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

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Wettest West Highland Way

What a weekend....

Unlike last year, I'd known for months that I was marshalling this year's WHW race.  Early in the year, Sean put out his usual call for "volunteers" and sounded pleasantly surprised when I jumped at the chance of being at Kinlochleven again.  Midge central, the longest checkpoint shift ... but from my point of view, the most time to actually see the race come through and past, to watch rather than be frantically busy, time to talk to support crews if not the runners themselves.  Being indoors with access to proper toilets and hot water is also a plus, I find...

In the days running up to the race, the British summer was in full flow.  Quite literally.  As usual, the declaration in deepest southern England of drought conditions and hosepipe bans prompted the heavens to open and torrential rain to ensue.  Scotland seemed to be doing a little better - more than once I found myself leaving Edinburgh airport in bare legs and sunglasses only to arrive in Hampshire sodden and shivering.  I'm half-Scottish now; I really should know better.

In the run-up, the Facebook group page exploded as bored runners tried to fill their taper hours with something other than psychosomatic injuries and frantic list-writing.  Have I done enough?  Should I go for one last long run?  What's this pain in my foot?  How do you keep your feet dry in the rain?

And sadly, the last few names were scored off the start list.  How agonising to have to pull out only a day or two before the start.

John K and I spoke briefly on the Wednesday about the checkpoint and we agreed to change the time process slightly for Kinlochleven, as opposed to earlier checkpoints, to ensure we captured the departure time of runners.  Just in case...

And then ...


A day off work and a chance to pack bags and make sure I have everything I need for the checkpoint - pens, highlighters, scissors, food, small clock, change of clothes, midge repellent.  Midge repellent!  I bought some last year and used it on WHW and the Devils races - it worked superbly, at least on the bits of skin I remembered to apply it to - and I know there's plenty left in the bottle.  But I can't find it anywhere.  I practically demolish the spare room in trying to find it but it's gone to that place where the "other" odd socks go.  A flying trip to the nearest outdoors store where there is the choice of some feeble looking wrist and ankles bands or a bottle of Deet.  I lie to the assistant about having used Deet before in other countries and being fully aware of its lethality and safe use.

There is another slight hiccup to the days plans, although not mine.  All the goody bags and merchandise are at Run & Become's store in the West End of Edinburgh to be collected by van today.  Unfortunately some builders working on a neighbouring property choose today to discover a WW11 cache of grenade and ammunition and the entire area is sealed off.  Immutable Chinese whispers have turned "grenade" into "bomb" and I become quite nervous to calculate that this is only a few hundred yards away from me.  The situation is not helped when the heavy rain turns into thunder....

I'm not going to the start this year.  I don't have accommodation booked and I'm still tired from work.  Better to get fully prepared here and head across country on the Saturday morning to pick the route up at Crianlarich.

But FB and Twitter are starting to fill up with excited updates as runners and support crews gather.  The Red Wine Runner (supporting Mrs Shanksi this year) is travelling back from Poland and only landing in Edinburgh on the Friday evening.  Cutting it fine.  But even that is surpassed by the support runner for Keith Hughes who is flying in from Perth (... yes, the one in Western Australia!) on the Friday afternoon, running the later sections with him before returning to Amsterdam on the Sunday afternoon.  Unless aliens are planning on joining a future WHW race, there won't be a longer trip to take part than that one...

I'm not going to Milngavie.  I'm not.

Until about half-ten when I go "F*** it, I'm going".  It's only about fifty-odd miles.  Each way.

So I find myself hurtling down the M8, knowing that I'm going to get lost when I turn off the motorway, that the patches of bright sky that still shine in this last hour before midnight are going to disappear behind clouds very soon, and that I really can't bear not to see the race start.

At Milngavie, the station car park is as packed as ever; cars, vans and motorhomes squeezed into every available parking space and more besides.  I can spot the beautiful vintage VW motorhome of Martin Hooper as I walk up to registration.

It's past midnight and technically registration (in a different and much larger room than last year) is over, but there are still plenty of people milling about, chatting, using the toilets.  I'm greeted by John K with a hug and the words "I thought you weren't coming here?"  I will hear this several more times tonight...

