to use your hands to pull yourself up or guide yourself down. It’s narrow. It’s tricky. It’s demoralizing.

This is the “trail” above Rowerdennan. Oof.

And it’s S-L-O-W.

I trained on NOTHING like this trail in getting ready for the race. In fact, I’m not exactly even sure HOW one would train for that section? By taking up parkour?

 

Whatever the case, it shredded me and I came into the Beinglas Farm (mile 41) checkpoint quite broken. I was behind on calories and in need of a bit of time to collect myself.

Gloriously, though, Bethany had bought me a ginger beer and I headed out again committed to getting all of that into my system.

After Beinglas Farm, the West Highland Way begins to get into the Highlands in earnest, with a couple miles of continuous, gradual climbing up, up and up. The views also open up as we left the forest behind for a while. It’s absolutely stunning.

That smile is a LIE.

But the continuous climb also meant that this section was slow, and despite a brief section of ambitious jogging, I was really beginning to feel the cumulative effects of the race…the 1:00 a.m. start, the time on feet, the beating from the gnar. I made my way into Auchtertyre (mile 51) feeling low.

Before the race, I’d told my crew that they’d need to really steel themselves against my suffering, that there’d be no quitting. They really took this to heart, as I sat in the chair, head in hands, complaining that I just wanted to stop. Their response…”Well, tough. Get back out there.”

So, with fresh fuel and a big banana in my hand, I headed out. And that banana worked miracles. Ultras are actually very simple. Keep eating and you can keep moving. Stop eating and you want to quit. So I set about to eating more as I headed out of Auchtertyre.

And soon enough, I felt absolutely amazing. I was running. I was playing. I was having fun. I was listening to music, playing air drums and singing out loud:

My body tells me ‘no’
But I won’t quit, ‘cause I want more, ‘cause I want more
My body tells me ‘no’
But I won’t quit, ‘cause I want more, ‘cause I want more
(“My Body” by Young the Giant)

And this song:

It’s, not, how you start, it’s how you finish,
And it’s, not, where you’re from, it’s where you’re at
Everybody gets knocked down, Everybody gets knocked down,
How quick are you gonna’ get up? How quick are you gonna’ get up?
Everybody gets knocked down, Everybody gets knocked down,
How quick are you gonna’ get up?
Just how are you gonna’ get up?
(“Ali in the Jungle” by The Hours)

(I had no idea how prophetic those words would be…)

A quick word about my “intention” for the race. As I lay in bed hours before the start, resting and reflecting, I prayerfully set 3 intentions for the race: to run with gratitude, joy and praise/wonder. So, throughout the day, I would take moments to consider what I was grateful for, what was bringing joy and offer praise/wonder to God for the sights, sounds and experiences I was having. I’ve never done exactly this in a race and it was a beautiful, empowering practice. I’ll definitely be doing it again.

Gratitude. Joy. Praise/wonder.

I came into Bridge of Orchy (mile 59) feeling fantastic. My crew was more than a little surprised to see me, because I was well ahead of the time they were expecting me. I ate well and hustled out of there as quick as I could.

There’s quite a decent climb out of Bridge of Orchy, affectionately called “Jelly Baby Hill” for reasons I’m not quite sure I understand. But, that climb passed well, and I hustled down the other side and began the long, slow ascent up through Rannoch Moor on an ancient military road. Here the land is sweeping, vast, wide open and wild. The moor is one of the last truly wild spaces in all of Europe and it’s breathtaking.

I continued to eat and move well, but as the grade trends very much upward, there was no running here. Just grinding out miles as quick as you can after 20 hours and 65+ miles.

About a mile and a half from the next checkpoint, the Way crests a hill and begins a long descent into the Glencoe Ski Resort. Typically, I LOVE running downhill, even late in a race, but something was wrong…I couldn’t run downhill. I couldn’t run much at all. I don’t know if it was the pounding my legs took from miles 30-40, or if it was a deficit in my training or what, but I simply couldn’t run any longer. And so, it would be a strong hike to finish.

Overall, though, I was clear headed, with good energy and a stable stomach, which is about as much as one can ask for late in a race!

The Glencoe Ski Resort checkpoint (mile 71) sits at the base of steep, serious mountains. There can be no doubt that Way is now truly in the mountainous highlands here. Since it would finally be getting dark soon (we were around 10:00 p.m. now…Scotland is really far north!), we took the time to get my gear and clothing right to head into the cold and dark.

In this picture below, the thing I’m most proud of is the empty thermos and mostly empty can of Coke…I crushed that stuff and headed out to finally attack the infamous “Devil’s Staircase.”

A quirk of the West Highland Way is that the biggest climbs are all in the last 20 miles of the trail, and the Devil’s Staircase is the penultimate “big” climb of the race.

But, this is the kind of training I do all of the time, so I was ready for it. Near the top, there are a couple of little downs before you reach the real descent into the Kinlochleven.

And here is where the troubles began. I was just behind Wilson Dornan (and his support runner), who I’d been close to all day, and as we started one of the little downs, I grunted and groaned.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Man, my knee…I don’t know what’s wrong.” I replied.

Any downhill was just sending sharp, searing pain into the inside of my knee. Uphills were okay, flats weren’t great, but anything trending downwards hurt. Bad.

I kept moving. Often, things like this come and go during a race. I waited for it to go.

It didn’t.

In fact, it got worse. And now I had several steep downhill miles into the next checkpoint.

