Make your crew wear daft kit, you will suffer so they should too!
With the Fling safely in the bag and a better result than expected I was looking forward to a new challenge in the full West Highland Way race.
The thought of 95 miles weighed heavily on my mind. It would be 42 miles more than I had ever run before. Even though I had got through the Fling without a re-occurrence of Achilles inflammation I couldn’t help thinking “well that was only 53 miles, maybe it will explode when I pass the “By the Way hostel” which is the Highland Fling finish. I am generally a “glass is half empty and it may be hit by lightning at any point” kinda guy. I think worse case scenario and anything less than that is a bonus.
I have been in races where I go out to quick and have been in some ‘dark energy vacuum’ type of place with 10miles to go. I didn’t want to make the same mistake here and still have 30 or 40miles to go.
The nutrition plan was a mixture of porridge, Muller rice, chia charge bars and Chocolate mini rolls. Chocolate covered raisins and nuts also. Liquid would be high 5 zero tabs supplemented with flat coke at the checkpoints.
The "admin" pile for the race.
Training since the Fling had been kept around the 50mile a week mark. I figured as it would be my first attempt at the WHW, as long as I finish it’s a PB. Many hours had been spent looking at the splits of the previous WHW results to check the times of runners that normally finish the Fling around similar times to me.
I eventually figured i would aim to go through Tyndrum no faster than 9hrs and hopefully have the energy left to get the rest done in 8hrs. 17 hours would be a pretty fantastic result for me in the first attempt. That was the public version, I also secretly hoped for 16 to 16 and a half hours if everything went well....very well.
A race schedule was drafted for the crew and also for Gillian and the kids who would try and join the crew at Glencoe.
The schedule showing Gillian's "time of day" target and actual.
Race registration went smoothly on the night, got my number, was weighed and weight card promptly handed to crew to look after. Got a few photos taken with the guys next to the WHW graphic as well.
The start line atmosphere was great and I was buzzing more than usual due to the new challenge ahead and my biggest ever distance.
My crew (Peter (a.k.a Pedro), Bobby & Jim) were up for the crack and even a wee bit rain didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.
The clock ticked down pretty rapidly to 1am and we were off. A bunch of about 10 followed the fast disappearing Mr Giblin and I settled into my scheduled pace.
It was raining slightly but not enough to warrant getting my jacket out. My Craft thermal top was doing a good job of keeping me warm enough even in the misty rain.
Had a bit of chat with Duncan Oakes, Bob Steel and Justin Maxwell as we ticked off the early miles in the thickening mist. My headtorch was flaring on the mist and annoying me somewhat. Going up Conic hill I switched it off and found I could see better without it.
I had said to my crew I would try and phone them from the top of Conic Hill to advise them of my impending arrival and ensure the porridge was at my pre specified requirements (hot but quite liquidy, with raisins and banana chucked in there)
I phoned Pedro and began random chat about what he was up to etc. before he interrupted and said “where the fek are you then?”
I confirmed I was about 10mins away and to prepare for my momentous arrival.
Going down Conic Hill I came across another runner at the side of the wooden steps groaning. I checked they were alright and he said/grunted “yeah, on you go..”. Taken a decent tumble by the looks of it but he was certainly not wanting me to interrupt my race.
I rolled into Balmaha switching my headtorch on and off as the cunning signal for “Its me, feed me, water me, let me go”
The boys stick hot porridge in my hand and set about my race vest like I was an F1 car. Swapping bottles out and replacing the chia charge bars I was using. The guys surprised me by telling me I was in third. I thought they were off their head as I was sure I hadn’t passed that many people and was thinking I was inside the top 10 maybe.
It would have been the slickest pit stop ever if….I hadn’t forgot to ditch my headtorch. I remembered about 30 yards away and ran back to give it to them.
I think that’s where I lost the race to Paul Giblin, those 30 secs just stretched a bit to, oh only 2 hrs 12 mins behind Paul …if only! ;-)
Time at Balamaha (19.8miles)was 2hrs 47mins, 2 mins behind schedule.
Balmaha to Rowardennan.
