An ordinary woman's fascination with an extraordinary sport ... and the extraordinary people who take part

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Highland Fling - part 2

I knew it would be an infuriating drive to Tyndrum.  There are no roads up the eastern side of Loch Lomond and the only options are a long loop to the east and then north, or heading around the loch and up the main road along the western shore.  Judging by the state of the car park, there was going to be a lot of traffic on the roads - for gods sake, was half of glasgow out in the countryside?  Why couldn't they do proper bank holiday weekend things - like going to B&Q?

In Cornwall they call them grockles.  I'm sure there is a very expressive Scottish word meaning the same thing but I don't know what it is!  For anyone not familiar with the word, it means tourists who either can't or won't drive properly on the local roads and assume that the rest of the world is quite happy to sit behind them while they pootle along at a snail's pace, admiring the view ... and ignoring the queue of irate locals behind them.

Whatever the local terminology is, they were out in force on Saturday.  At one point the traffic actually came to a complete halt as I turned onto the A82.  I was quite prepared to abandon the whole idea and head home but it would have taken so long to be able to turn around, I just accepted that I would carry on crawling north.  Had I known Loch Lomond was a full 24 miles long, I may have reconsidered...

But in fits and starts we made our way up the loch shore, and I could almost forgive the grockles their distractions. 

I don't where I'd read it but there had been a quote in the run-up to the race along the lines of "if anyone thinks the stretch alongside Loch Lomond is flat, think again.  It's not."  That kept going through my mind as I peered across the water trying to pick out the path on the eastern shore, or a glimpse of runners.

What also crossed my mind was how scary it must be to be driving these roads for the first time as a support crew on the WHWR in June.  Although you would be several hours into the race and travelling in daylight, support crews are likely to have been awake since before midnight (assuming they got any sleep in the evening), tired, stressed and, north of Tarbet, on very narrow roads between rockfaces and water.  And doesn't that road go on for ever - again and again, you think you can see the head of the loch but it's yet another headland with yet more water beyond it.

But finally the loch ends and the road starts pulling upwards into the hills.  Past the Drovers Inn with its big sign "No Montane Highland Fling parking" on the side of a car (presumably an "official" sign with the logo and branding?).

Up to Crianlarich, trying to spot where the route crosses the road, then west up into Tyndrum ... which is even busier than Balmaha, with even a motorbike rally apparently taking place outside the Green Welly.

Somehow I find a parking space, even better one in the shade and consider what I'm going to do now I'm here.  It's just after a quarter to two, I don't expect the first finishers to be here until at least three and I'm hungry, having eaten all my pack-up on Conic Hill and expecting to be home by now.

I also have the problem that I don't know where the finish is.  I know where the WHW goes north from here but I don't know where it comes in from the south.  I remember something from the web site about the race finishing slightly shorter than in previous years but hadn't paid that much attention as I wasn't planning on being here.

So I decide to walk to where I know the WHW is, try and find the southern route from there and follow it until I find the race finish, which I'm expecting is populated by now at least.  Then I can come back into the village and get some food before going back in an hour.  Good plan.

The hiking boots came off at Balmaha and I now have a pair of ballet flats on.  Great shoes for driving in but possibly not the best footwear for exploring the WHW....  Actually it's pretty easy to find as it is straight across from the village shop but it picks its way across a rocky stream bed quite quickly - that must be an interesting run when it's rained.  Even though it's dry today, it's not comfortable in shoes with thin soles.

Up onto Station Road and this is clearly the race finish line.  There are rows of drop bags laid out by the hostel, trestle tables laid out with boxes on them and a handful of men endeavouring to put up the inflatable finish arch.  They're not doing too well as it keeps falling lopsidedly across the road.

I can't get past easily and I'm always amused by watching man v machine so I stop and wait for them to win the battle.  Two women are stuffing bags at the end of the tables;I'm trying not to get in anyone's way as other people move rubbish skips, mini trailers, etc.

Never wise to stand still next to busy women for too long...

"Would you like to give us a hand?" says one. 

I've never been good at saying no and I find myself helping with bags.  These are the runners' goody bags which need to be prepped up with a number of vouchers from race sponsors and leaflets.  There is also pink champagne to go in each bag but the bottles will stay in their boxes for the moment for safety.  Big boxes of t-shirts are stacked along the tables, but as we don't know what size any runner will want, they can't go in the bags.