Davie Hall is also here and warns me that the A82 lochside road will be busier than usual as the heavy rain has caused another landslip at the Rest and Be Thankful on the A83, resulting in all traffic being diverted past Loch Lomond.  As always I'm struck by how many people are working here - registration, goodie bags, merchandise, checkpoint packs, safety teams - all people that the runners will only notice if their jobs are done poorly or not at all.  Sean spots me and I find myself agreeing to take scales and timing sheets up to KLL on Saturday - which now means I have an earlier deadline for leaving home after a later night...

Andy strolls in looking entirely cool in sweatshirt and cut-off denims.  I don't think my description of him as my "normal runner" can last much longer and I don't expect to see him at my checkpoint as he should be through whilst I'm trying to rest in Fort William.

Down in the car park there are so many familiar faces.  Last year I knew only two people - only one of which will be here tonight - yet this year, every few moments there is another person greeting me by name with hugs and cheery words.  How the world changes in a short twelve months...

This year I'm close enough to hear Sean's safety briefing clearly.  The infamous line "there will be weather" has never been more apt.  Although dry now, the forecast is for unremitting rain and showers throughout Saturday.  There are very few bare legs or arms on display already.  The Carnegie girls - Fiona, Pauline and Sue - are wearing ponchos over their bright running clothes.  Tim is even more basic, keeping dry under a black bin bag.

Briefings over and more last minute greetings.  Sandra introduces me to her crew of Joopsy, Susan and son Stephen.  (We have a friendly contest scheduled around wearing heels for the Sunday night party, the choice of which is causing me much anguish.)  Antonia looks like an overexcited schoolgirl who can't wait to get going and asks me take a photo of her and her crew.  Dave, Lee, Wee Hannah and Mason, this year supporting Martin Hooper and big David Ross on his first WHW race.  Lucy supporting Richie as he attempts a third successive victory and already in possession of a cow bell to send the runners off in a cacophony of noise.  The Shanksi's down from Stonehaven with RWR and her boyfriend Kynon.  Carrie, finally making the start line after two previous years of injury.  Probably many more whose names have now blurred from my mind.  So many people and all of a sudden it's barely a minute to one and I need to be by the underpass.  I want to see the runners set off towards me, rather than looking down on them from the grassy bank.

Walking through the underpass and the sudden ridiculous thought that this is the one and only time I will ever pass through there at a race start with the likes of Richie and Mike Raffan and Andy behind me.

There are clusters of people up the steps, at the top of the ascent and even within the underpass - I hope they can run quickly when it starts but Sean walks through clearing the way, making sure everyone understands that the runners route needs to be entirely clear.

Countdown starts, the tension peaks, then the night explodes with the klaxon and cowbells, and 172 runners - silhouettes against the underpass lighting and their headlights - charge towards me, up the steps and off into the night.

Five minutes later it's raining again.


I collect the scales and paperwork - a brief moment of confusion about whether or not there should be a list of runner's names and numbers - and marvel again how rapidly the car park can empty of vehicles.  Heading east in the now heavy rain, the M8 is thick with fog that wasn't there only a few hours before.

Once home, I'm wide awake and struggle to sleep properly.  I wouldn't have missed the start for all the world but it's close to four am before I sleep which isn't a good preparation for the weekend.  Ho hum, at least I'm driving and sitting, not running or walking.

When the alarm goes off only a few hours later, the first thing I do is reach for the ipad and check FB and twitter.  I'm bitterly disappointed to see a picture of a red and swollen ankle; the cause of the totally-mad-but-very-lovely Fiona McDonald having to withdraw very early on.  (How early on I only discovered later - she fell after barely a mile and a half but plodded on to the next checkpoint to retire).  She's cross, frustrated and upset that her race has ended so early - I think I'd be bawling in a ditch somewhere.

Essential weekend supplies that I haven't yet got include jaffa cakes and Irn-Bru.  (The diet is suspended for 48 hours).  I nip into a little Tesco's on the way out of town and am delighted to spot Smidge midge-repellent  by the tills.  I know supermarkets sell everything these days but I wasn't expecting that.  A complement to the Deet, I grab a bottle.

