TIME: 24 Hours 55 Minutes
OVERALL : 81/159 finishers (40 DNF)
GENDER: 12/30 females
I reckon it’s true what people say that making it to the start line of any race is an achievement in itself and I felt that way more than usual when I finally found myself at the start line of the epic West Highland Way Race.
It has been quite a journey, even to this point. After entering the ballot I was disappointed when I didn’t get a place. However, I was quite high on the reserve list and just managed to sneak into the start list. I considered myself incredibly lucky and was excited and nervous to be a part of this iconic race. Training started well, 2 good months of training at the beginning of the year. Then it went downhill! Injury struck… bloody achilles! I couldn’t do anything at all for a fews weeks and didn’t run for almost 6 weeks… which really worried me.
Anyway fast forward a few months and here I was. I had arrived in Milgavie late afternoon and checked straight into the hotel for some sleep. Sleep that never came. Unbelievable considering I can sleep anywhere at any time normally! I laid around for as long as I could stand before heading some some food at around 7.30pm. I managed to force something down, but had no appetite at all. I then made the short journey to registration. I was handed my race number, timing chip and goodie bag. I was also issued with the all important weigh in card and my start weight was recorded. I then went back to the hotel to try and calm myself down, sort my pack and get into my kit. After far too much faffing around I applied plenty of sport shield everywhere and covered myself in smidge. Got dressed and then Ryan drove me to the start. I arrived at around 12.15am ready for the 1am start time. Absolutely full of nerves. I met a few familiar faces who all seemed just as nervous and excited as me. I tried to soak up the atmosphere and quietly contemplated the journey ahead of me.
After several toilet stops and the race briefing, we were lined up and ready to go. I was waved off by OH Ryan and friend Sinead who were 2/3 of my amazing support crew. Glenn was the third member of the gang and due to join me at mile 51. They wished me luck and I said I’d try my best not to let them down. I couldn’t believe I was here and what I was about it do. I couldn’t run around the block five years ago and would have never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d be standing here. At the start I stood with Iona Mackay, who I’d met at the Fling and knew through Twitter. It was her first time at the distance too. We chatted and waited for the countdown and then we were off. It was 1am and a steady stream of headtorches ran under the railway bridge and along Milngavie high street to the official start of the West Highland Way. This was it.. a little over 95 miles between me and the finish line. Iona and I stuck together and continued chatting as we followed the runners in front. And then less than 2 miles into the race… we’d gone the wrong way!!!!!!! On the VERY well signed posted WHW… not the best start! This meant we were now practically at the back of the field! As I started chatted to everyone around I noticed Iona had ran ahead. She went on to have an absolutely amazing race. I chatted to Karen Wallace for a while, who I’d also met at the Fling. Karen is to date the most glamorous ultra runner I’ve ever met and an all round lovely lady!
Milngavie – CP1 Balmaha (19 miles – 3 hours 33 minutes – 104th position)
The start of the race is very runnable, good tracks and reasonably flat. However, I needed to keep a sensible pace. I ran a lot of this section alone. I chatted to people along the way but wanted to keep to my own pace, my own plan. 5-6 miles into race I didn’t feel great. I concluded my body probably wondered what the hell was going on. I had awful pins and needles and felt sick. I stopped to loosen my trainers which seemed to help with the pins and needles but the sickness just kept getting worse. I was still managing to drink my tailwind and snacked on a few things. By mile 1o this had all made a reappearance!!! This was not good, not so early on. I tried to focus on getting to the CP and seeing Ryan and Sinead. As I ran through Drymen, there were lots of supporters which lifted my spirits. I got my first sight of Loch Lomond as the sun was coming up. A beautiful moment. As I approached Conic Hill I felt a bit better and had managed to eat some flapjack which for now had stayed put. I passed lots of people up Conic, knowing they’d probably fly past me on the down hill! I took my time and was careful with footing on the downhill. I caught back up with Karen, she’d also been feeling quite sick. We ran smiling and chatting into the CP together where Ryan and Sinead greeted me with a huge smile and a hug. They told me I was right on schedule with the plan / times I’d given them. It was great to see them, a real boost. They fed me and filled my bladder, I had a wee stop and then sent on my way with only 8 miles to go until I’d see them again.
