As many of you already know my West Highland Way Race (WHWR) ended after 75 miles instead of the full 95 miles. The reason for withdrawing from the race at that point was due to being too cold with 6 layers on at the time and both my knees being in agony.
Although this is only 4 days ago I have questioned the decision to withdraw several times. I do though frequently forget that I do very easily get affected by cold as has been shown in the past where I had to withdraw from triathlons due to the water temperatures. So looking back, the decision was the right one to take. Any withdrawal from a race will leave doubts. The thing I and the team can do though is learn from the experience and put systems in place to overcome these issues should they arise during the WHWR in 2013.
The race started at 1am on Saturday, June 23. We registered just after 9pm and then returned to the Travelodge at Braehead for a bit of a pre-race rest. We returned to Milngavie just after midnight, caught up with some of the other runners including Donald, Tony, Caroline, Alexia and the Shanks’.
The forecast for the race was for rain, lots of rain, with a weather warning out for the early hours of Saturday morning. During the race briefing all was calm (no rain). Sean Stone, the race safety officer, uttered his famous words “weather, there will some”. How right he turned out to be!
Milngavie-Balmaha (19 miles – 3:20 hrs – 24th)
1am: The hooter went and we were off, all 172 of us. The crowds in Milngavie town centre were fantastic cheering us on as we headed to the start of the West Highland Way proper. It was quite warm and no rain, 20 minutes later though the heavens opened, easy at first but getting heavier and heavier.
Because of the relative warmth I had opted to start the race in shorts (and calf guards), t-shirt, arm warmers and my light Montane Marathon wind/rainproof jacket. I was also wearing a cap and my headtorch. When we were packing I asked Fiona (Support Crew #1) for her clear glasses which she uses for cycling “just in case it rains”. They turned out to be great for running in the night.
Early on I was running with a guy who thought we were running at 8min/mile pace. Not according to my watch we weren’t. I was sitting around 5:55 min/km which I was more than comfortable with and was around 50 secs per km slower than our starting pace at the Highland Fling.
I settled in with a group of 7-10 people as we headed past the Beach Tree Inn (fantastic crowd support there too at 2am). The rain was very heavy now and we were running through lots of big puddles. I gradually made my way to the front of the group as I am not very good sitting on people’s feet in the night – I prefer to see a bit further ahead of me (or as far as my head torch reaches in this case). The guy setting the pace though suited me fine so I stayed behind him (it was Tony). We hit the road section going towards Drymen – running through rivers which were either going along or across the road. I laughed at the absurdity of the situation. It was nice to have a bit of chat and banter at that time of the night. I let Tony go though as I preferred to walk the steeper bits of the road. Through Drymen with no issues and another great crowd of people cheering us on. I could start to see a glimmer of light on the horizon and from reports I knew that depending on the weather it could be very light at Drymen already. Not today though. It took until the top of Conic Hill until I switched my headtorch off (so around 1 hour after Drymen).
Soon after Drymen though I was starting to feel wet and cold. I thought this was odd as my Montane has been a good companion in the past keeping me dry and warm. I initially put it off to me sweating too much and kept going. A bit later I realised that the waterproofing really wasn’t doing its job and I was getting seriously cold. So half way through the forest before Conic Hill I decided to put my 2nd waterproof on (a Quechua that I bought in Decathlon less than 18 hours ago). I struggled with my cold hands to open the clips to my Salomon backpack and was getting increasingly frustrated with myself. It was far too early in the race to get frustrated. Anyway waterproof on and on I went. 10-15 min later the Quechua was doing its job. Thanks to Fiona and Trevor (support crew #2) for getting me to buy the Quechua , it turned out to be a real blessing and most likely one of the main reason for me getting as far as I did. Without it I may have retired much earlier.
Onwards and over Conic Hill which was ridiculous and funny. I felt pretty good actually as I was getting reasonably warm and it was getting light, but both the access and the ascent were so unbelievably wet with rivers coming down towards you and no escape route. Just before I went over the top I had a glance back. The long stream of headtorches coming towards Conic Hill in the morning light was beautiful. The rain had eased and I knew the checkpoint wasn’t far. Looking forward to a nice coffee, I dashed down the hill (against sensible advice) slipped once, making a muddy mess of one of my left side but no damage done.
I reached Balmaha around 30 min behind schedule. Fiona, Sue and Trevor were there and hustled me through quickly as planned. Quick coffee and a biscuit and I was on my way again. I was in great spirits at that point which is quite surprising as I was nearly ready to chuck the whole thing in 60 min earlier.
Balmaha-Beinglas (41 miles – 8:13hrs – 26th)
Next stop would be Rowardennan. The rain was holding off for now. I’d overtaken Tony while in the checkpoint. He caught me again and we ran along the side of Loch Lomond together for a bit until after one of the climbs he eased for a food stop and I went on (this would be the last I would see of Tony as he repassed my during my stop at Rowardennan and went on to finish his first WHWR in a stunning 19:40 hrs and 9th place – congratulations). Balmaha to Rowardennan took me 2 hours. There was no rain. I absolutely enjoyed running along there in the early hours of Saturday morning and although the cloud was down the views were atmospheric and nice. I was running well, all was good. What was more I was making up time. I got into Rowardennan and was now only 10 min behind schedule. I did surprise my support crew a bit as they were expecting me somewhat later. Nonetheless, had a coffee again and a maple pecan plait and changed my t-shirt. Fiona walked down the road with me until I had finished eating and off I went. The next time I would see them would be in Auchtertyre (23 miles later).