I've forgotten about the Highland Show by the airport and find myself stuck in stationary traffic for far too long.  I'm even eyeing up the central reservation, wondering if I can do a u-turn but the numbers of police vehicles around suggest this might not be wise.  Come on people, I have a race to get to!

Even in the worsening weather, there are still the usual dithering tourists on the A82.  Yes, your car is capable of travelling at more than 37mph, no, you don't really need to brake every time the road makes a slight bend and it's really sodding bad manners to speed up on the only straight bits of the road that I might be able to overtake on!  As for motor-home drivers.... oh dear.

However the car responds to the occasional request for a burst of speed to fly past the offending vehicles and I manage not to get any later.  Poor car - it normally spends all week parked up in Edinburgh, doing less than 20 miles a week.  In the last week, it's been driven from Edinburgh to Leicester to Sheffield to Basingstoke to Edinburgh to Milngavie to Edinburgh.  And now it's going to Fort William and back.

Once through Crianlarich I start playing the usual game of trying to spot the runners.  In the driving rain there are no bright flashes of colour to be seen out on the Way.  Nor are there many walkers it seems.  In fact, it's not until I've gone through Tyndrum and climbed up into the valley into Bridge of Orchy that I start to see movement.  Mostly dressed in dark clothes with long leggings, there are a few bodies jogging comfortably north along the route.  They're too far away from the road (which I am not paying quite enough attention to for the conditions) for me to identify, but when I spy two bare legged runners running together, my brain instinctively says "oh, that's Sharon Law".  A moment later, the other part of my brain points out that a) she's not running in the race this year (having been selected to compete for Scotland again in a few weeks) and b) she's heading in the wrong direction.  (In the days later I discover that yes, it absolutely was Sharon who, along with the Consanis, decided to come along and have a run south along the WHW to encourage the competitors and make their own unique contribution to the event).

The rain is relentless now and the visible puddles and mud make it clear that it's been raining all night.  At least last year, the race was mostly dry until late Saturday afternoon so the runners covered much of the course before getting sodden - hell, Richie probably never saw the rain at all.  This year, they will have been wet and cold all the way through.  It's well past midday so that's over eleven hours already.  And just ahead of them now is the bleak expanse of Rannoch Moor; not a place to be wet cold and tired on.

"It's going to be a war of attrition today" I say to Sean when I stop at Bridge of Orchy to see how it'd going. "No need for compulsory check kits though this year" he replies.

Stupidly I'd thought that the rain might deter the midges but the evil black beasts are ever present, many of the supporters standing on the bridge watching the foaming torrents covered from head to toe, wearing nets. I pick up my race fleece and head onwards, hoping to drop into Glencoe to see Karen R who's marshalling there after breaking a bone in the Fling.

There are patches of white high up on the mountains - snow not yet melted by the summer of washed away by the rainfall - and up at the ski centre, the weather is no longer vertical rain but horizontal.  Camped out on ground to the side of the car park, Karen and George have a gazebo pegged out over the rear of the estate car and a small low tent pitched to the side (the sort that looks like a blown-up sleeping bag).  It should be a great idea but the squally wind gusting down from Rannoch Moor is threatening to rip it out of the ground and send it flying down to Glencoe valley.  And this is in a position seemingly sheltered by the mountain itself and the trees behind the car park?  How bad are conditions out on the moor?

In between trying to restrain the gazebo, Karen tells me that the first two runners have been through and the third is expected soon; his support crew parked up just down the track.  The leader is a runner called Terry Conway; not a name any of us know but there is some association with the Lake District it seems.  Added to which, he came through the checkpoint 30 minutes before Richie's time from last year.

Mental arithmetic time.  If Terry can maintain the pace over the Staircase, he'll be in Kinlochleven 30 minutes before Richie was last year.  That's 2.40pm less 30 minutes puts him there at 2.10pm.  Which is just about the time that Jez Bragg made it when he set the course record...  I'm not a stats geek; I only know this because I'd looked up times only a day or two before while agreeing with Lesley what time the checkpoint needed to be open.  I'd made a joking remark that 2.00pm would be fine, unless someone was after the record.  Looks like someone is...

