95 miles, through four counties, with 14,000 feet of climb and a 35-hour cut off. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s only just settling in my mind three days later. So much preparation, training, and planning went into this race that now it’s all over it’s taken me a while to process my emotions. It hit me late last night, sitting in my 4th salt bath in two days… I just ran 96 miles!! Yes, 96 on my watch due to the new finish line at the Nevis Centre, which is at least half a mile further than the old finish line at Lochaber Leisure Centre. And I ran as much of it as I possibly could, even when it felt like my legs might fall off. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the most epic and humbling too.
So what possesses a 43-year old mum of three to want to run such a distance? Well, ultras are addictive. I entered my first as I turned 40 years old, as a rebellion against ageing. It seemed insurmountable at 31 miles. I did it and loved it. Then came Glen Ogle 33, just a bit further, and I loved that even more. How much further can I push it? Oh look, a 100k (St Cuthbert’s Way)! Which led me to the Devil O’ the Highlands, the Highland Fling, and on to the West Highland Way for the first time. Inspired by Chris and Gilly, who have also taken on the full distance, my path was set. This time, however, it really did feel insurmountable. The outcome was not certain, but I was willing to give it my best shot.
Training had gone really well and I’d put together a fantastic crew – Mark and Mairi on driving duties, Juliane and Sadie on running support. Juliane also came to Milngavie with us to register and helped Mark with food, drink, kit, etc. until her running leg at Auchtertyre. She then hopped into Mairi’s car at Glencoe to help her out until the finish. What an absolute star! They pampered me all day long and I didn’t have to do anything or worry about anything for the duration of the race. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
We assembled at the start in Milngavie train station and met up with fellow runners and crew. Graham and his crew looked fresh and excited, and Yan’s crew had painted their van in bright colours with “Team Yan Bro!” written on the side. He certainly wouldn’t miss them at checkpoints! We were all nervous though and you could feel the tension in the crowd as we gathered for the 1am start. Before we knew it, after a thorough briefing from Ian Beattie, race director, and Sean the race medic we were off up the steps onto Milngavie High Street, trying to stay as quiet as possible for the slumbering residents.
The first section to Drymen is pretty straightforward, and a bit boring to be honest. It was dark though and felt different lit up by all the head torches. I caught up with Graham and ran with him for a while, the chat helping the first miles fly by. I was very conscious not to run too fast and Graham and I were holding a similar pace. Yan passed us and had a quick chat but he soon disappeared into the distance. Then Graham dropped back and we began to run our own races. I wouldn’t see either of them again until the ceremony the next day.
The sun was rising as I headed up Conic Hill, so I switched off my head torch and took the opportunity to walk up the hill and admire the views of Loch Lomond. I called Mark as I reached the top to say I would be at Balmaha soon, and Chiara (fellow Project Awesome and ultra runner friend) sped past me and flew down the other side. It was tempting to try and catch her but I knew I’d need my quads in good shape for the descent into Kinlochleven in another 60 miles, so held back and trotted slowly down into Balmaha, arriving just behind my inside target in 3:36:58 (I’d estimated a window for each CP, with inside and outside times). Porridge, a banana, coffee and ready-filled bottles of water and Active Root greeted me as well as a change of top and buff. It felt so good to put on fresh clothes and I bounded out of the checkpoint feeling brand new.