Balmaha – Rowardennan (27 miles – 5 hours 12 minutes – 93rd position)
After leaving the CP, I felt good and food was staying down. After a few lovely miles… the midges started to appear and then they go worse and worse and WORSE! I have never experienced anything like it! When I arrived at the CP Ryan and Sinead were covered head to toe with their midgey head nets on on. I couldn’t even think about spending time in the CP, it was just horrendous. Ryan checked my bladder, shouted at me for not drinking enough and then tried to offer me food. I could’t stand it… the midges were EVERYWHERE! They sprayed more smidge and I had to get going. As a result I realised a mile down the road I hadn’t picked up my head net or any food! I had a mini meltdown and the tears came. At this point Karen appeared, she gave me a hug, put some of her energy gels in my pack and told me everything would be fine and I’d feel better soon. As I said lovely lady. I though the only option was to get the music on and try to power through the next section…. although probably easier said than done as I knew what was coming!
Rowardennan – Beinglas Farm (41 miles – 9 hours 1 minute – 90th position)
I knew this was going to be a long section, not only because I had 14 miles until I’d see my crew again but this section also included the dreaded scrambling bit on the loch side after Iversnaid. The first few miles of this section were awful, I had midges in my mouth, up my nose, in my ears and covering every section of my body, including in my underwear, god knows how they got in there! My mind started to play tricks on me, this in the grand scheme of things was a minor issue but in my mind it felt horrendous! All the midges in Scotland were conspiring against me! I still not sure why I felt so rough so early on but I guess thats ultras for you. Anyway, music on, head down and off I went. I was glad to arrive at Iversnaid to be met by Trossachs Search and Rescue Team who had brought a massive fan…. genius as I could escape the midges for a while! Which by the way were still awful! I remember asking one of the search and rescue team if they midges would stop soon, he just smiled and patted my arm. I took that as a no. I met up with Karen again at the checkpoint and we ran together through most of the next section, both agreeing that we hated this bit. It was nice to have the company and the tricky section was over in no time! By the time I got towards Beinglas, I was feeling good and on the final few miles before the checkpoint, the midges has finally started to subside. The sun was shining, music was on and I was happy. I sang my way into the checkpoint to be welcomed by Ryan and Sinead who’d set up a comfy seat and prepared some tomato soup! They both agreed I seemed much happier. I decided to tend to my feet here, I’d been feeling a hot spot for quite some time now. Sure enough as I took off my beloved hoka’s I had a juicy blister on my big toe. Other than that feet were in good shape. I decided to pop the blister…. which accidentally popped all over Ryan oops! Made me and most other people laugh… Ryan not so much. Fresh socks, refuelled, pack topped up and I was ready to take on the next 10 miles.
Beinglas Farm – Auchtertyre (51 miles – 11 hours 33 minutes – 89th position)
Having ran this section in the Fling twice before, it’s normally the final stretch! And I did have a mild panic at the fact I wasn’t even half way in to today’s adventure!!!!! STOP IT Emma…. checkpoint to checkpoint, that’s all! The section is all fairly runable, just a bit up and down. I managed to keep a reasonable pace as I sang along to my music. I started seeing lots of walkers who gave cheers and encouragement. The sun was beaming down on me and I was starting to feel the heat. I’m a ginge – sunshine doesn’t like me! I passed the infamous ‘cow poo alley’ which was the driest I had ever seen it! I was quite glad to get to the shade of the trees before Crainlarich. I know this section as ‘the rollercoaster’ as many refer to it in the Fling, quite simply because it’s very up and down, descents can be quite steep and my goodness me didn’t I know it. This is the first time I started to feel real pain. My hips and knees were agony on the downhill and I had slowed down significantly. I knew I was slightly behind my plan by now. Eventually the welcome sight of the A82 meaning not far to go! I should have been excited by now as I knew I’d be seeing Glenn for the first time at this checkpoint and I could also have a pacer from this point. However, I was hot and I hurt and just wanted to sit down. As I approached the checkpoint, I almost missed poor Glenn who was cheering me in. I think my face told a story. I was grumpy. Sorry crew.
I was ushered in, got weighed and then taken over to the car to sit down. Sinead covered me in sun lotion whilst Glenn and Ryan sorted my pack. They were offering me a massive variety of food… none of which I wanted. Sinead put her foot down and insisted I eat something. I reluctantly accepted a pot of jelly, which I actually really enjoyed. I also managed a flapjack… go me!
I was getting far to comfy and had spent quite a lot of time here, so it was time to get shifting. Quick loo stop and we were away. Both Ryan and Glenn were running with me. Ryan just to Tyndrum and Glenn would now run the remainder of the race with me.