Think I better get a move on; it's a long haul round to Kinlochleven through Glencoe.  The low fuel light is starting to flash on the dashboard but I suspect I don't have time to stop and fill up.  I didn't expect to be racing a runner along this stretch.

At the community centre, Lesley and the doctor are mostly set up but nervously awaiting the papers and scales.  On a "just in case" basis, the surgery scales have been brought over in case I didn't make it in time.  There are crews already here and the buzz of an imminent arrival.  Peter Duggan wanders in - he's seen some of the times being posted from checkpoints and thinks "something special" might be going to happen.  Lesley tells me that it seems Richie has pulled out and I'm disappointed that his run of great finishes and two wins has come to an end.

Last year I never got to see the leaders at all, this year there's no doubt of it.  But even so, I'm still caught a little by surprise when he sprints into the checkpoint.  The first thing I register are the shorts and bare legs, hardly the most appropriate for the weather?  He looks fast and happy, like he's just jogged a 5k, not 80 hard miles in brutal weather.  He's in and out so fast we almost don't catch his time.  12:59 ... Christ, that's ten minutes ahead of Jez.

A few minutes after he's gone, John K rings to warn us that we may have an early arrival.  You're a bit late, I reply, he's been and gone.  You do realise that he's ahead of the record?  On a day like this?

John asks if we can text the times of the first three runners through to him so he can update Twitter, and then to start phoning through times in batches.  I remind him that I'm leaving for a few hours but Lesley will be in touch.

I have good intentions but some Australian walkers come into the centre and start asking about the race.  They are doing the traditional multi-day walk north and heartily glad to be stopped for the day.  Pete keeps them entertained for some time.

Paul Giblin's crew are waiting for him to come in as second place.  Consisting of the Giblin family, they've become a familiar and popular sight at many ultras over the last year or so.  On last year's WHW, Paul took a wrong turn coming into the village that cost him an hour in time.  His sister tells me about shouting at him in the checkpoint when he was angry with his mistake and needed refocussing.  Everyone has fingers crossed that he won't do the same again this year.

He arrives safely but now an hour behind Terry, having lost time from Glencoe.  I wonder if he took the descent a lot slower in a deliberate plan not to get lost.  Whatever the reason, it doesn't seem likely he's going to catch the leader; barring a major drama up on the Lharig Mor.

It's now gone 3.00pm, I need to get away from here.  By the time I've bought fuel (the garage owner tries to tell me that this is the first day it's properly rained in Lochaber this year and I really can't decide if he's being truthful or merely bored of telling tourists about the three legged haggis) and queued at the multiple roadworks on the way into Fort William, it doesn't seem likely I'm going to get any sleep this afternoon.  Just as well when JK gets his phone numbers mixed up and phones me twice (on two different phones) trying to call the checkpoint.

Before leaving we'd debated long about Terry's possible arrival time into the finish line.  Jez's record is 15:44 but with what is widely held to be an incredibly fast final 14 miles.  I probably should go straight back to Kinlochleven but I'm only a half mile away from the leisure centre and it seems crazy to miss what may be the only year I ever get to see a race winner.  As for seeing that record broken...

As I park up, I'm really sad to see Sandra standing on the steps with her crew.  I was under strict instructions to give her a hug at Kinlochleven and then kick her out.  Same as last year, her ankles have let her down.  But this time much earlier and she pulled herself out at Auchtertyre.  She's smiling but there's an undercurrent of bitter disappointment in her voice.

There is a moment of panic when a large 4x4 parks in the line of sight across the car park.  I trot over to stand on the grass bank where I can see down the road.  Someone else is far more pragmatic and asks the driver to move.

There are crew down on the pavement watching out for the winner, I keep scanning my watch as the seconds tick away.  Oh god, it's getting close.  Why don't I have a watch that tells the time properly instead of making me guess at the minutes and seconds?