I wouldn’t see my crew again for 30 miles, but had three drop-bags to collect along the way at Rowardennan, Inversnaid and Beinglas. I was eating really well at this point and was managing savoury snacks and Kendal mint cake. The loch was still, like a mirror, and the sun was getting warm. The trees along the loch provided adequate shelter so I never felt too hot. The midgies weren’t too bad at all, although I did have to fish a few out of my eyeballs and swallowed one or two more! The route drops onto the ‘low road’ just after Rowardennan, which, unlike the ‘high road’ taken by the Fling is gnarly, twisty, rocky, and frustratingly difficult to run on – almost as bad as the notorious ‘lochside’ section that heads out of Inversnaid. I did not enjoy the low road and hit my first low ebb here, but I usually have one about 21 miles in so wasn’t too concerned. I caught up with Chiara just as the path re-joined the high road, and she looked good and was in high spirits. It must have rubbed off on me as I started to feel really good as I approached Inversnaid. I took the opportunity to use nice, clean hotel toilets here, and prepared myself for the torturous route towards Beinglas. I was still feeling great though, so I put my iPod on and my head down and got on with it. Out of the three times I’ve now tackled this section this was by far my favourite. The high I was feeling lasted right out of the lochside and up past Dario’s Post. I blew him a kiss and patted his ‘head’ (the metal cone on top of the post is designed for this) as I went past. I never met Dario Melaragni, but know so many people that did that it felt right to pay my respects. A former WHW race director who died of a heart attack at too young an age ten years previously, Dario was instrumental in making the race as popular as it is now. The view from his post looks back down Loch Lomond and is the perfect spot to pause and reflect on the distance already travelled. But there was still plenty of distance left to travel so I didn’t stop!
On to Beinglas, which was Johnny Fling’s CP. In previous years crews would have met runners here, but space is really tight and the race wasn’t granted permission by the landowner this year. I’ve heard so many stories of blown tires and break downs on the road into Beinglas that I was quite glad Mark & Juliane didn’t have to come. Best they had a chance to sleep on route to Auchtertyre, and before the road up the west of Loch Lomond filled up with tourist buses.
I’m not too keen on the route out of Beinglas, but my iPod had enough charge to get me to Bogle Glen. As I approached the ‘Alley formerly known as Cow Poo’, Mötorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ came on, which powered me towards Bogle Glen and to Chris Burns, who cheered me on and took a selfie. So lovely to see a friendly face! The rollercoaster through Ewich was really pleasant and far less painful than it had been at the Fling two months ago. The half way point and my crew were in sight!
The field usually used by crews at Auchtertyre had flooded in the days prior to the race so marshals were letting crews in for short periods at Strathfillan Farm when their runner was due in, waiting in Tyndrum until they got the call. I called Mark from the rollercoaster and as I arrived Juliane met me with more fresh clothes and took my race vest. I was weighed here and had only dropped about 1.5 kilos, so no cause for concern. I had some chicken noodle soup and was craving an apple so took that and ate it on the run. Juliane joined me from here, and it was lovely to have some company and a chat at last.
It was torture to run past the Fling finish line, no piper or cowbells, and still 42 miles to go! Juliane told me not to think about it though, and to enjoy the present moment. Very good advice! Up out of Tyndrum we climbed and onto Bridge of Orchy, where I’d heard the real race begins. My stomach bloated really badly on the trail out of Tyndrum, really quite uncomfortable and distracting. Must have been the chicken soup, or eating apples on the hoof? Anyway, another stop in the lovely clean toilets of Bridge of Orchy Hotel and I was right as rain again. Oh my, did I crave a pint of cold lager here. But no, save that for the finish line, if I made it in time for last orders. I made do with a good slug of cola instead.
The run up towards Jelly Baby hill, where race devotee Murdo McEwan waits with colourful trousers, flags and a tray of jelly babies (I took a red one) and towards Glencoe was amazing. I wouldn’t say it was another high, but I found a rhythm. Juliane was superb company and ran just ahead, pointing towards the softer bits of the path as she found them. From here to the end of the Fire Road into Fort William is relentlessly rocky trail, and it was already starting to take its toll on the soles of my feet. I had the right shoes though, Brooks Cascadia 13s, which left me with only a tiny blister on one toe and no pains in my feet the next day. My legs were another story (more on that later). I ran solidly along Rannoch Moor until the last uphill, which then drops down for two miles into Glencoe. I passed my previous furthest distance of 65 miles here, caught on camera by Juliane.
I’d had such a good run on this section that I arrived in Glencoe having made up a bit of lost time and clocked in at 16:09:19. That meant I was going to get to enjoy the Devil’s Staircase and hopefully the Lairig Mor in daylight. I ate some tomato pasta and drank fizzy water while the crew swapped over. Mairi took on the driving and Sadie got ready to run the rest of the way with me. Food was beginning to be a challenge though, and I couldn’t face the rice pudding I’d said I wanted so filled my pockets with more Kendal mint cake instead. I did promise to try and eat more pasta at Kinlochleven too. I said goodbye to Mark who was going to head to Fort William for a well-earned rest and to check in to our rooms at the Garrison hotel. Mairi and Juliane, who’d never met before this point, got acquainted and became firm friends by the end of the race!
