Ultra Marathon

West Highland Way Race – 22nd – 23rd June 2019

Conquering the Devil in the dark – my second support run

I’d looked up the cut-off time for Kinlochleven before setting off: it was 5:00am. Slightly over 7 hours to travel 10.5 miles. Even though Chris was tiring, and it included the Devil’s staircase, there was no way we couldn’t comfortably do that, as long as I didn’t let him sit down and fall asleep on route. He assured us he was fit and ready to move, so we set off shortly before 9:45pm, head and chest torches on, and pringles, penguins, chocolate balls and jelly babies in bags, along with juice and water. He really wanted a slush, but had to settle for flat juice.

The views were stunning, but the light was fading

We started off jogging at a gentle pace. Chris seemed to have rallied a bit at Glencoe, but quickly slowed to a walk again. I told him he could walk the uphills but we needed to jog the flats and downhills to keep us on pace for sub 30 hours. He said I was exaggerating as 3 miles per hour would get us there. I pointed out that we’d slow down a lot on the Devil’s staircase, and he needed time at the next two checkpoints.

I hadn’t realised how much we’d slow down on the staircase.

We went past a young lady who didn’t appear to have a support runner. I was telling Chris he needed to start jogging again, just for a short stretch, and we could Jeff it (run-walk strategy), and like Charlotte told me at Loch Ness, ‘you’re not going to get this opportunity again anytime soon, so don’t say you’ll be happy with 34:59 when you know it’s not true’. Amy (I found out her name at the presentation) said “She’s amazing, can I borrow her?” Chris said she could, but she was going at a pace he wasn’t keeping up with, and I wasn’t going to leave him no matter how much I was annoying him.  She slowly edged ahead and caught up with a couple of other runners – who were now mostly all walking at this point.

Chris looking tired, a mile or so out of Glencoe Ski Centre

Chris insisted he had nothing left, and pointed out I hadn’t run 70 miles. He said ‘let’s power walk, do we have a deal?’ He then tried to get me to high five him but I left him hanging.

I’m not proud of that.

Ian had said though stick not carrot, and I was concerned that we needed the option of jogging the easiest parts before the Devil took that ability away from him completely for the remaining 15+ miles.

I realised I couldn’t force him to run, but tried to pick up the walking pace so that he would speed up. He was retching and said he had stomach issues. He wasn’t bringing anything up though, so I tried to get him to take on some water, rather than the juice. Then as I was striding on again, he stumbled and fell over.  Not badly, but still – he fell over.

I gave him a minute before saying we had to get moving again. It was still flat terrain and the path wasn’t bad. A few minutes later, he took a proper tumble and landed in the heather. Now I was seriously worried.

Had we misjudged his condition at the last checkpoint?

He’d got a scratch on his leg, and a couple of other runners stopped to check he was okay and help him up. I was glad of this: I can help him up if he can help himself too, but he weighs more than I can deadlift and I wanted him out the heather asap as we’d been warned there were ticks there and hence a small danger of Lyme disease. I didn’t want another death on my conscience, not with the heat only just having faded over the last six.

Brian and Ian waiting for their runners at Bridge of Orchy

After a minute or so bent over and composing himself, Chris seemed capable of walking again. I told him we could carry on and just walk but that he needed to drink.  He had to take on some food. He said his legs were fine – he was just tired and his feet were sore – and that was making him clumsy. The light was fading fast, but we still had a steady trickle of other runners, with some of whom we were leapfrogging . Everyone was grimly marching on at this point, with a few stops when the pain got too much. One runner surprised me by actually jogging past us – he was the exception rather than the norm by this point.

We went through the gate where a number of runners were stopped and chatting. We put in another slow mile, and Chris said “Well, that’s us over the Devil.  It wasn’t too bad was it, Pauline?” It had clearly just been a slightly undulating path prior to the actual climb, so either he was delirious or still sharp enough to be making jokes. I really hoped it was the latter.

We began the climb with a little bit of light in the sky, and some other runners both ahead of and behind us.  It soon became completely dark. Chris was determined to continue, and it seemed the best option given the flow of traffic and lack of phone signal or internet. The other alternative was to just give up and leave him to his fate, but I didn’t think that would get me an invite to another support crew. He had been veering from side to side a little for a short section after the fall, but he seemed to be pretty steady at this point.  Surely we could get to Kinlochleven well before the cut-off no matter how slowly we took it up the staircase?

I kind of wished we had someone else to offer advice though. Chris was keen to go on, but he was sleep deprived and might not have been thinking rationally.  I was only slightly tired, but I’ve never run further than marathon distance and didn’t know all the warning signs of being delirious. Onwards it was.

Chris at 19 miles in. If only he’d still had this much energy at the 72 mile point

Chris did quite well at the start of the climb.  He did though keep kneeling down to get water from every burn we crossed to wet the back of his head. He said it was amazing, and that he was roasting. Given that the temperature was rapidly cooling I knew this wasn’t a good sign. I kept telling him we had water in our packs he should use instead, but he kept opting for the stream water. I think it may have been a need to rest rather than any magical benefits the streams had over the bottled stuff.