Suddenly there's a frantic semaphore from down on the road.  He's coming!  I yell across to the waiting group at the centre doors.  No doubt now, the record has gone.  Here he is, flying across the car park at a pace most 5k runners would envy, up the steps, greeted by Ian and the whooping and hollering of the small group who have just witnessed something very special.

15 hours 39 minutes 15 seconds

95 miles in horrendous weather

Jubilation over, I call Lesley to tell her the news - you have no idea how many times we'll get asked about finishing times through the night - and reassure her that I'm on my way back.  On the drive alongside the loch, I even see a patch of blue sky and sunshine.  It doesn't last long.

Back at the checkpoint, there have been about nine runners through, including the first withdrawal - sadly from the third placed runner.  How frustrating to be doing so well, but to have to pull out through injury.  Despite the fast pace of the early runners, this is a lot fewer through than the same time last year.  No women either; this time last year Kate had been and gone, with Debbie and Sharon not far behind, showing why they run in their country's colours this summer.

Two runners - Charlie and Ed - come in exactly together.  This is unusual for this position in the field, normally it's much further back that runners group together for moral support.   I assume it's a fluke of timing and only much later do I realise they've covered the entire course side by side, finishing in joint 10th position.

The clock ticks over at six o'clock, allowing competitors to have a support runner, being four hours since the leader.  Only one person has even asked about this so far and sounded quite relieved that their runner was too early, clearly not relishing the threat of 14 miles in the continuing weather.

Ten minutes later the first lady is through.  Rosie Bell, I know the name if not the person.  Hot on her heels, barely a minute behind is the second, Gaynor Prior.  (Before I came to Scotland I'd never heard of ultras but, to reinforce the small world concept, Gaynor lives in the small village next to the small village I spent sixteen years living in prior to moving to Edinburgh.)  Gaynor's crew asks about the permissibility of a support runner, Rosie's doesn't and the two women leave, mere seconds apart, but one with a support and one without.  This prompts some debate in the checkpoint - is there an advantage to having the moral support of a de facto pacer?  Should there be a separate time period applied to the women - these two will not take overall placings, but they are certainly competing for the ladies' prize.

Shortly after Ross Moreland comes through, there is a lull in the incoming runners and I take the opportunity to phone John and give him timings for the runners that have come through already.  He's also able to confirm to us the runners who have withdrawn earlier in the course; some familiar names among them, amongst them David Ross, Bob Steel, Louise Jones.  So disappointed that people I know and like have been defeated by the day.

I start to spot familiar faces in the support crews - brown clad HBT girls supporting Carrie on her "third time lucky" race entry, HappyG supporting Andy...  wait a minute he should have been and gone already?  No, he's had a bad section and struggled for some distance.  But when he arrives at the checkpoint, looking utterly bedraggled in a red waterproof, he still has the character to strike a pose as he comes through the doors.  Right now shift your arse out of here and go get that goblet, Mr Normal Runner!

Antonia is also having a tough time and I spend quite some time chatting to her fiancee Scott.  I've seen him at a few races but not really spoken; this evening we have a united desire to see the small blonde New Zealander collect her first goblet.  Unfortunately I actually miss her coming through the checkpoint as I've gone on a food run to the neighbouring chippy to get supplies for myself and Lesley!

My apologies to the runners who came through while we were eating chips - we did try to keep them out of sight, but the delicious smell was irrepressible!

More familiar faces:  Terry Addison (the first of the Kirky crazies) and his support crew, Peter Macdonald whose wife (and final section support runner tonight) Heather I first met on the banks of the River Ayr late last summer.  The checkpoint's starting to get busier with both crews and runners avoiding the continuing rain by heading indoors.  Peter Duggan has been out for a run along the route (other than this, he spends almost the entire night at the checkpoint - even when you don't run the race, it still has its hooks into you, it seems...)  and spots a familiar face amongst the crews.  I know less than nothing about mountain climbing (other than that I get vertigo on a step ladder and have absolutely no desire to find out what effect a cliff face or narrow ridge would have on me) but apparently "Scotland's best climber" is part of a runner's support team.

