I have given a full blow-by-blow race report on John Kynaston’s final podcast; you can find it here.
I completed the 96mile race in 33hrs and 5mins. I am under no assumptions, my finishing was part of a team effort. Without my crew, Neil Scott, Kristin and Jason Main, Susan Barley and my husband Max Holloway I could still be out there somewhere! I cannot thank each of them enough for helping me accomplish this goal, all were absolute heroes. Thank you also to everyone who supported me in the lead up including my family, but also a huge thank you to Liz Bennett. Liz sponsored me, keeping me injury free through my training and had my legs feeling their absolute best come race day. Thank you to the race organisers, volunteers, medics, marshels and supporters. You put on an immense race in every sense. I entered the race to understand myself better, to know how I would react come second sunset, and when the nausea and sleep deprivation hit. Here are some of my insights (the take away parts are in bold) as a first time West Highland Way Race runner and first time running an ultra distance past 53miles.
It was the first time I did not have any nerves before a race. It was too big to comprehend, so I did not try. As we ran out under the arch with the high street lined with supporters I welled up and almost started crying right then!
Getting to the start line in a state to run the race was a greater challenge than the race itself. For 8 months I had to will myself to train consistently, to get the big days in and know when to hold back to prevent injury. Fear of injury and illness is huge. The week before the race I had a final massage with Liz and my legs felt amazing, but then I came down with 2 colds and stomach flu. It was hit and miss if I would start. Thankfully a lot of Vicks Vapor Rub and bed rest saw me to the start line, but not without a cost, I was wiped out.
Now on the other side of the race, I can confidently say that anyone who can run a challenging 50miler can, if they wanted to, run 100miles. And if you can run a 5 hour road marathon, you can run a challenging 50miler. My training averaged 30miles per week, 80% of which was done as walk commutes. My largest week was 60miles. I did manage one marathon, one 34miler and one 53miler in the build up.
Darkness part 1
It turns out that I do not cope well running in the dark. The sky still had light in it and the moon was bright. The combined light of everyone’s head torches lit the way so running was not treacherous. It was beautiful. But as the field thinned out I felt isolated and the darkness got me down. It was so early in the race and I was feeling very low.
Before embarking on a race that requires you to run straight through 2 consecutive nights, I advise that you run through a night in training. I put this aspect of my training off, happily listening to anyone who told me that I did not need to do a night run. In reality I was scared. As a woman who has grown up in cities, I have been socialized to fear night and fear darkness, especially alone.
The mental and emotional toll of running through a night was not lost on me. I felt acutely the sleep deprivation and ache in my legs and actively pushed the panic out of my mind. A big surprise was the clouded mind and nausea from lack of sleep passed by the time I was on the low road (how much fun is running on the low road! Love it!!) and I was fine through the next day. I am sure sleep deprivation was a contributing factor to my physical and mental exhaustion, however, it never felt again like it did after the first night. Even after the race, sleep deprivation did not appear to be an issue, maybe adrenaline and happiness at finishing kept me buzzing!
If possible do bank sleep in the 2 weeks prior to racing and reduce your stress levels. I tapered physically, but not in any other way until the week prior and so when I stopped, I got sick. If possible try keep stress minimal at work in the lead up.
Not a bigger Fling
A lot of people told me, it is just a Fling with a 42 mile walk at the end. This is not true! The first 53miles may be the Fling course, but it is not a Fling. Mentally it is an entirely different fish.
The first obvious difference is the atmosphere at the start. It is charged tense and focused, and this carried on through the 1st night and into the next day. There is no dancing and singing on the start line. Everyone stood silent, first in honor of Don Ritchie, and then stealing themselves for the race to begin. We ran in near silence through the night and by dawn I was alone. I ran a lot by myself in the first half of the race. The second and biggest difference is, obviously, the finish. The finish is not in Tyndrum! In the Fling when you reach Beinglas Farm you are nearly there and can realx in the knowledge you will make it. However, in this race Beinglas is just the beginning, a warm up, easing you into the race itself, as really, it has barely begun. And finally, to add, you have not slept for an entire night.
