Devil’s staircase, Sunday 23nd June, 00:15
A man drops to his hands and knees on the narrow, winding, rocky path. “Just give me a minute. I’ve got nothing left.” A woman stands over him. She is looking at a stopwatch. “You’ve got a minute, but then we need to get going. We have to get to the checkpoint. You can rest there.” The man looks completely exhausted, and shuts his eyes. “You can’t fall asleep here: you could get hypothermia. We have to keep going. Take another 40 seconds. And these jelly babies, they’ll give you a bit of energy.” She opens a ziploc bag and drops a few into the hands of the man, who is still on all fours on the ground. He eats them slowly, then, with great effort, gets to his feet. They continue on for around 15 or 20 minutes before this process is repeated.
The West Highland Way Race is the longest race I have ever played any part in. It covers 95 ½ miles from Milngavie to Fort William, around 3,500 metres of climbing, and can take up to 35 hours, running through not one by two nights for the majority of runners. It’s not really something you can optimally prepare for, and it has many highlights as well as, for the majority, inevitable lows – usually on the second night.
I’d never really given much thought to what these runners put themselves through until I took part as a support crew member last weekend. I still don’t really know what they went through, but I’m so grateful they invited me to be a part of this unique and amazing experience. It was great, but on the other hand I learned some things about myself. Some dark things. You look at people that work in torture chambers and say ‘How does someone get so twisted up inside they can actually do that’. Sometimes it turns out you had it in you all along. That’s what the West Highland Way taught me. I’m a monster.
This isn’t a race where you can just turn up and run. Each runner needs a minimum of 3 support crew throughout the race. We decided to complicate things by having a team of 6 supporting two runners, who probably wouldn’t stick together for the whole race. The participants with estimated finish times greater than 21 hours are entitled to have support runners with them from Auchtertyre for the last 45 miles. We broke that down into 4 legs, based on Checkpoints, and planned out who would be running with whom for which sections. We planned out a lot of logistics in terms of who needed to be where, when. Unfortunately, we didn’t try getting everything together and seeing if it would all fit in Alan’s car boot, and it took 20 minutes and some tough choices (and getting the tyres blown up to support the extra weight) before we could head off to Milngavie.
Registration and Pre-Race Briefing
We arrived in Milngavie in good spirits having spent most of the drive through listening to cheesy 80s songs. Chris and Jagoda were both excited and nervous. They hadn’t found time to have afternoon naps, and didn’t sleep in the car, so they were facing over 60 hours without sleep.
Registration was quick and easy. With a couple of hours to kill, Chris really wanted a Greggs sausage roll, so we walked into town. Although it had stayed open the previous year, it was definitely shut this year, so no sausage rolls were forthcoming. We got some decent photos though, and headed for Tesco just after it closed for the night. Thankfully there was a massive amount of food in the car. Jagoda ate something sensible, but Chris opted for a tub of Paprika pringles. This might have some bearing on some of the things I tell you later in this post.
Linsey came over for a quick chat before heading back to her car to chill before the race. We found her again at the pre-race briefing. The briefing was comprehensive, and included useful information about checkpoints, parking, NSAIDs (prohibited) and warnings about midges and ticks. Then it was time to temporarily say our goodbyes until Balmaha. Jagoda was hugging everyone, but Chris was giving out firm handshakes. They joined the crowds of runners, and the support crew scrambled up the banking over the underpass to watch the runners heading through on their way. After a minute of silence for a few West Highland Way family who had passed on since the last race, they were off.
We scrambled over the metal railings and jogged to the car as we were keen to get to the first checkpoint in time to get our pick of the parking spaces. A Europcar van was parked on double yellows behind us and it took a 9-point turn to get out, but we were soon on our way. I don’t envy Alan all the driving he had to do over the weekend.
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