After Rowardennan the race started getting lonely. I didn’t see anyone until I got to the Inversnaid Hotel where 2 marshals were manning the drop bags. I grabbed a bottle of water and kept going. I dealt with the section running into Inversnaid much better than I had during the Fling even though the rain had started again and reached Inversnaid in 6:15hrs. Just after Inversnaid I passed a guy who was struggling with his knees and had resigned himself to running little bits and walking lots. I would see him again later.
My knees had started hurting before Inversnaid. Going through the rocky section after Inversnaid they were getting worse. I also didn’t seem to be concentrating very well on where I was putting my feet as I constantly seemed to hit my toes, knees or shin on rocks and trees. I was getting very frustrated and annoyed with myself. I had to calm down! A few runners caught up with me and I let them pass so that I could walk myself back to a better mental state. The state of my knees though wasn’t helping as the pain was getting worse. Time for painkillers. Stopped to get them out of the back pack … but where were they? Nowhere to be found in any of the pockets!!! (they were happily lying on the coffee table when we got home). Backpack back on and grind it out. I did previously have a brief episode of taking my waterproof off because I thought I was too hot only to put it on again 10 minutes later!?!?
Beinglas-Auchtertyre (50 miles – 10:42hrs – 38th)
Finally past the end of Loch Lomond though and going up past Dario’s post and down to Beinglas Farm I felt a bit better although based on my conversation at the checkpoint there with John Kynaston not by much as it went something like this: “How are you doing Karl”; “Not great, going through one of my low points I guess”; “Remember, low points don’t last forever”. I was hoping this one would be over soon. I was now close to 1 hour behind schedule and plodded on into the rain and wind. Very few of the sections that I wanted to run did I actually run. The knees ground me to a halt more than once. I had a brief chat with another runner heading towards Crianlarich.
When going through the railway underpass at Crainlarich I bumped my head on the ceiling of the underpass. Ouch! I had enough! Not just was I stubbing my toes on anything and everything because I wasn’t running properly which was causing shooting pains through my body but the underpass had conspired against me too.
Coming up to Glen Bogle a few runners ran/walked past me. Brief hellos/how are you’s were shared. The forest between Glen Bogle and the road crossing before Auchtertyre was torture as it is littered with steep descents which my knees did not take lightly to. When I got to the A82 crossing I had to stand around for a few minutes due to heavy traffic. Steve (or who I thought was Steve) caught up with me at this point and asked if I had been waiting long; I jokingly said “half an hour”. I must have been in better spirits as I was nearing Auchtertyre which meant seeing the support crew who were ready with warm food and drink and clothes. (Steve sadly withdrew from the race at Auchtertyre)
I was over an hour behind schedule now. You will notice that I am still talking about the same schedule (a 20 hour one). I was unable to take my mind away from this and reset my targets. Until I withdrew from the race my brain was working on the same schedule. I had written others but couldn’t start thinking about them.
When I got into Auchtertyre, Sue whizzed me off to get weighed first (a requirement by the organisers to make sure we remain healthy). I’d only lost 0.2kg. Then I told my support crew that the stop would take as long as it takes as I needed to warm up. I had coffee, bouillon and pasta and then changed all my clothes including shoes and socks. I also finally got some paracetamol and took 2 caffeine tablets.
Auchtertyre-Bridge of Orchy (59 miles – 13:20hrs – 40th)
I still wasn’t in good spirits when I left Auchtertyre but the support team had done a sterling job in getting me back on the road. Fiona walked down the road with me for a few minutes before I started running again.
Did you see what I did there! I said running and running I did. Went under the A82, opened up my stride length and ran along the river at a nice pace. All the way into Tyndrum I felt great, my spirits went through the roof. It lasted until just after Tyndrum, so not even 5km. By the time I walked up the hill out of Tyndrum, the knee pain was back. At least I had wits enough and devised a plan to get to Bridge of Orchy. I’d run for 1 minute and walk for one minute. I could just about stand one minute running on the knees. I got into Bridge of Orchy not feeling too bad as I remarkably had covered Auchtertyre to Bridge of Orchy just outside the 20 hour split for that section which surprised all of us. I had more hot drink at Bridge of Orchy, added more layers to my upper body clothing (on the way to Bridge of Orchy I had put my waterproof trousers on too) and ate a Scotch egg. I was in quite a good mood at that point. I asked Fiona what time schedule I am likely to be on now. The reply was around 24 hours. I think that crushed me although not immediately.