I did not let myself think beyond the next checkpoint. This is the single best advice I was given and the best advice I can give in return. Focus only on the next checkpoint, never more.
The fear of time
I loved the challenge, the unrelenting hours of onward focus, but the stress of cutoffs is hard. There was no time to let up or rest until I reached Kinlochelven, having to chase the cut offs at nearly every checkpoint. As I passed the 1st marathon mark I was still feeling low and wondering why I was running this thing. Then I realised I was 30mins down on time. If I carried on at this rate I would be timed out at 42miles. This knowledge hit me square in the chest and the weight of how much finishing this race meant to me propelled me on. I could not let Max and Neil down; they had been awake all night too! I banished feeling sorry for myself, put my iPod on and ran! Luckily, on the low road I met Karen, another runner and she pushed me on when I slowed and together we scrambled and weaved our way along the loch side well inside the cutoff.
The race is not measured in distance. Do not dwell on how far you have come, or how far is left to go. Just focus on how long to the next checkpoint before it is too late. The race is measured in hours… you calculate distance in time. Another thing to note, I began to dillydally once I was well within the cutoffs as the pressure was off. Prepare for this in advance and keep pushing on.
4.5 hours to Balmaha…. 2 hours to Rowedennen…. 2 hours to Inversanid… 3 hours to Beinlglas… 3 hours to Auchetyre… 1 hour to Tyndrum…. 2.5 hours to Bridge of Orchy… 3.5 hours to Glencoe… 4 hours to Kinlochleven…. Rest here til sunrise – 1.5 hours…. 6 hours to the Fort William.
Counting and the Rannoch Moor
I was afraid I would leave this race with a dislike of the Rannoch Moor, which would have made me regret the race. My favorite day in my life so far, was crossing Rannoch Moor the first time. Max and I walked the West Highland Way in 2016, a belated honeymoon/escape from recent horrors of writing our PhDs. The weather clear over the moor with a storm on the snow capped mountains surrounding us. You could see only moor for miles. It was the first time either of us had been this secluded from humans. I had never seen a landscape like it. On Baa Bridge, Max and I made a promise.
Once the sense of perplexion of Jelly Baby Hill had subsided, a feeling of nausea and general awfulness crashed through me. Thankfully, I had a WHWrace finisher crewing me. I asked Sue if I would feel like this for the rest of the race and she reassured me it would pass, it would just come in waves from now on. I was also with my best friend’s husband who was in awe of the Moor, it was great to listen to his exclamations of how beautiful it was. My crew came up with a run-walk strategy of 30seconds on / 30seconds off and we would walk the up hills, picking off runners in front.
An excellent piece of advice gleamed from John’s podcast was; if in a negative place, aim for a neutral place, not a positive one, as the jump is too great. John suggested counting as a strategy. At the time I thought this was ridiculous. I was caught in a negative mind loop and my mind needed a new loop, a neutral one that cost me nothing emotionally. I began counting my footsteps. Counting to 20 was too difficult as the teens are two syllabled so do not fit in time with my cadence. So I would count to ten on one foot and then on the other. On the Moor I did this non-stop for hours.
In this way we made it over the moor in my predicted time and arrived at Glencoe at 10.30pm. Getting over the moor took everything mentally; having Max at the checkpoints and not with me gave me the extra incentive to push on. I wanted to see him desperately. On my arrival, straight into his arms I was overcome with emotion and had to sit and sob for a few minutes to the distress of my crew. I reassured them I was fine, I just needed to get it out. I could not hold myself together if I held this in.
Darkness part 2
Somewhere on the ascent of the Devil’s staircase my mind snapped. My last rational thought was reflecting on the myths of drunken miners falling to their deaths as they made the treacherous journey from the nearest bar at the Kings house on Rannoch Moor, back to their homes in Kinlochleven. Having made this climb three times before with relative ease, it was not until now, in darkness, that I appreciated its name.