These miles passed fairly uneventfully. Duncan Oakes passed me and pulled away. I resisted the temptation to stay with him and vowed to stay on my own schedule to Auchtertyre no matter what.
I pulled into Rowardennan thinking maybe a toilet stop was in order, as things didn’t feel right. The guys restocked my pack again while I guzzled some flat coke/water mixture. I told them I had to use the toilet if it was open. Bobby immediately led the way and showed me to the disabled facility. I got in there and waved my arms around to activate the light, no joy, this was going to have to be a covert operation.
I left the door ajar for some light as Bobby was outside on guard. The next thing I knew was Bobby sticking his hand in with his mobile in it. I briefly thought oh no not ultratoilet.com again. But this legend crewmember was only lighting the place up for me!!!
Ultra crew know no limits when it comes to support of their athlete!…
My “not right” feeling was correct as I unloaded a tsunami of unwanted weight and hoped I would feel better soon.
Time at Rowardennan (27.2miles) 4hrs 8 mins – 8 mins behind schedule
I was soon on my way to Bein Glass and hoping to get into a bit better rhythm thereafter. I resisted the temptation to speed up and kept going at roughly the same pace as I was largely on schedule so far.
More lonely miles passed until I caught up to Lindsay Hamoudi at a major boggy bit. Lindsay was taking the long way around but I went straight through shouting to him there was a decent gap there to follow. I later found out he had to pull out of the race at Bein Glass due to stomach and IT band issues.
I now wondered if I was in a podium position as I had passed 2 people. I didn’t know how many had passed me whilst I was in the toilet at Rowardennan. I started to feel a bit better coming into Bein Glass and was looking forward to putting in a bit more effort to hopefully close in on Duncan Oakes but still stay on sub 9hrs schedule through Tyndrum.
The lads fueled me up at Bein Glass with some porridge and Muller rice. The chocolate mini rolls were not going down so well and the lads were doing a bad job of trying to not show concern about me not eating enough.
Time at Bein Glass (40.9miles) – 6hrs 46mins - 6 mins behind schedule
I cracked on and churned out the miles towards Crainlarich. Some lovely ladies gave me some encouragement at the gate before heading up into the woods. They were asking if I was “Neil” I confirmed this and they said I was looking strong apparently (something I always doubt) I found out later this was Sharon Law who was crewing for Bob Steel.
I rolled into Auchtertyre feeling pretty positive that I was over halfway and still feeling good. The guys told me I was 28mins behind Duncan Oakes, filled me with muller rice and replaced my bottles.
Time at Auchtertyre (51miles) 8hrs 34mins – 1 min ahead of schedule
I left Auchtertyre on a mission to pull back some time on Duncan by the time I hit Bridge of Orchy. It was quite weird running past the Fling finish line at By the Way hostel and campsite. I was now heading into the unknown, the furthest I had ever run!!!
Kirsty Burnett (By The Way owner and ultra runner) gave a me a shout out from her door way as I went through the gate and headed to the road crossing
I crossed the road at Tyndrum about 9hrs 5 mins so was pretty pleased that the schedule was going to plan. Eoin Lennon was there taking a photo and giving me a wee cheer on.
I pushed on to Bridge of Orchy and really enjoyed the slight downhill sections. The lads gave me some flat coke at BOO and told me the gap to Duncan was the same!! I was a bit gutted as I felt I had definitely increased my pace somewhat. I told myself there was still plenty of time to go and no need to be greetin about it now.
Time at Bridge of Orchy (60miles)– 10hrs 4mins - 4 mins ahead of schedule
On Jelly Baby hill Murdo told me Duncan was about 10mins ahead of me. This confused the fek out of me as someone was obviously way off on their timings. I hoped it was the lads as 10mins sounded much better.
Sharon Law came alongside me on the grind over Rannoch Moor. She was out for a spot of training whilst Bob Steel progressed towards her. She told me he was struggling a bit with some issue. She pulled away from me and met up with some other ladies just up ahead. They were doing the selfie thing and I made some crap joke about hallucinating at the sight of them all. This was Debbie Martin Consani and Fiona Ross. It seems Rannoch Moor is the place to meet the top Scottish female ultra runners!!