Auchtertyre – Bridge of Orchy (61 miles – 14 hours 13 minutes – 86th position)
After a mile of running with the boys my mood had improved and I was delighted to have them with me! I knew this section was fairly flat and runable so no excuses. As we passed through Tyndrum, I thought back to the Fling – the sound of the pipers and the sight of that red carpet. Not today, just loads of lovely people cheering us on. Ryan left us shortly after that and we pushed on. Lots of chit chat meant the miles and time passed quickly and I noticed we passed a few people. I felt a bit tired but on the whole good. It was at this point I passed the furthest distance I’d ever ran before… 65 miles. That was also a huge boost and in no time at all we arrived in Bridge of Orchy. I LOVE the next section of the race. Sinead and Ryan were once again amazing, everything was set up in the shade waiting for me. They also told me I’d made good time and back on plan! I managed to stuff down some food and they filled my pack full of things to munch. To my delight I finally felt a little hungry and was managing to eat a few bits. Again Ryan ran out of the checkpoint with us and then back to Sinead to meet us at the next checkpoint.
Bridge of Orchy – Glencoe (71 miles – 16 hours 55 minutes – 80th position)
As we left the checkpoint, we started to climb up towards Jelly Baby Hill and I really love this section of the race. The views at the top are just stunning. By now I was really feeling the heat. Thank god mammy Sinead had applied more sunscreen. The guys at the top of Jelly Baby Hill were just amazing and gave me a real boost. I took my jelly baby and off we went. Glenn ran ahead to get a few snaps and we both soaked up the beautiful views. We steadily made our way along, running most of the way. Glenn really helped push me along and to my surprise we passed a few people. I felt pretty good. I was drinking and eating well as we ran across Rannoch Moor. I started to feel really quite hungry and was fantasising about chips. Glenn tried to call ahead to the crew and put in my order. However, no signal. I was willing Ryan to read my mind and get me chips! I just wanted CHIPS!!! I could see a red dot in the distance running towards us… it was Ryan, he’d come to meet us! But he didn;t bring chips! ‘t course I was chuffed to see him but what about MY CHIPS?!
Ryan said he’d been surprised to see us at this point so soon! He felt we’d made good time and I still looked to be moving well. I did feel surprisingly ok. Very slow but definitely still jogging. I think the first thing I said to Ryan when I saw him was I NEED CHIPS. He was pleased I actually wanted food rather than been force fed. He rang ahead to Sinead to place my order for chips with salt and LOADS of vinegar. Now if that didn’t push me on, nothing would. Trying to forget the heat, I focussed on my chips. And then we were there and so were my chips! I can honestly say these were the best thing I have ever tasted. I sat in my comfy blue chair, scoffing them like someone was going to steal them from me. My crew gently reminded me I still needed to run 25 miles and not to get too comfy! I didn’t care I was happy! After eating, I decided I also needed a change of outfit! It was a tough choice as it was still hot but I knew over the next section it would start to cool down. I decided on a cool long sleeve top, clean skort and my old hokas, which are soooooo comfy! It’s amazing what a bit of food and change of clothes can do for a girl. On this section, Glenn was going to get some rest and Ryan was going to run with me. He’d never run Devils staircase and his excitement and enthusiasm was quite infectious!
Glencoe – Kinlochleven (81 miles – 20 hours 14 minutes – 86th position)
With a full belly I decided I’d walk a little bit and plus I’d been at the checkpoint for AGES so needed to get my legs moving again. We walked along and Ryan told me how proud he was of me. I felt quite emotional. When I met Ryan three and a half years ago, I had never run a marathon and honestly didn’t believe I could. Ryan has always believed in me and encouraged me to push myself and see what’s possible. Sorry for the mushy stuff ! Just to balance things out I also think he’s a bit of a shit for contributing to the loss of my toenails!
We chatted away for a while and then Ryan told me it was time to get running again. As we made our way towards Devils Staircase, I was still managing to jog but was walking bits too. I was hurting and to be honest a little anxious about what was to come. Getting up Devils Staircase was one thing… it was getting down that worried me. As we approached the bottom of the staircase Ryan went ahead and I powered through. We made it to the top in quite good time and again were spoilt with amazing views. My legs really were feeling dead. They were beyond heavy and my hips and knees were sore. I really struggled on the descent into Kinlochleven. It’s tricky and I was tripping over everything, including my own feet. For the first time I felt really tired, as in sleepy tired. My eyes started to feel blurry making it even more difficult to deal with the rough terrain. I guess not altogether surprising given that I hadn’t slept since Thursday night and it was now well into Saturday evening! Downhill should have been easy but I actually think it was harder than uphill! As for the final section of the descent into Kinlochleven… it’s just cruel and feels like it’s never going to end.