Unlike the first night, there was no light in the sky. The only light was from our own head torches and those few bobbing around somewhere ahead of us. As the staircase ascended deeper into the cloud, visibility even with torches dropped. On the summit I text Max to let him know we are at the top and found I had no signal. For the first time in the race, I could not contact Max and, looking back, this may have been the trigger to my mental breakdown. As the race progressed, physical pain melted away and I now had little feeling or awareness of my body and struggled to read its needs. The most dire of which was that I could not tell if I was thirsty and an extreme paranoia gripped me that I was over drinking. My mouth completely dry, I tried to refuse myself water. When I did drink I instantly needed to go to the toilet and the panic deepened.
Neil and I skirted the mountainside towards Kinlochleven. I could not feel my body, did not know where I was and could not see anything not in the direct beam of Neil’s amazing torch. I could not ground myself in reality and my mind snapped, with my body somewhere to my left walking onwards purposely, as it had been ordered to. I must find light again. At some point I realized I could use my voice as an anchor to reality, but I was unsure of what I was saying and very aware of that. I asked Neil to tell me stories as I could not cope anymore. He talked about his family and mutual friends and races and it helped take my mind somewhere other than where it was drifting. Eventually, we made it to the medical centre. Runners were lying on mattresses with ice strapped to them and in a terrible state. I sat on a mattress crying, trying to explain that the reason I was upset was because I was scared of the dark and I could not tell if I was thirsty, to the bemused look of the medical team. Max surrounded my mattress with food options – cereal, milk, porridge, pasta… I had stopped eating at Tyndrum and managed only the milk. I refused to leave until the sun was up. The darkness, an absolute terror, no one could make me face again.
When you have nothing left, but must find more
The Lairig Mhor and fire road were a relentless torture and I look back on this section as my only regret as I did not handle this well. I had given up and was simply carrying on as there was really nowhere else to go. Max tried to comfort me by telling me it was just 10km left. I sobbed while my body continued to hike. I could not do 10km, but I must. Even now, I feel a distrust of stones, I was sick of staring at the rocky paths.
I finished relatively unemotional; I was a bit confused if honest. My entire crew plus some friends ran the last few hundred metres with me. I could not work out where the finish was and had to be guided by them. I was convinced I had to touch a door, but could not see one. I was done. That was all I was aware of.
Have a plan agreed with your crew about what to do upon finishing. We had not discussed this and I was in no state to know what I wanted or needed. Though I did know I desperately needed a shower.
This has been the greatest surprise. So far, other than pressure pain in my feet and some nerve pain in my toes, I am fine. The worst thing right now is my midge bites. I think I have finished weeks working in London in a worse state than finishing this race (though work is slightly less traumatizing).
Listen to your body, the fatigue is like a deep bruise and rises gradually to the surface. The soft tissue on my feet is still tender and, in the first couple days, I could not tolerate standing for longer than 10 minutes at a time. I am very glad for the week off work as I doubt I would have managed the commute.
At the prize giving, a friend asked me how my race was and I answered in all honesty, it was a horrendous nightmare. However, I am still as much in love with the West Highland Way as I was before, probably more, and I will be back walking it again next year, or maybe even sooner… a little voice is suggesting midwinter?
Letters of Inspiration.
I want to write a separate section to thank those who wrote letters to me. Max and Neil were reading them to me during dark points in the race. At these times I was often unreachable and sentences no longer connected to each other, but the words came through. I read them all again once I had finished and was overwhelmed with what was written. Thank you. Thank you for your love and support. Until I read these letters and saw the encouragement in texts and on my social media platforms I had no idea how this race would reach so many people. I cannot describe how motivating and lifting this was in my lowest and darkest moments in the second night. I cannot thank you all enough. I love you all.