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

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

WHW Race 2011 - Saturday

Travelling North

Despite the late night, I wake up at 4.30am and 6.30am.  Each time my first thought is "where are the runners now?" and my second is "whose race is already over?"

When I wake for the final time at 9.30am, there is a third thought: that there will be no more sleep until at least six on Sunday morning.  I have had many Saturday nights that go on that far, but this may well be the first that doesn't involve alcohol or loud music.

After a disappointing breakfast, I load the car up and get ready to leave.  Mindful of my unexpected detour the previous day - and that I absolutely have to deliver the paperwork to the checkpoint before it opens - I find the sat nav and ask it for a route to Kinlochleven.  And hit my first problem.

The support brief was quite clear that the route away from the start involves turning right out of the car park, then left at the lights.  I watched nearly two hundred vehicles do exactly that earlier this morning.  But the sat nav is adamant that I should go west before the town centre and gets increasingly cross as I try to ignore it and follow the brief.  After ten minutes arguing, I give up and find myself having to do a complicated about turn against the weight of the Saturday morning traffic.

After another ten minutes, I realise why there is a disparity.  Support crews are heading up to the checkpoints at Drymen and Balmaha on the eastern shores of Loch Lomond.  I only need to get onto the A82 which will run up the western shoreline.  Although the recurring signs to Erskine Bridge are disconcerting as I know that will take me south across the Clyde which is definitely not the route north!

In no time I am past Balloch (what on earth is that concrete and wire crown on the roundabout?) and on the same road I crawled up on the day of the Fling.  What a difference.  The threatened rain hasn't descended yet but it's grey and cool (albeit still dry) and the road is much quieter.  From this point onwards I am trying to work out where I am in relation to the runners.  The tail runners might still be on the banks of the loch but the cut-off at Balmaha was hours ago and all the crews should be north by now, even if they're waiting to go into Auchtertyre.

Across the water I can see Conic Hill dipping down to the loch like a sleeping dragon.  This is where the Highlands start for me with the gentle landscape of the central belt giving way to the raw ancient mountains.  Further up, Ben Lomond is tipped in cloud.  It may be the most climbed mountain in Scotland but the views from the summit today will be disappointing.

At the end of Loch Lomond I see my first evidence of the race; "Caution - Runners" signs by the road.  Just like at the Fling, there is a "no parking" sign at the Drovers Inn.  It seems a shame that, for the couple of days a year that there is a major event on the Way, these businesses can't engage with the competitors and their support.  But they obviously feel that the disruption outweighs the benefits of a captive audience of several hundred people.

I am pretty sure that from this point I will be level with the race and probably become a slightly distracted driver by permanently looking off to the side trying to spot my first runners.  It's not until I'm a mile or so from Tyndrum that I spot them.  From there through to Bridge of Orchy I can see them at regular intervals along the path.  They all look to be going well and moving reasonably easily although it's hard to tell at this distance.  They're not the leaders who I suspect will be out on Rannoch Moor by now but they're certainly near the front of the pack.

Also visible along the path are numbers of walkers and the comparison between walkers and runners is significant.  The walkers are covered from neck to wrist to ankle and invariably carrying large packs - the runners have bare legs and arms with small packs on either back or waist.  I wonder who has the greatest doubts about the others' sanity?  Perhaps it's like the difference between motorcyclists and car drivers.

Climbing up to Rannoch Moor, I do what I've never yet done before and pull over at the viewpoint on the A82 that looks out over Loch Tulla to take photos.  The view is spectacular and I've never been able to capture it before.  Unfortunately the photos (along with all the others I took over the weekend) are stuck on my camera as I can't find the cable I need to transfer them to the laptop!

Just before one o'clock, I'm driving past the Glencoe ski centre.  A man is running down the side of the road with race signs in his arms.  I think it's Adrian but I'm not sure.  Although I don't see any runners between here and the foot of the Devil's Staircase, the first and second placed men were battling though here at this time, having left the ski centre only minutes earlier. 

I have a great affection for the Devils.  The name of it was one of the very first things that stuck in my brain when I heard of the WHW and fed my fascination.  Not surprisingly it was also the very first part of the Way that I walked on last November.  It took me an hour - and numerous stops - to get to the top.  How do you run up a hill like that?  Bad enough on fresh legs, but after 76 miles ....?