Glencoe appeared finally and I couldn’t ask the guys quick enough what the time gap to Duncan was. On being told it was again 28mins, I was properly pissed off and thinking what the hell does it take to catch Duncan? (answer, a proper shit load of effort)
Another quick F1 style pitstop/refuel ensued. More flat coke and Muller rice, a handful of chocolate nuts and raisins. Gillian and the kids had now joined the crew so I got the usual confused “what the hell is Dad doing to himself” looks from the kids.
Time at Glencoe (71miles) – 11hrs 54mins - 16 mins ahead of schedule
Pedro cracks the F1 style pitstop at Glencoe while Jim stands by with the Chocolate nuts & raisins.The kids get in the way brilliantly.
I hit the tarmac down to Kingshouse on another mission to catch Duncan, it seemed I was going to have to risk dipping into the red zone to gain any time on him.
I decided I was going to give it some welly down to Altnafeadh, skip up the Devils staircase (does anybody else think it should be just called the staircase as its not that devilish really?. More of a Devils downhill on the other side!) and then absolutely destroy myself down to Kinlochleven.
I like to think a lot of time can be made up in those 5miles downhill (a lot of damage to the quads as well of course, but needs must). The Devils staircase came and went, I ran three quarters of it and brisk walked the rest. I then hit the gas big time and concentrated like mad on the tricky terrain to try and avoid any high speed faceplants. I was really feeling it by the time I got into Kinlochleven. I made my way to the community centre thinking if I hadn’t made any time up on Duncan now then I never would.
As I turned into the street I saw Duncan Oakes walking out of the community centre. My morale went sky high and I thought 2nd in my first outing at the WHW race could be a possibility. I signaled to Duncan that I had eyes on him and he laughed, joking that I was reeling him in.
I cracked the weigh in inside the hall and was pleased to see Duncan still chatting to his crew when I came out. I stuffed more Muller rice down me while Pete and Steve sorted my bottles out for the long slog to Lundavra.
Duncan left and I tried not to cut short my break as I needed it and figured I could get him if he was only a few minutes ahead. I would be able to see him once up and out of Kinlochleven and use him as a target to home in on.
Time at Kinlochleven – 13hrs 46mins – 14mins ahead of schedule
Muller rice stop at Kinlochleven. Team morale is high.
I was on my way after a few minutes and overthinking my overtaking scenarios regards Duncan and how it was going to go down if and when I caught him. I favoured the classic catch up with him, compose oneself for a few minutes then try and bomb past as if you are just starting a 5km to mentally destroy him. Easier thought than done I am sure....
I made a decent effort on the hill out of Kinlochleven and when I hit the road to Lundavra I kept an eye out for Duncan up ahead. I couldn’t see him and kept the pace up thinking he was just out of sight temporarily. I came to a section where I could see over a mile ahead and there was still no sign of the elusive Mr Oakes. My exertion and stress level was going up and I was thinking how has he managed to get away so bloody far.
After a few more miles with no Duncan to be seen I realized he must have taken a wrong turn (my crew had met him still on the road out of Kinlochleven and pointed him back to the way marker at the edge of the woods). More lonely miles where I kept checking behind me to see if anyone was catching me.
At one point I could see someone coming at a serious pace and wondered if it was Duncan. The guy was gaining on me really fast. Eventually I worked out it had to be one of those relay guys who started at Tyndrum. I met Pete at Lundavra and just took a new bottle from him for the last section. He confirmed to me about Duncan getting lost back at Kinlochleven.
Time at Lundavra – 15hrs 24mins - 6 mins ahead of schedule
I was pleased to be on schedule for well under 17hrs at this stage and pushed on to the end so happy that it was soon going to be over. Through the woods and past the braveheart car park where it was a nice surprise to see a running buddy Michael Tweedly to give me a wee cheer on for the last road section.
I couldn’t stop smiling to myself as I heading into Fort William, it was nearly over, I had cracked the full West Highland Way, almost double my longest ever run.
I was absolutely chuffed to bits to cross the finish line in 16hrs 26mins and 13secs!!!. A mere 2hrs 12mins behind winner Paul Giblin’s amazing record breaking time..!