Donald arrives in the infamous and legendary tartan shorts.  And he's incoherently talking complete and utter gibberish.  I'm half convinced his wife Elaine is going to pull him from the race but she tells me he's actually in better state than last year.  I'm decidedly unconvinced by this, especially when he picks up my bottle of Deet and repeatedly sprays it directly into his face.  Um, I'm really *not* sure that's edible....  Once again I'm astounded by what this race can do to people mentally and physically.

And what not so normal people can do in return.

Into the later hours of the evening and the "rush hour" begins.  Runners come through every few minutes in varying states of physical and mental energy.  Last year Lesley and I took it in turns to look after runners; this year we're joining forces and most people get the two of us working as a tag team - I bring the runner to the scales and call out their number and weight, Lesley reads off the race time and writes it down.  This year the cards are in zip-loc bags - a great idea to keep them dry, but a bloody pain in the arse to get open.  More than one gets ripped apart in frustration, sometimes even by the marshals.

I get to have a craic with most runners, be it teasing them about how effective their diet has been (when they're showing a weight loss), promising them there's "only a half marathon left" (well, give or take a mile or so), making a younger male runner blush when I tell him not to strip off too far before he gets on the scales.  And occasionally there are slightly sharper questions, maybe asking runners for their childrens' dates of birth when the scales show a weight gain and they're showing signs of tiredness that may just be the result of 80 miles hard work in twenty-plus hours, or may be the start of a serious physical problem...

Around this time, the casualties start coming in and the doctor starts patching up blisters and soreness.  Through the night I will see far too many feet that have been wet for twenty four hours or more; it's really not a pretty sight...  But there are also an increasing number coming in with painful ankles and shins.  Much later when we talk about it, the consensus is that the wet and slippy conditions have put massively increased strains on the soft tissues around the ankles in trying to keep the body stable on unstable terrain.  Unlike last year, there will be a lot of withdrawals at this final checkpoint; runners who recognise that they can go no further, that the weather and their bodies have said enough.  It's bitterly sad to watch - one young runner is practically in tears when I cut off his wristband and all I want to do is hug him and tell him it's okay.  Instead I ask if he wants to see the doctor and help him through.

At times during the night, the checkpoint looks like a casualty station with bodies stretched out on chairs, on the floor.  But there are no major issues and no summons for the doctor from the mountain rescue team either.  The bad weather is presumably keeping many of the tourists off the paths and summits.

Karen and George are in, whilst waiting for Johnny Fling to arrive.  Right now, Karen has the thing I most want in the world - ginger beer.  Fabulous.  When John arrives, he is as cheerful and mad as ever.  (I have since seen a race photo of him dancing in the rain at Inversnaid ... it sums him up perfectly).  He wants to stop and chat but his support team are having none of it: "No time for that!" and he's hustled out the door with George's foot only a metaphorical inch from his backside.

Adrian Stott (of Run and Become) arrives.  A man who has a very large collection of race finishes, some from the years when that didn't earn you a goblet, merely the satisfaction of knowing what you had achieved.  When he ran the winter ultra last December, I'm sure he said that it was his first ultra in several years.  Some things the body - and mind - doesn't forget.  Although, rather inappropriately for a member of the race committee, he's not easy to pin down long enough to get onto the scales and his weight card retrieved!

Midnight comes and goes without us even noticing.  This time last year, there were only isolated runners coming through and it wasn't difficult for Lesley to leave around one.  Tonight we're still busy with the weather slowing most of the pack down.  It will be nearly 2.30am before she leaves and only then because I convince her to.  In the few minutes between arrivals, I'm trying to keep up with Facebook and Twitter to get the race news.  With no wi-fi signal, this is being done on the work's Blackberry.  I have yet to confess to my boss but will no doubt have to do so when the bill arrives.

Kynon arrives to wait for Mrs Shanksi, the rest of her crew with her on the long walk over the Devil's Staircase.  We chat for some time but he's looking exhausted, as do many of the support crews.  When he gets a text indicating what time they will be arriving, I suggest he lies down on one of the mattresses in the sports hall and sleeps for an hour or so.  I promise to wake him before Vicky's due in (he's under orders to have a cup of tea waiting) and warn him that he'll be evicted from the bed if it's needed for a casualty.  We all worry and fret about the runners being awake and on the go for so many hours but the time frame is just as bad for the support crews.  No wonder so many of the old hands use two crews.