Through the dark and brooding Glencoe valley, then onto the twisting lochside road to Kinlochleven.  I like this road but some people are going to find it very scary later on, particularly if they travel it for the first time in the rain and darkness.

At the community centre, there are three people sitting on the sofas inside - a young blond couple and a woman with curly hair.  "Race control?" I ask.  Introductions all round, and a certain relief that it seems as though we'll all get on.  Although strangers, we are going to be working together for most of the next twelve hours.

The curly haired woman is Lesley, my fellow marshall.  Rob & Ash are taking the first stint on Race Control and have already been there a few hours.  Race Control is the nerve centre of the day itself, being the central point that all the checkpoints feed data into: capturing times in and out of checkpoints, withdrawals through injury or incapacity, confirming all runners and sweepers are accounted for before closing their station.  If a runner drops off the radar, Race Control also has the task of phoning the contact details of the support crew.  If the support crew can't be contacted, the next call is to the recorded next of kin. 

If runners quit, they (or their crews) are supposed to notify the marshall at the next checkpoint.  It's much easier if it's done this way, then we know exactly who's where on the route.  Just sloping off to the cafe for a hot meal causes us concern - you know you're safe and well, your crew know, but as far as we know you left one checkpoint and didn't make it to the next one.  The sweepers have come in and not seen you, therefore we have to assume that you've gone off the path somewhere and are either ill or injured.  We worry about you.  If you come back next year, please don't do it again.

My intention was to just drop off the paperwork and head round to Fort William to get a few hours rest before coming back for 5.00pm.  Like a lot of the weekend's schedules, it didn't go to plan. 

After twelve hours, there was a lot of information already through from the early checkpoints and I want to find out how people I know are doing.  This is where I find out that Norman has pulled out, and also Marco Consani who was expected to be a strong contender.  Although not fully recovered from the injury that ruled him out of the Fling and with limited training, he was declared fit to run this one.  One day, there just might be a Consani double in the WHW which would be incredible....

We start going through our own list, scoring out all those who have either not started or already pulled out.  This way we will have a clearer indication of who we are/aren't expecting.

Chris Ellis, the Race Doctor, arrives in a van which we help unload.  There is medical kit including copious quantities of bandages and tape, a defibrillator kit and a giant roll of clingfilm.  I mean to ask later what the clingfilm is for but never remember.

The second van load produces three mattresses which are laid out in the sports hall.  There are even pillows and blankets for added comfort.

Finally Chris and Ash walk back to the surgery and carry back the examination table.

Shortly afterwards it starts raining and won't stop until long past dark.  It's several hours later than forecast but it gets here eventually.

Auchtertyre marshalls ring in regularly with updates.  From them we learn that Kate Jenkins is leading the women with Sharon Law about 25 minutes behind, and Debbie Martin-Consani the same again behind her.  Whilst these are exactly the three names I expected, it's still exciting.

The Glencoe team call in and tell us that Riche Cunningham and Jan-Albert Lantink are leading the mens by some distance.  Jan-Albert is about five minutes ahead but seems to be struggling now whilst Richie still looks good.  This is going to be interesting....

Both men left the ski centre just after 12.45 and we start trying to calculate how long it will take to get here.  Although it's "only" ten miles, there is the steep ascent of the Devils Staircase and a tortuous winding descent into Kinlochleven that has destroyed many a runner's quads.  But if they're that close, the temptation to push a little harder may bring their speed up which might bring them into the checkpoint by 2.15pm. 

I was fully resigned to not seeing this part of the race but it seems ridiculous to leave now and not see the battle as it comes past, so I decide to stay a little longer.

While we're waiting an injured runner arrives - I think his name is Jamie.  He has pulled out of the race much earlier but wants to ask the doctor to check his knee.  He tells us he knew that he was injured at Beinglas but foolishly carried on to Auchtertyre.