Bridge of Orchy-Glencoe Ski Centre (70 miles – 16:52hrs – 58th)
Off I went again up the steep climb from Bridge of Orchy. The support crew kindly said they would meet me again at the Inverarnan Hotel (not a planned stop) which I was really looking forward too. Had a brief chat with Murdo McEwan on the top of the climb who seemed to camp out there to meet any of us coming through (great chap!) and ran/walked back down to see the team. More hot drinks and biscuits and Fiona kindly walked with me again a bit while I was heading on my way out. There were still concerns of me being warm enough.
The Drovers road from the Inverarnan Hotel to the Glencoe Ski Centre is long and never ending. It climbs gradually and after every bend there is a bit more of it. With the climbing nature of it my 1:1 run/walk was doomed. I very quickly became disillusioned about the whole event even though the rain had stopped and the sun was making an appearance.
I am not a good walker at the best of times, I don’t really like walking as I am slow at it. Going over Rannoch Moor I had a regular stream of runners walking past me. Somehow I wanted someone to talk to even though I wasn’t in the mood for talking. Halfway along Rannoch Moor I appeared to fall asleep a few times which took me by surprise. I was getting colder.
Just before the Glencoe Ski Centre Donald came past me and I hinted that I was thinking of withdrawing. Donald said: “you can’t withdraw now that you have come this far, only 20 miles left!” It gave me food for thought. I had already been doing my calculations. I had been out there for 16 hours at that point and it was looking unlikely that I would be running much if any more so it could be another 10 hours before I reached the finish. I was cold and about to head for the 2 highest points of the course with the night closing in. It didn’t sound like a good prospect. (Donald finished in over 27 hours, having gone through what sounded like hell during the 2nd night)
Fiona came out to meet me as I was on my way into the Glencoe Ski Centre. I wasn’t very chatty even though she did her best to cheer me up a bit. I let the team know what my thoughts were about continuing and in the end we decided to try and warm me up once more, Fiona would join me, Sue and Trevor would drive down to the foot of the Devil’s staircase. Essentially if I had warmed up I would continue, if not I would retire. There was genuine concern about me going hypothermic as I hadn’t arrived at any checkpoint warm.
I got fully changed again, had some hot food and Trevor put some Kineseo tape on my knees. Fiona and I left on a slow walk (we met Caroline McKay on the way out who also was struggling with cold but was able to continue and finish). Fiona tried to get me to run a bit, I could do this for 30 second intervals but nothing that was generating any body heat and the same has to be said for my walking. When we got to the foot of the Devil’s Staircase I was still cold. I was wearing six layers on my upper body at the time including 2 jackets and a thermal layer and 2 layers on my legs one of which was thermal.
I retired from the race!
I’d completed 75 miles and run for 18.5 hours. It is longest I have ever run both in terms of time and distance.
We drove back to the Glencoe Ski Centre to formally retire and then to the Inchree Centre where we had booked a room for the night to get hot food and a hot shower.
We went along to the prize giving the next day to congratulate those 119 who had managed to complete the course in extremely trying conditions. 53 runners withdrew from the race, one of the highest numbers experienced over the past years, amazingly on the other hand the winner – Terry Conway – this year ran a new course record.
As I said at the start I intend to tick this race off as a learning experience.
Since the race I have said that I have never run in conditions like this but this is not entirely true. I have, often. It is what winter training is made of. But those runs last 2-3 hours, then you jump in the shower so running in shorts, t-shirt and a lightweight waterproof and wet trainers is OK. I have never spent 18+ hours “running” in those conditions and with that I made some wrong decisions along the way. I think looking back I needed to make sure that I dressed warmer earlier. What I wasn’t realising soon enough though was how cold I was getting. My thought are that the cold started creeping into me from the first 2 hours onwards when my Montane jacket failed and I never 100 % recovered from that.
Now the knees are an altogether different question. Why did they start hurting? I ran the Highland Fling a few weeks earlier with no issues. Same course (lower half as far as Tyndrum), same route, different weather. Knees started hurting just after half way of the Fling route. Is the weather or the wet feet to blame for this? The knee issue is partly to blame for the cold later as I didn’t generate enough body heat.
My mental attitude during this race was definitely a problem as I was very negative and everything frustrated me. I do have to say that this is rather unusual for me and wonder if in part this has to do with tiredness and being cold again. I completed Double Enduroman UK in 2010 with my first low point coming after 26 hours of racing. Here it came after 2 hours. What a difference! I will have to look at the days before the race too. I was hugely nervous from nearly 10 days out, hadn’t slept enough and was rather busy with work all of which may have compounded to some negativity. Strangely though I was very calm on the Friday before the race.
Finally, re-evaluating my targets and accepting that walking isn’t that bad. I should have done this much sooner than Bridge of Orchy as that may have improved my mood a bit.
My support crew were fantastic, keeping a good balance of keeping me fed and warm but also trying to keep me moving. To my surprise all three of them said they enjoyed it and would come and support me again! Nutters, lovely ones 😉
Final conclusions: Did I enjoy it: No! Will I do it again: Yes!
Thank you to the race organisers, marshals, support crews, other runners and anyone who helped. The race is a challenge for all involved. Hope to see lots of you on the start line in 2013 and more importantly at the finish.