The three of us get quite a good production line going and chat as we work.  Both are clearly old hands at this, although one is a little bemused that her husband has nominated her as race photographer and entrusted her with a strange, very expensive looking camera that's sitting on a tripod across the road.

They introduce themselves as Muriel and Katrina, but it's not until Katrina mentions that she has run with Silke on the Way that I realise she is John Kynaston's wife (his blog has mentioned this a few times, saying how proud he is of her and her newly discovered enjoyment of running - she doesn't read it, she says).  They also lived in Leicester for some years (which is my home town) and we spend some minutes comparing locations.  What a small world....

We're joined by some more people; a woman and her young daughter and a blond man who would be running but is injured.  Time flies as the bags get filled and packed into empty boxes.  The medals are located and unpacked, with the girl allocated the responsibility of bestowing them on each finisher.

Incredibly the first runners are expected to arrive about 2.45pm.  I start trying to work out what that means in terms of a course record, obviously forgetting that the women started two hours prior to the elite men.

Faintly I can hear a piper playing but it's not until much later that I realise that he is a part of the race, standing a few hundred yards from the finish to encourage the runners.

Murdo (the race organiser) is getting radio updates from further along the course.  And almost on the dot of three, the news comes through that the first runner is close by.  Four minutes past the hour, the watchers on the final bend start clapping and the first runner arrives, clapped and cheered home.

Surprisingly to me (though maybe not to everyone else) it's a woman.  I don't recognise her but it's Kate Jenkins who strode past me hours earlier.  She's not striding now; her gait is a painful jog, face flushed and contorted in pain, clothes soaked in sweat and looking half the size she was earlier.  She also looks ready to collapse and, once across the line, is half carried onto a bench in the shade of the building.

There's a cry for water but I don't have any.  There's a big bin full of ice (and bottles of beer???) at the end of the table though, and I scoop a cupful into a paper cup and hand it over.  A few minutes later, a large butt of water is placed on the central table - it's too hot to risk not having this for any future arrivals.  Although drinking too much is frequently a greater threat to endurance athletes than too little, it's unseasonably hot today and any runner completing the course is likely to be hot and dehydrated.

Only a few minutes later, the news comes through that the first of the men are on their way.  As the clapping starts at the bend I look down the road, expecting to see Jez and am completely stunned to see someone else.  What's more he's positively sprinting up the slope, looking like he's run half a mile at an easy pace, not 53 miles in a new course record.  This is amazing - he even manages to smile and raise his arms for the camera.  

Only a few minutes later Jez arrives, looking equally unexerted.  He's broken his record - as generally expected - but Andrew James has beaten him and brought the new course record down to 7 hours 12 minutes.

There's a lull now and the next runner doesn't arrive for twenty five minutes.  Debbie Martin-Consani takes the women's second place, only weeks after representing Scotland in the 100k championship, to be greeted by her husband Marco (who was forced to withdraw ahead of the race due to injury) and young son, before flopping onto the grass just past the line.  She looks utterly exhausted and I don't think she moves for some time.  I also find myself wondering how she's coped as a pale skinned redhead in the heat and sunshine.

From then on, there seems to be a steady stream of finishers in varying states of exhilaration or exhaustion.  One runner, dressed in orange kit, leans onto the fence by us and doesn't move for fifteen minutes.  I'm not sure whether to be worried about him or not but there are now lots of supporters, families and runners around who would surely recognise trouble, he's still on his feet.

We're developing a steady rhythm for handing out medals, bags, t-shirts, water and/or beer with a whole group of children now competing to greet every finisher.  Muriel is taking photographs and Katrina holding the timing chip that registers each runner finishing.  My back is starting to ache from lifting boxes of champagne but I can't stop smiling.  Whilst some of the runners are incapable of speech, without fail all the others are polite and thank us for everything.  I try to congratulate everyone as I give them their bag and champagne and many of them seem stunned to be told "well done".

As more and more runners arrive, the finishing area fills up with them, their supporters and members of the relay teams who have run the earlier legs and are now waiting for their teams to complete the last stage.  Without fail every runner gets a resounding cheer and round of applause.  I realise that the smallest cheer was probably for the winners and I'm struggling to think of any other sport where this would apply.