Around a quarter past two, Richie's support crew arrive.  This is Lucy Colquhoun (a damn good runner in her own right and holder of the women's course record), his girlfriend Helen and a man whose name I don't catch.  Helen looks quite tired but Lucy is bubbly and chatty.  She asks how long we're here for.  "I'm here till five", I tell her, then add the words "tomorrow morning" and her jaw drops. 

I assure her that I am getting a few hours rest before I officially start and, as they don't expect Richie to arrive until 2.40pm, I decide to leave now and miss the leaders arriving.  I know that if I stay, I will be staying and staying and get no opportunity to relax that afternoon.

The final drive into Fort William seems to take forever, mostly due to a dithering driver who seems to think that his car has only two gears and that it's unsafe to take even the gentlest bend at anything more than 15mph.  Not a useful attitude on that winding road...

The hotel is sweet and old-fashioned.  I'm conscious that I'll only be using my room for a few hours this afternoon and then not again until breakfast on the Sunday, so it's arguably an unnecessary indulgence.  But it's my treat to myself - a hot shower and a room to myself are going to be unbeatable.

Just as I'm settling down for an hour or two's cat nap, a diesel engine starts up outside my window followed by a loud bleeping.  I do my best to ignore it ... and fail miserably.  Looking out, there are a team of painters working from a cherry picker.  It looks as though I can kiss goodbye to sleep this afternoon.  Then a worse thought hits me - what if they are also working on the Sunday?

I open the window lean out and call to them.  Yes they're working the next day, what time would I like them to start?  Umm, how about midday....?  They ask if I'm out partying (Fort William doesn't strike me as the sort of place where it's possible to party all night) and I tell them no, I'm spending the night marshalling runners and won't be getting to bed until at least six.  After a string of barely intelligible words delivered in a strong accent - that I take to be casting aspersions on the sanity of people who run 95 miles - they laugh and promise to work on the opposite wall to avoid disturbing me.  And they are  as good as their word and do exactly that.

Kinlochleven - the Saturday night shift

I get back to the checkpoint at about 4.45pm.  I manage to get a car parking space and go inside to get the latest updates.  Richie arrived right on schedule but had overtaken Jan-Albert and moved into the lead by about 5 minutes.  About half a dozen men have been through and I have just missed Kate Jenkins leaving.

The checkpoint is much busier now with most of the parking spots taken, and the inside starting to fill up with crews awaiting their runner.  Marco is sitting on a sofa chatting.  Nearby, a team wearing tshirts branded "Debbie's Angels" have bags of kit spread out on the pool table.

It wouldn't be strictly true to say that we hear Sharon Law before we see her, but she is talking as she comes down the driveway, talks non-stop through the 60 seconds she is in the building and talks as she leaves.  Wearing black knee length socks and black hot pants, looking like she's jogged from the corner and more likely to be heading for a night out on Sauchiehall Street, I am absolutely awestruck.  There is a brief strop that her crew don't have exactly the jacket she wants to take with her (the one they were holding looked red to me, but obviously wasn't the right red one!).  Then like a blonde whirlwind she's gone again, pursuing Kate across the Lairigmor.

Debbie Martin-Consani arrives 20 minutes later.  I think the diplomatic word would be "focussed"; the one I wrote down at the time was "stroppy".  But I did also write a smiley next to it, so it was funny-stroppy not offensive-stroppy.  At that level, isn't it reasonable to expect your support team to be as slick and efficient as an F1 pit crew?  And they clearly loved her and took it to be totally normal.

From five, there is a pretty regular stream of runners into the checkpoint.  Sitting directly opposite the doors, we can see them coming down the driveway which gives us time to get the list and pen and tap the scales into life.  This is necessary but we appreciate it's an interruption for you and we want it to be as quick and smooth as possible.

If Rob's not on the phone, he stands by the door to clap the runner in.  Then Lesley or I take over, asking the runner their number as we guide them to the scales.  Mostly the crews have the weight cards that were completed at the start and Auchtertyre - sometimes they've given them to the runners as they come in - we don't mind who hands it over.  On the scales, write the weight on the card and the checkpoint list, write the time on the sheet, hand back the card, whilst writing we ask if the runner's stopping or "running through".  If they're stopping we ask the crew to let us know when they've left.  Hopefully this takes only a few seconds and we're done with them.