Eventually we arrived at the checkpoint to be welcomed by my amazing crew and a couple of other familiar faces. The lovely Lucja (@Runningdutchie ) and Rhianon (@rhianonruns) who gave big hugs and smiles. I apologised for the smelly, sweaty hug but had been glad to see them. They took a few photos and agreed Ryan looked more tired that I did (although I think they were probably just been nice and trying to make me feel better). The checkpoint was indoor and I managed to get a toilet stop and a hot drink. Sinead topped up my pack and made sure I had everything I needed for the final section. As I’d been stood still for a while and been inside I started to feel the cold and put my jacket on. I was also well prepared with my midge net as I’d been warned by midges, although thankfully they stayed away! Probably still full from snacking on me earlier!
Kinlochleven – Fort William (96 miles – 24 hours 55 minutes – 81st position)
This was it the final stretch! I was back with Glenn and Ryan was going to drive to FW and then jog along to meet us. The climb back out of KLL was tough but I knew once this climb was done, it was relatively runnable from here to the finish. Well relatively runnable on any other day that it. As I reached the top of the climb, I could see the endless undulating path that stood between me and FW. The section is rocky but nothing too tricky, however today I was continuously tripping over and kicking rocks. Glenn chatted away to me and I’m sure my replies probably made no sense. By now I was mostly walking with as much jogging as I could. We passed a few people along the way, who were all hurting as much as me. It was at this point I realised yes it hurt but no matter what I would finish the West Highland Way Race.
The dark started to creep in so the head torch was back out. I kept looking down at my watch and was convinced we should be at Lundavra by now. I saw some light ahead and assumed we’d made it. Instead just a lovely couple handing out drinks. They’d lit up the whole path and had every kind of drink you could imagine. Glenn and I drank some orange fanta and then started hobbling down the path. Before long, there was a head torch in the distance coming towards us, Ryan had arrived to run the last section with me. He assured me that it wasn’t far to Lundavra now. I asked that he and Glenn run ahead to sort out my pack as I didn’t want to stop. I knew I needed to keep going as getting started again was becoming almost impossible. As I ran through there was loud music and lots a cheers, a real boost. I got a hug from Sinead, thanked the marshals and away we were. I munched on salt and vinegar crisps which went down surprisingly well. Ryan and Glenn went ahead and I followed, jogging whenever I could. It was nice to listen to them chat… I really was too tired to talk but just listening was a nice distraction. After a few more inclines, we were at the point where the descent into FW started. I remember the path, a longggggg downhill, but a fire road, so nothing to trip over. I told them I would run this bit and sure enough I did, almost all of it actually. It hurt like hell and every time my foot hit the ground, I winced but I didn’t care. I was almost there.
As we made our way through Braveheart Car Park I could have literally burst with excitement. We were on the tarmac and the lights of FW were just ahead. I told Glenn and Ryan to run ahead and get some photos of me finishing which they duly did. There were a few people about congratulating me as I ran along the tarmac. I started to well up, I couldn’t believe I was doing this and then I ran as quick as I could over the finished line with the biggest smile ever. The tears came, the emotion was overwhelming. I hugged everyone and saved the biggest hugs of all for my crew. They were amazing and I can’t thank them enough for helping get me through.
My plan before the race had been to finish between 24 and 26 hours. I secretly hoped for sub 24 but knew this would be a hard reach. So to finish right in the middle of my planned time on my first race at this distance I am incredibly proud of myself. It’s took a while to write about my journey and had I done so a few weeks ago, I would have said NEVER AGAIN! However…. I’m now planning a return and trying for sub 24! I’ve learnt lots along the way and the things that I’ll remember for next time are 1) don’t faff about the checkpoints, I reckon I lost several hours sitting around for too long! 2) don’t set off quite so conservatively – everything will hurt eventually anyway so run as you feel. The main thing that will be different next time is experience, a great thing to have onside.
For anyone thinking about doing it – GO FOR IT! It is a fantastic, well organised event. A life changing experience in my opinion 🙂