Keith arrives at half six with glazed eyes looking catatonic.  This truly shocks me.  This is the man who decided last June to run, with George Reid, from Fort William to the start of the WHW race and then run the race itself.  They didn't quite make the full southbound trip but still completed 163 miles in not much over 2 days.  And he looks this bad after only 53 miles in eleven and a half hours?  But he disappears for a few minutes, re-appears in fresh clothes and looks much better.

Some of the runners look as if they would struggle to remember their own names and we frequently have to help them take off their timing chips as the velcro buckle is beyond their mental capacity.  One slightly plump male runner (I think he was part of a relay team) has a serious case of joggers nipple and two large scarlet bloodstains on his white t-shirt.  A few are non-finishers who took heavy falls in the race and had to drop out; Sandra McDougall and Sharon Law are amongst these and are now limping round the finish area.  A runner had to be airlifted from one of the checkpoints with a suspected heart attack (he's since been given the all clear). 

A man hands me a grey jacket and buff. A woman runner gave it to him at Carmyle Cottage; he doesn't know who she is but he said he'd bring it to the finish for her. An hour or two later a woman asks me if we have a lost property box as she gave her jacket to someone earlier and, although she doesn't hold out much hope, wonders if he's handed it in. She can't even remember what he looks like but is utterly stunned when I hand her the jacket she gave to a complete stranger hours earlier. But a young man who's lost his phone on the trail isn't so lucky.

At the height of the chaos, a woman comes to the table saying she wants to get her car down the road and how can she get through all these people? I assume she's a part of the race and tell her she'll have to wait until we've finished at 9pm, didn't she read the instructions on the website about NOT bringing cars along the road?  What website, she says and it eventually registers that she's a member of the public and we are technically blocking a public highway. There's no-one around to ask and I don't know what to do. I can't expect her to wait hours for us so tell her to go and get the car and please be careful as she drives down. Fortunately by the time she gets back to the crowd, the young blond man from earlier is around and he can walk in front of the car, shepherding runners and other bodies off the tarmac. I also yell at a few people - all those years of bar work have some advantages in learning how to raise your voice!

The young girl's mother brings me a cup of strong coffee from the hostel and I tell her I love her.  It's good and the caffeine kick is what I need.  I may not have been running but, other than the hour in the car, I've been on my feet since 7am, my legs are aching and I'm getting tired.

At half seven, the prizes are awarded and there is more cheering.  By now the sun is dropping and the temperature with it, but it seems almost everyone is still here.  Runners are still arriving although much more infrequently now.

Keith appears again and asks if I can give him a lift home.  He has a lift with a friend but Ian lives in Polmont and it will save him an unnecessary 40 mile trip if he doesn't have to come into Edinburgh.

By about half eight, there is little happening and someone offers to take over the bags.  I go over to tell Murdo I'm leaving and thank him for a great day.  You've got a bottle of champagne haven't you, he says, and a t-shirt?  Woohoo, bonus!

We set off slowly up the road to the car.  Apparently the Real Food Cafe does the best chips ever but the queue is massive so we decide to stop in Callendar instead.  Keith stops to talk to the Jim's who are veterans and legends of the WHW.  What can you say about a man of 78 finishing his 12th race....?

I'm too tired to overtake any slow vehicles as we head east and the chips are just what is needed.  It's nearly eleven when I drop Keith off; he can't decide whether to brave a cold bath or have a hot shower.  He texts me later to say he went for the hot shower; he's also weighed in and has lost 5kg in the day.

They're all mad.  But I think I almost understand why they do this.

I had a great day.  I'd like to do it again sometime.



  1. What a refreshing read! The WHW from a "normal" persons point of view. But you know that you will never be normal again, you are now a nutter by association.
    See you in June and thanks for the shout on Conic hill.
    Fiona x

  2. Hi Julie

    What a great blog! Glad you've enjoyed supporting and I look forward to seeing you in Kinlochleven!

    Do you mind if I add your blog to our whw blog list? I know a lot of people will enjoy reading this.


    PS thanks for your guess.

  3. John I'd be honoured. Those blogs have been completely fascinating to me over the last year.

    See you in two weeks...