John K had told me he wouldn't be at Kinlochleven but has been convinced to visit by Dino, the Race Princess and legendary Race Control of previous years.  Added to which he wants to see the progress of some of his local runners, mostly Silke and Caroline, who are hunting their first goblets after years of supporting their respective husbands.  Mostly he's enjoying the new challenge of Race Control but his logical mind is immensely frustrated by runners who seem to vanish at one checkpoint, only to appear at a later one.  Or worse, those who he has been told pulled out at Glencoe but are still coming into Kinlochleven as competitors.  Sometimes it's like herding cats...

When Silke arrives, her crew seat her at the end of the pool table we are using as our marshal station and fuss around her.  She looks like a queen holding court.  She also looks like a woman on a mission; nothing is going to come between her and her goblet this weekend.

Just before 1am Fiona Rennie arrives.  She's probably the only runner outside the top ten to have the same arrival and departure time, standing still only long enough to be weighed.  I haven't learnt yet, I instinctively still ask her crew to let me know when she leaves, only to be told "Ah'm going now".  Another warrior queen that will stop for nothing before Fort William.

Ten minute later, a dark-haired woman hobbles into the centre on stiff unbending legs but with the widest smile.  She's the tiniest slip of a thing, in a field of small and slender athletes and I swear she barely reaches my waist in height.  How can this tiny creature cover 95 miles?  But Lesley will complete her race, even if she doesn't manage to collect her goblet in person.

After ten, every runner leaving the checkpoint is supposed to be accompanied, either by their own support runner or by buddying up with another competitor.  It's not actually easy to police, but many runners are with their support by the time they reach us anyway.  Even so, we spot a couple who seem to be leaving alone.  They're pulled back and reminded of the rules.  The explanation is a little challenging when the runner (Paul?) appears to speak no English, but the message is finally understood and his son gets changed into wet weather running gear to go with him.

Not long after 2.00am there is a kerfuffle at the door and Caroline arrives in the midst of her support crew.  In over a year of marshalling I don't think I've ever seen a runner in such a state; she can't walk or talk, seems barely conscious, and it takes three of us to keep her upright on the scales.  I've practically written DNF on the list already.  But Neal her husband is adamant she'll be fine and bears her away to a chair where she's surrounded by the dozen or so family and friends making up her support crew.

The doctor goes over to investigate and catches her as she falls from the chair.  Sweeping her up, he carries her into the sports hall and lies her down on a mattress to sleep, ordering that she's not to be disturbed.

I've thought through this many times since.  I'm not a doctor or a nurse; I have no medical training beyond basic workplace first aid.  I'm not a runner, I can't draw on my own experience.  But throughout the time that Caroline is in the checkpoint, I can't conceive that she is going to be capable of walking out of the building, never mind covering the 14 miles to the end.  Her crew are determined she's going to continue but I can't help wondering if they're projecting their own determination onto a body that's defeated.  Are they going to carry her over the Mor?  Even with the benefit of hindsight, I still think that - had I been at that checkpoint alone without medical support - I would have refused to let her continue.  Not that I think I know better, but that I think it would take considerable medical skill to have been sure that there is nothing seriously wrong with her; that continuing is not going to cause her serious harm.  Or worse.

Ultimately I don't have to make that decision.  Doc Ellis talks to her at length once she wakes up and has eaten.  Whilst still a little groggy, she can now talk and move without support.  His verdict is that she is exhausted, nothing more, nothing less.  There are enough people going over the next section with her to be able to carry her out without risking a rescue crew.  It's his call to let her continue but I still fret over her until prize-giving the next day.  As does he; when he comes into the Nevis Centre, his first question to me is "did she make it?" having first been to the Belford Hospital to see if she was there.  The answer is yes, Caroline now has her first goblet.

I haven't heard her post-race podcast yet.  I've been saving it until after I finish this.  I think it's going to be fascinating to hear how many different ways a scenario can appear to the people present.