As the night wears on, the process will become much slower as runners stop focussing on times and start thinking only about finishing.  For some, the effort of lifting their feet the inch onto the scales is visibly torture and some have to be reminded to stop leaning on the table for support.  We try to add in a few words of encouragement, or ask how they're getting on.  For some we slow the process right down and try to have a short conversation.  These are the ones whose weight is showing a significant drop or a gain that is outside the range the doctor has given us.  No-one is going to get pulled just because of a weight change but if they're showing any other signs of mental of physical distress, it would be time to ask them to talk to the doctor.  Throughout the night, everyone passes these tests.

There's a clear pattern that peoples' weights were down at Auchtertyre but are now showing as higher.  Initially we put this down to the fact that they are now waterlogged from the rain and undoubtedly wearing more layers of clothing.  But as the night wears on, we realise that there must be a difference in the calibration of the two sets of scales.  We are using the same set that were used at registration and we only use that value as our reference point.

Race Control spend some time tracking down "lost" runners.  Some of the data from the early checkpoints is inconsistent.  Sometimes runners don't appear at all in a checkpoint's returns and then show up at a later point.  Fiona Rennie's times seem to be missing and there is a possibility that she has been timed out at a check point.  A brave man to try and tell her she's out of the race....  The four of us debate what would happen if a runner refused to quit and carried on going after being timed out.  Strictly speaking the sweepers should ignore them, but could you really abandon a fellow runner like that?

Dr Chris is called out to support the local mountain rescue team.  A climber has hurt his knee and needs bringing down.  During the rescue, one of the team hurts his back so the doctor ends up with two casualties.  Neither are serious, although the climber will be heading towards the nearest hospital by ambulance.  The hospital is 30 minutes away in Fort William.  The second nearest is Paisley, south of the Clyde.  The back injury will probably create more paperwork: most mountain rescue teams are made up of self-employed individuals such as farmers, fisherman, etc.  If they can't work due to injury, they have no income and the police (who technically control them) will have to compensate them for their losses.

Mike Raffan's team are here for ages and discussing penguin suits.  Brewdog, who sponsor Mike, gave them a load of goodies which apparently includes two penguin suits.  It seems perfectly reasonable that two of the team should put them on and run in with Mike to the finish line....  The Lairigmor is notorious for runners hallucinating strange things but I doubt anyone has seen giant penguins in Fort Williams before.  I don't know if they actually did it but I'd love to see the photos...

We ask all the runners (or their crews) to let us know when they leave.  Not everybody does and it's frustrating.  It doesn't take more than a few seconds and it's for your own benefit.

For the early arrivals who stay only a few minutes, if at all, it's not so much of an issue.  But as time goes by, knowing if you left after five minutes or an hour can be important if you get lost.  It gives the rescue teams, your support crew and the sweepers a range to work in.  Even on battered legs, you can get a long way in an hour.  On a cold and wet night, an hour might make the distance between someone finding you before you get hypothermia.

We get the call we've been waiting for from Ian in Fort William.  Richie has won for the second year in a row and everyone's delighted.  Jan-Albert is second and only eight minutes behind him.  Apparently Richie overtook him going up the Devil's Staircase but there were never more than a few minutes between them all the way home.

Twitter has rumours that Kate has finished but it doesn't make sense as the time would be impossible.  We wonder if it actually means that she has finished running and pulled out (she was unhappy even at KLL).  Eventually we get the news that she has retained her first place amongst the ladies, although Sharon had caught up to three minutes.  (On the Sunday I am told that she did want to quit at Lundavra but her support team persuaded her to continue.  Good decision, if it's true).

We get asked so many times about the finishers that we eventually beg paper and blu-tack from the office and put up a sign over our table "Richie Cunningham 1st place 16.24".

This prevents a number of questions but also causes another issue.  From almost the time I arrived, support crews have been asking if their runner will be allowed a support runner.  No, not until 18.40 which is four hours from Richie's arrival here as first runner.  In fact, we have already created a sign stating this.  But now, the news of his victory prompts my first and only bad experience of a support team member.  He is adamant that, as Richie has won and "the race is over", his runner should be allowed to take a support runner.  Unfortunately, this isn't how the four "officials" here interpret the rules and he's not happy and keeps coming back to try to convince us to see things his way.  He's never rude but it's irritating.