Sadie and I headed off for the Devil’s Staircase and the relentless drop into Kinlochleven ten miles away. I was starting to feel really tired now and my left hip was complaining. I was looking forward to the Staircase as I knew I’d just be walking it, but even that felt really hard. I’m sure they extended it this year! A photographer was hiding half way up, so I ran for the camera and then quickly returned to puffing and panting as soon as he was out of sight. Eventually the top came and Sadie caught this superb photo.
You have to stop and look around here. It’s sublimely beautiful. Glencoe and Buachaille Etive Mor behind you, the sweeping Mamores in front. They looked stunning in the early evening light and lifted my flagging spirits. Ellie wrote in a post-race email to the harriers “What a great way to spend your time on this earth, moving through beautiful, vast parts of it under your own steam”. I couldn’t agree more. So, down into Kinlochleven we went, me feeling glad I’d taken it easy on Conic hill as my knees and quads held out really well. Half way down though my left hip started to really hurt. I’d taken paracetamol a couple of hours ago, so faced a long wait for some more. Then everything started to hurt, the relentless descent on rocky trail shuddering through a body that had already travelled almost 80 miles. We passed the Bunkhouse and got cheers from the campers and reached the Community Centre in 19:03:13, half way between my targets. I headed into the toilets with a change of clothes and was enjoying a wee rest when suddenly Juliane knocked on the door. “Jan, I think we have to move out of this checkpoint as soon as we can, I’ll explain outside!” I wrestled myself into my Harriers t-shirt and rushed out of the cubicle. Apparently I had been 3rd F40 up to that point, but the 4th was just behind me and threatening to jump ahead. So I scoffed a little more pasta, drank some cola and fizzy water and rushed out of the CP. In so much of a rush in fact that I forgot to take my head torch! It had been given to me but I’d put it back in the bag when I’d fumbled out of the toilets. I realised my mistake as we headed into the trial that leads up to the Lairig Mor. Sadie asked if we should go back for it. Out of the question! I texted the crew and asked them to come to Lundavra and give me it there, as it would hopefully just be getting dark then. I hadn’t wanted them to bother going there as it’s a nightmare of a road, but they gamely went, ever so apologetic for forgetting to check I had the torch. So, Sadie and I headed up the steep climb out of Kinlochleven towards the Lairig Mor, and that’s where things started to get really bad…
Poor Sadie had to put up with a lot from here to Lundavra! I had my first proper ultra meltdown. Tears, me whinging “Who’s idea was this?” and complaining about pain. Sadie gave me a hug and a pep talk, but just had to let me get on with it and put up with my lack of chat for quite a few miles! If she hadn’t been there though, I’m sure I’d have curled up on the side of the trail and sobbed. About half way along the Lairig Mor the 4th F40 passed me. I didn’t care. The pain in my hip was intense. I think the sleep deprivation was affecting my ability to handle pain and I couldn’t envision myself finishing in a positive way. I was going to get there though, no matter what. I started to think of something Fiona Rennie (ultra legend, two-time cancer survivor and 15-time WHW finisher) said. “Pain is a luxury of the living”. I thought about my beautiful friend Paula, who after years of struggling with her weight had found running and was completing half marathons, until a niggle in her back turned out to be an aggressive, metastatic breast cancer. She passed away 7 weeks after diagnosis, 5 days before her 39th birthday. I thought if she could see me now she’d kick me up the arse and tell me to get a grip. I ran the rest of the way for her.
Lundavra, the ‘party checkpoint’ finally appeared on the horizon, bonfire burning. Mairi and Juliane met me with my head torch wearing midgie hoods as they were really bad here! Norrie, my friend from Haddington Running Cub was here manning a photo booth, which provided comedy relief for tired minds. A balloon archway framed the route out of the CP and onto the final 7 miles into Fort Bill.