I'm delighted to see Fiona McD in the checkpoint.  Although out of the race herself, she's now joined Vicky O'Reilly's support crew and cheering everyone up around her. Vicky is limping slightly and the doctor is highly amused by the sight of one injured runner being supported round the checkpoint by another even-more-injured runner.

We're down to the last few runners now.  Before he arrives, Charles Gordon's support crew warn us that he's suffering with his feet and is "a bit grumpy".  Ah, no wisecracks at the scales for him then.  In an unusual piece of medical practice, the doctor offers to craft some temporary orthotics to support his battered feet over the final stretch.  Peter (who will be there until we close) fetches some from home that can be adapted as required.  But even after all this, and a period of rest, finally Charles has to decide that he can't carry on.

The final support crew arrive in the shape of Dave W and Dino.  Mrs Mac and Wee Hannah are sleeping in the car, DQ is out on the trail, coaching Hooper over long slow painful miles.   It's a long wait in the growing light and we eat cake and drink coffee.

Twenty-seven hours and 39 minutes after leaving Milngavie, Hooper shuffles his way down the drive and into the centre.  We have already agreed that he will use every last minute available to him by resting, then leaving at fifteen minutes after five, the last possible time for a runner to clear the checkpoint.  But when the time comes, he can't walk.  Heartbreakingly, this is the end of the race for him; a man in such physical pain, he flinches with every pulse of blood through his aching and battered feet.

The fast guys and girls, they make it look easy.  But don't ever let anyone tell you that's true - this sport will take you and do its best to destroy you physically and mentally.  It's tough at the back.

The checkpoint finally closes at 5.45am after I've tidied up, washed up and bagged the lost and found items. Breakfast at the doctors' again, deliver scales, stopwatch and paperwork to the finish line, then finally back to the hotel.


A little sleep, never enough and it's time to get down to the prize-giving.  Unlike last year, it's cold and grey still and I choose to drive the few hundred yards.  Even there, there are still more things to be done.  Goblets to be taken out of their crates and stacked onto the table, race merchandise to be unpacked and sorted.

Adrian is there in his capacity as runner, as shopkeeper and as reporter for Scottish Athletics.  Barely hours after running 95 miles.  My respect goes up another notch and I mentally slap myself for feeling tired and whingy.

Hopefully I will see this many times in the future and I suspect it will always be something special, something unlike any other event.  And every year, I suspect there will be those few things that cause the audience to cheer a little louder.  This year, there are new champions and a new record to be cheered for, there is a special award for Dino in recognition of her ten years service to the race, there is Ada collecting her goblet in a wheelchair, there is a cheer for Lesley who cannot collect her goblet as she's been admitted to hospital.  But the loudest and longest may well be for Pauline Walker (Fiona's twin) as she joins the exclusive ten club, being the first woman to complete ten WHW races.

Afterwards I help Adrian sell t-shirts and fleeces and buffs and barely get to talk to anyone as they drift off.

Despite my tiredness, I don't sleep in the afternoon, which is not the best preparation for the evening social at the Nevis Bar.  But I mooch along in my best Stella McCartney heels (Sandra and I agree that we have a draw on the heels contest) expecting to last an hour or so.

Ian greets me with the words "So are you running it next year?"  That man has a very strange sense of humour...

There are lots of drinks and chat and gossip and fizzy stuff with Sandra (we tried for champagne but it obviously wasn't that sort of place...).  There are friends and family old and new.  I even cope with England going out of the football (it was to Italy, I have divided loyalties!).  And sometime after midnight, the bar staff finally throw us out.

Just to prove what a warped sense of humour Mother Nature has in the Highlands, I wake to bright sunshine and blue skies at 4.30am.

See you next year?  I'm sure we're due a dry one...


  1. Aye, Julie, we're all hooked and, once hooked, you stay hooked...

    Great read too!

  2. What a fantastic report Julie and thanks for the mention. I hobbled and wobbled but yeah I made it :) See you next year. True to my word I won't be running, but will be there in a support capacity. See you out there