I kept moving slowly as doubt crept in quickly.

I was realizing that I might be doing permanent damage to my knee. And if that was the case…my race was over.

7 years of dreaming about this race. Months of training and planning. My sister and niece flying in to help…all of it could be ending here 14+ miles from the finish.

Frustration and sorrow overwhelmed me. I stopped and sobbed and sobbed. Through snot and spit and tears, I wailed to no one, “I don’t want to quit! I don’t want to quit! I don’t want to quit…”

I got moving, again, the brief break causing my knee to complain even more robustly. When I got to cell service range, I texted my dear friends following closely back home that I thought it was over. I called my dear wife Melanie and cried to her that I thought it was over.

It had been ages since I’d seen a West Highland Way signpost, so I wasn’t even sure where I was anymore. Finally, I came to a sign. I called my sister at the checkpoint to tell her I thought it was over.

Turns out I was less than a mile from the checkpoint, so the race officials sent some people up to find me and walk me into Kinlochleven (mile 81).

My sister and niece were clearly concerned. Even before I’d called, they knew something was wrong because I had slowed down so much, I was way past the time they expected me.

So, I sat with the doctor. I described what was going on.

Very, very surprisingly, she was nonplussed. She was sure I wouldn’t do permanent damage if I continued.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that…it hurt so bad. I told her that it felt like the muscle was going to pop off the attachment.

She responded quite evenly, “If it ‘pops off’ I’ll eat my hat.”

And if I’m honest, it was kind of a nasty, homemade, knitted cap that had definitely seen some time. So, if she’s willing to bet eating that hat, I was more than willing to keep moving.

She taped it up. We iced it. I took a couple of Tylenol. I rested for a while and ate and drank a bit. We put two braces on it, and as the light of another day began spreading over the hills I began making my way out of Kinlochleven, overwhelmingly grateful for the chance to continue.

A couple of days previous, in our last crew meeting before the race, I told Carolyn and Bethany that Kinlochleven would be the crux of the race, because it was the last checkpoint before the last big climb, etc, etc.

I had no idea how true that statement would be.

Thanks to the Tylenol and braces, I actually pushed the steep climb out of Kinlochleven quite well. A new day had dawned and it was beautiful (again).

A new day dawning above Kinlochleven…

At the top of the climb begins another section of remote, wild trail. The trail winds on before you and at many points you can see ahead a significant ways…I could see that there were 8-10 runners, with their support runners, ahead of me and strangely I could tell that I was making up time on them.

The knee was holding up and I was, once again and weirdly, moving well.

Just before the last timing checkpoint at Lundavra (mile 88), I passed several of those runners and began the final push for the last 7 miles. Annoyingly though, just past Lundavra, there are several short, steep climbs and descents before beginning the final steep 3 mile downhill into Fort William. Those little climbs were demoralizing, but I kept moving.

And unfortunately, the good feelings (or the Tylenol) ran out. The pain in my knee was back and my pace slowed.  At this point I had been moving for 30 hours, and the cumulative fatigue was wearing me thin. All I wanted was to be done.

Eventually I came to the forest road that marked the beginning of the final steep descent into Fort William. My knee was killing me. I had a momentary fantasy of just running anyway and getting it done. A couple of attempted steps of running shut that idea down immediately.  There would be no victorious run to the finish. This was going to be a grind to the finish. I had plenty of time. It was just going to hurt.

The only way to give my knee any relief was to avoid bending it at all, and so I began an awkward step with the left leg followed by swinging the right leg around straight.

Step, swing. Step, swing. Step, swing.

Occasionally, I’d stumble and have to catch myself with my right leg, sending a jolt of pain through my system and swears out of my mouth.

Step, swing. Step, swing. Step, swing.

The sun was up and it was getting warm, but I didn’t have the energy to stop and strip off extra layers. I didn’t have the energy for anything other than moving forward.

I strained my eyes forward, longing for evidence that I was nearing the finish. I hallucinated that clumps of grass or bushes were signs pointing us towards the finish.

It all got very dark…not in a despairing way, but in the sense that I had to dig into a place I’ve never really had to dig into before.

Step, swing. Step, swing. Step, swing.

Finally, I reached the edge of town. Kind souls looking for their own runners encouraged and cheered me on. One guy, I think his name was Chris, walked with me for quite a ways and I never had the chance to thank him.

Step, swing. Step, swing.

Step, swing and around the roundabout and there was the finish at Lochaber Leisure Centre. There was my dear sister, who’d cared for me as a baby, who’s loved me well my whole life. There was my niece, who I watched grow up, who’s wedding I’d just performed a few weeks previous. I am so very, very grateful for their support. Ultras like this are definitely a team sport and I was so glad to have them in my corner.

Step, swing and we’d done it. 95+ miles. 32+ hours.

The 2018 West Highland Way Race is not nearly my fastest ultra finish, but the more I reflect on it, the more I realize…I’m prouder of this race than any other.


Miscellaneous Big Thanks:

  • Nicola Dunn and her family for the sunscreen and cheering me on like I was one of their own
  • George Lupton, Ian Rae, Wilson Dornan, Norma Bone (and other runners who’ve names I’ve lost) for sharing a bit of time and encouragement with me
  • Jamie Aarons (2nd place woman!!) and her parther Andy for being such a fabulous hosts in the time leading up to the race.

Team Lemmanionhalt basking in the glow of not racing.

No belt buckles here. This baby is pure crystal!