The sun started to set as we headed off on the narrow trail towards the Fire Road. My eyes began to play tricks on me and I saw faces in every rock, and every tree trunk was an animal of some sort in the gloaming. We passed, then were passed by the same pair of runners a couple of times before we eventually lost them on the last climb up to the forest. We could see trails of head torches coming off the Ben (or going up, I couldn’t be sure) as we began the long slog down into Glen Nevis. There were tiny frogs on the track, which I was careful not to step on but it looked like a few had come a cropper from earlier runners. Down, down, down we went, everything hurting in equal measure. I’d taken some paracetamol at Lundavra, which had taken the edge off a little, but I think my body had just got fed up of sending pain signals to a brain that was wilfully ignoring it. Ultra legend Yiannis Kouros insists, “Pain is the reality, but your mind can inspire you past it”. Coming out of Kinlochleven I was convinced that this was utter bollocks. Coming down the Fire Road I wasn’t so sure. It’s frankly amazing what you can put your body through when you have the will to succeed. Bar my limbs falling off I was going to get to bloody Fort William! Sadie asked if I wanted something to eat or drink but I muttered, “No, just want to get to the finish!” My appetite had disappeared and I was surviving on sips of water and Active Root. Eventually the trail flattened out and took us out onto the Glen Nevis Road. Sadie called Mark to let him know we were nearly there. We ran past the old finish at Lochaber Leisure Centre and across the road, finally reaching the finish at the Nevis Centre where Mark, Juliane and Mairi were waiting and cheering. I crossed the line in 23 hours, 13 minutes and 27 seconds, well within my target of 24 hours. To be honest, I didn’t care about time at the finish. In fact the finish line marshal had to remind me to stop my watch! I was more focussed on the fact I’d been able to dig myself out of a massive hole and finish strong and happy! No tears, just smiles.
My crew immediately took over my welfare and I was offered tea and toast by about four different marshals. I joked to one of them that ultras are a bit like childbirth – it hurts for hours, you swear never again, then are offered tea and toast and are so happy you forget about all the pain! I sat down for only the second time in 96 miles trying to take in what had just happened. Then it was time to get to the hotel to get washed and warmed up and in to bed. After only a couple of hour’s kip I woke up with throbbing pain in both legs. I struggled out of bed and lay on the floor with my legs up the wall, but that didn’t help. I slathered Biofreeze on my hips, which barely took the edge off. Eventually I lay on my slightly less sore hip with a pillow between my knees and checked the live results to see how my running buddies were doing. Yan had finished half an hour ahead of me, while Graham was still out on the trail. Eventually I drifted off to sleep after another couple of paracetamol.
Mark and I met Mairi and Juliane for a hearty breakfast in the hotel restaurant the next morning. I still didn’t have much of an appetite, but it was good to get some hot cooked food down me. Then it was off to the prize giving to collect my goblet. I finally saw Yan and Graham, who both looked remarkably fresh. The atmosphere in the Nevis Centre was amazing. Runners and crew, marshals and families, all gathered to celebrate an epic adventure. There were tears and hugs and cheers as each and every finisher walked, staggered and in one case had to be helped up to collect their prized crystal goblet. The final finisher, who arrived only half an hour before the ceremony to rapturous applause, was awarded his goblet by the winner of the race. A wonderful gesture, closing the circle of what is an incredibly inclusive and diverse event. I collected my goblet from John Kynaston (the race team were taking turns to hand them out), which I was really chuffed about, as his podcasts had been absolutely essential in my planning and run up to the race. I cradled it like a newborn baby, feeling welcomed at last into the West Highland Way Race family.
I’ve heard previous runners say that “nothing is ever the same again” after this race and I can understand why. To have toed the line along one of Scotland’s toughest, most beautiful trails, all in one go is truly humbling. There’s definitely a ‘face’ people pull when they ask how far the race was – a mixture of disbelief and wonder. That’s exactly how I feel right now. There is so much more I could say, but I’ve wittered on for long enough. Well, just one more thing… never again!
Yan Horsburgh (Harrier at heart) – 63rd, 22:42:43
Jan Dawson – 75th, 23:13:27
Graham Flockhart – 173rd, 31:41:17
Full results here: https://westhighlandwayrace.org/2019-results