As the evening wears on, the runners look weaker and weaker as they arrive.  Support crews start sporting midgie nets and everyone is more bedraggled. 

Keith arrives about a quarter to eight looking slightly better than he did at the end of the Fling but not much.  Before he can be weighed he vanishes into the toilets and stays there for some time.  When he finally does emerge, he produces a weight card that looks as though it has been for a swim and is practically disintegrating.

Sandra McDougall's support team arrive.  I've seen Susan at both Scotland 2 Sahara and the Fling and ask her how Sandra's getting on.  Predictably she is absolutely loving it and really happy.  But the expected time passes and she doesn't arrive.  The dark haired man in her team changes into running gear and starts going out to look for her but comes back empty handed several times.

Katrina Kynaston arrives looking tired and drawn.  For John to make any of his race targets, he should have been here hours ago; the fact that he's not implies that things are not going to plan.  At one point, I see her sat in the car, resting her head on the steering wheel as if she's trying to catch up on some sleep.

Sandra's supporter comes back in and asks if the doctor has any compression bandages, as she's hurt her ankles and will need treatment.  No, but he has tubigrip.  Sandra hobbles in at ten to nine and announces that "my ankles feel like they've been smashed with a sledge hammer".  I decide to ignore her request below for me to "slap her and introduce myself" and let her become the doctor's first real patient.

Whilst she's being treated, John Kynaston arrives.  "You must be Julie" he declares and hugs me "it's great to meet you".  Blimey.  After 80 miles I wouldn't recognise my own mother, never mind a stranger.  He also needs to see the doctor, "something for my heels" which I assume is due to running in new shoes.  Although clearly tired, he's laughing and joking with us, telling us about being needing an urgent loo break only to be passed by a female runner who tells her crew at the next stop that she's just seen "more of John Kynaston than I really wanted to".  His crew buy him (and them) fish and chips and there are more jokes about the diet of athletes.  At no time would I have guessed what an utterly horrendous race he was having, and one that was only going to get worse.  See here for the details.

At 9.20 we get our first retiree - Stan Bland - and Lesley cuts off his wristband.  Once we've managed to find a pair of scissors that is.

Throughout the night we have only three withdrawals at our checkpoint.  I don't know if anyone pulled out later but I think it probably proves that if you can make it to us, you will make it to the finish line.  You may well walk or crawl but you'll make it.

The second withdrawal is a youngish man who tells me he's quitting, he can't keep anything down and promptly bolts to the toilets.   The fact that he continues vomiting long after he's stopped running concerns the doctor more than anything else that night.  There is a lengthy period of treatment and observation both in the sports hall and then in the surgery over the road.  Eventually he is allowed to leave with his support, although a blood sample has been taken for follow up.  We hear later that, although he seemed well in the car home to the Borders, he then collapsed and was taken to the local hospital for observation. 

The flow of runners starts to slow as darkness finally starts to arrive.

A woman asks me what to say to motivate her husband who is running.  I haven't the heart to tell her I've never been in that situation and try and remember all the good things I've read on the forum, but without knowing her or her husband it's a little difficult to decide whether to emphasise "ttfu" or more gentle forms of persuasion.

A woman in Mark Moore's support crew tells me that three of them have come over from New Zealand for the race.  Mark had to complete an 85k race to qualify for the WHW and as soon as he did, he was emailing Stan as he was so eager to take part.  Now he is saying "never again"...  His back has been rubbed raw by his pack and the doctor provides the three nurses in the support team with the materials to patch him up.

Pauline Walker leaves around half eleven wearing a fluorescent green and orange Carnegie top, turquoise trousers, orange leggings and floral socks.  It's a dazzling sight...

The runners start taking longer and longer breaks at the checkpoint, with some opting for short breaks on the mattresses, first 5 minutes, then 10, then 30 ....  Most years at least one person opts to sleep through the few hours of darkness but not this year.

The midges have found their way into the hall but the spray I bought seems to be working and nothing's bitten me yet.  However just as I'm congratulating myself on this, a corps of them decide to commit suicide by flying down my throat and attempting to choke me to death. 