Time at Fort William – 16hrs 26mins 13 secs - 34 mins ahead of schedule
The cup of tea and some toast and butter a nice lady in the leisure centre gave me was the best thing ever after all that effort.
All in all it was a great race and extremely well marshaled and directed. I was left with a huge sense of achievement, I had done “no bad” at my first attempt in the nearly 100mile bracket of Ultra ;-)
I now know that its no big deal nearly doubling your race distance. As long as you pace it sensibly there is no requirement to massively increase the training you do for 50 mile races. I did the same level of training and long runs I normally do for the Fling and it turned out just bloody brilliant for me first time around. That wont stop first timers worrying about it though which is only natural...and fair cause I did ;-)
We stayed that night in the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel which was just perfect. I couldn’t help think of the runners still out on the route as I collapsed into my bed about 10pm that night. The rain was proper battering off the roof making things even harder for them.
The prizegiving the next day was great with every finisher getting their coveted goblet presented to them individually. Nice touch indeed and one more thing that makes the race pretty unique.
Goblet presentation to all finishers.
Huge thanks to Peter, Bobby and Jim who crewed awesomely for me. Thanks to Gillian and the kids for following us around from Glencoe onwards. Thanks also to Beta Running who supply me with Ultimate Direction, Hoka and Injinji kit.
Support crew version of events from Peter Brown:
The WHW is a hard endurance event and that is just for the support crew. We were delighted when Neil asked us to support him in this event and had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend. Neil is a fantastic athlete and it was great to see someone performing at such a high level close up.
We concentrated on a couple of things, staying awake (not completely successfully), getting to checkpoints on time, keeping Neil fed and alive, providing support/arse kicking when needed and not mentioning to our runner that we got his car stuck in the mud at Altanfeadh (cue lots of pushing and panic!).
Our first job consisted of keeping the boss calm pre race, we then spent the first two checkpoints trying to foist a rain jacket on him but to no avail. Its all a bit of a blur when your runner comes in especially as Neil only wanted to spend a few mins at the checkpoint, cue F1 pitstops! We kept a note of what he was eating to make sure he was having enough, which he wasn’t by Bein Glas, cue discussions that wasn’t leaving there until he’d fueled up (polite version).
I think the first time we actually felt we had some spare time was at Glencoe such was the pace Neil was setting. Down to the two of us supporting at that stage my partner duly fell asleep, time for me to hit the red bull and crunchies (not the exercise) to stay awake. Apparently its bad form to both be asleep when your runner comes in.
After the slight mishap getting to Kinlochleven we found that Neil was right in contention for second, and for the first time he looked a bit tired. Time for support to be supportive. Neil’s family had been there since Glen Coe and I’m sure that gave him a boost.
Last checkpoint at Lundavra, Neil knew he was in second and powered on. I’d run out from the checkpoint a mile or so to see Neil, luckily for a relay runner who had fallen badly with a nasty head injury. Took him back and waited for the legend to appear.
We all thoroughly enjoyed supporting Neil and the experience of the whole day. I would recommend it to anyone.
Couple of final things I learnt, every runner looks like yours from a distance, The Oak Tree Inn does great bacon rolls at 3am and I still want to do the race but my wife won’t let me.
So there you go, a great race and an incredible performance from Paul again. I hope to return again one year soon and try and lower my own time. 2016's big race for me will be Lakeland 100 at the end of July.
I do intend to pop up around Tyndrum maybe on the 18th June and watch some of the runners head through on their merry way to Fort William.
My Transport and Equipment
Hoka Rapa Nui Trail
Ultimate Direction SJ Utra Vest
Craft base layer
1 – Jamie Aarons 19hrs 28mins 23secs
2 – Myvanwy Fenton May 20hrs 5mins 21secs
3 – Lorna McMillan 21hrs 25mins 20secs
1 – Paul Giblin 14hrs 14mins 44secs
2 – Neil MacNicol 16hrs 26mins 13secs
3 – Duncan Oakes 16hrs 39mins 25secs
Race bling sandwiched between slightly swollen post race feet.