Just after one, Lesley leaves for the night.  Rob and Ash finished at around eleven and handed over to Graham who will be there to the end (and then go on to the finish and help there).  Instead of counting numbers arrived, we're now down to counting who's left.  The Glencoe checkpoint closed at midnight so anyone left is within ten miles of us.

Shortly after this, John Maclean almost reduces me to tears by thanking me, saying "it's a wonderful thing you're all doing, giving up your night like this for us".  He has been travelling for 24 hours but still has the courtesy and composure to say something like this.

Still they come, some hobbling shells of people, others still bright eyed and cheerful.  For these runners, the only race is against themselves.  Finishing the course within the thirty five hours is their only objective.  The doctor is kept busy with treating blisters and general sore feet, but there are no significant injuries.  The rain has been a mixed blessing, keeping the trails soft and forgiving, but also soaking shoes and socks and adding to the strain the feet have to undergo.

By ten past three, the sky is lightening and I'm waiting for only nine runners, including the two sweepers.  My back aches and my legs are tired (it's been a long time since I was able to occupy one of the chairs in the centre as they're full of crews and runners) but I'm wide awake.  I've had only a few cups of coffee and no red bull or pro-plus; it's the adrenaline and joy of the event that's keeping me going.

Fiona Rennie arrives at half three, declaring herself to be sick of chocolate.  Whilst she's in the hall, she never quite stands still, flexing her hips and bending her knees whilst eating from a saucepan.

At ten to four, the last of the runners I'm looking out for, Karin McKendrick, arrives.  She greets me with a hug, looking grey with exhaustion but still determined.

Thirty minutes later, the sweepers arrive with the last two runners.  This nearly didn't happen as one of them decided to nip into their support vehicle at the bottom of the Devils for a cup of tea.  Sweeping the route is one thing ... checking the occupants of parked vehicles is not in the job description.  If the sweepers had gone past, it wouldn't have been until Kinlochleven that we could have identified a missing runner and the sweepers would have had to backtrack to hunt for him.

The girl's feet are sore and the doctor does one last duty of strapping them up to provide a little extra cushioning.

George and Karen look tired but ready to finish the final section.  Usually sweepers just cover sections of the course but, this year, it was difficult to recruit a sweep team and they agreed to do the full route as well as being competitors.  So they have spent the last 80 miles running at paces they would never normally do, either trudging to accompany the back runners or racing to catch up after each retiral.

But just before five, they're out the door with their charges and heading for the finish line.  There is one final mini-drama when we realise that the boy's support team have left their vehicle parked in the school car park which we need to lock up.  The contact list gets used for the final time as we call the driver back to move it outside the gate and then we're done.

The doctor needs to drop off Kirstie, the centre manager, at her home.  She wasn't able to get any other staff to provide cover so she's been here since 11am on Saturday morning.  That's longer than any of the race team but she says she doesn't mind - she's got loads of work done and will be able to trade the hours for additional time off in lieu, that she will spend with her kids in the summer.

Graham and I follow the doctor to his house where he makes us breakfast.  He sniffs the coffee as he puts it on the kitchen table and warns it may be a bit strong.  I take one sip and immediately feel as though I won't sleep for a week!  Perhaps we should get Dr Chris handing out coffee at the checkpoint....

It's full daylight and the sun is shining.  Loch Leven looks like a mirror, with a perfect still reflection of the hills around it.  There are rabbits running across the road by the metal bridge and I have to brake several times.

I'm following Graham to the leisure centre to hand back the scales.  I ought to know where it is but I've never been before and my brain is now fuzzy from lack of sleep and I'm happy to have a navigator.

At the door of the leisure centre, Ian is greeting every finisher home, before they go inside to be weighed and have their photograph taken.  There is a giant bottle of whiskey on the counter.

I'm there a few minutes and see two runners come home.  I saw them hours ago in the darkness at KLL but I can't remember their names.  It's past seven on the Sunday morning and they've taken over 30 hours to get here, but they have made it.

And finally I make it back to my hotel, and try to rest while my body fights between being wide awake and desperately tired.

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