He also insisted he was too warm with his running jacket on, and took it off. I tied it round my waist, as there was no room in either pack to store it. He told me it was an old jacket anyway, and just to throw it away!

I ignored that suggestion as I was pretty sure he would need it later on.

By mile 5 Chris was getting a bit unsteady again, and I was querying our choice to continue. We were in total darkness now and we couldn’t see what lay ahead in store for us.  The sporadic illumination of headtorches gave us a rough idea of the route, but not enough to guess at all the twists and turns, or the changes in gradient or underfoot conditions.

Runners ready to go. I suspect some were regretting their life choices by the second night.

The descent deceives you.  You think you’re on the way down and you’re going to have an easy time of it.  It’s lying.  There is a further climb, then a lot of small undulations for a fair bit of the way down. One section was rather tough for me as it was quite steep.  It was full of twists and turns, and on a very rocky path.

I slowed right down and told Chris that he was now responsible for my safety. The poor guy had been on his feet for nearly 24 hours by this point, and his support runner was demanding he look out for her: that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.  It did stop him falling asleep whilst walking though. He offered me his hand on a bit I was finding tricky, but I refused it on the grounds that he wasn’t steady enough himself to support someone else.

There are a couple of small sections of the path where it is quite narrow and the ground falls away steeply to one side. Being in the dark, it’s not that easy to see how steep or far the fall would be. Chris was weaving a little again.  He’d just sat on a rock and tried to have a nap. After a few seconds I’d told him he had to open his eyes.  He could sit for a minute but I was timing it. The eyes shut again for several seconds, so I had to tap his arm to stop him dozing off. The walking whilst half asleep technique wasn’t going to work on these sections, and I had to keep telling him which side of the path to move to, in order to minimise the risk of serious injury if he fell. It was a pretty scary route and I didn’t want to have to walk it by myself.

Glencoe Ski Centre – beautiful views, and large pipes

By this point he was saying sub 30 didn’t matter and he’d be well happy with 31 or 32 hours. I wasn’t sure it was safe for him to continue, and kept telling him we just had to get to the checkpoint at Kinlochleven.  Then the least sleep-deprived member of the support crew could make a rational decision about whether he could continue. I told him this several times over a couple of miles, and he seemed to rally.  I think he was really scared I would tell the marshals to force him to DNF. In actuality, I thought there would be time for him to get a couple of hours sleep at the checkpoint in Kinlochleven before its 5:00am cut-off.  That might give him the energy to finish the final leg just before the 35-hour deadline, but I wasn’t going to mention naps to him in his current state.

It was getting very cold. I’d tried to get Chris to put his jacket back on a few times, but he insisted the cold was keeping him awake.  Eventually I insisted that he put the jacket back on around 1:00am as my hands were freezing and I was worried he’d end up suffering from exposure. He was more compliant after I’d suggested he might have to withdraw from the race, and said he was worried they’d take one look at him and tell him it was over.  We put the jacket on over his backpack, and I told him we could rearrange it on a flatter section.

The path finally widens but is quite steep and scree-covered on the final section to the bottom of the hill. Chris actually strolled off ahead of me on this section as I was being very cautious. We’d caught up with a couple of guys whom we had leapfrogged a few times, so I wasn’t concerned for his safety whilst I was taking my time. His reward for getting ahead of me was to find a big rock very near the bottom of the path and have a seat. He was dozing when I got there a minute later and needed persuaded to get up again.

Jagoda and Chris at registration.

I was so relieved when we arrived in Kinlochleven and were just marching around streets that had actual street lights. Chris’ chest torch had run out of battery power partway down the hill despite it being fully charged at the start.  We switched off our head torches to ensure he’d have sufficient light for the final section. Chris increased his walking pace, and said “Right, game face on” as we were heading into the centre.

I’d been worried he might get pulled for weight loss as he wasn’t eating enough – or at least not keeping enough down. He got on the scales with his backpack on and the lady asked if he’d been weighed with it on at the last checkpoint, which he had. He was a kilo heavier than at the last weigh-in, but I suspect that was mostly because he hadn’t drunk all the extra water and juice we’d given him. At least he wasn’t losing more weight.

Chris safely into Kinlochleven at 2:00am, and managing to eat solid food

He sat down for a good 20 minutes at Kinlochleven, no longer fretting about a time goal, and he actually managed to eat some pizza, for which I was thankful. I tried to let Anna and Christie know how hard it was going to be, but they seemed up for it.  Christie planned to sing Disney songs to keep him awake. Even I wasn’t malicious enough to subject Chris to my own renditions.   Even literal monsters draw the line somewhere. Christie can actually sing though. They played “Guess the Disney tune” partway round the final section, and Anna was telling little white lies about how far he had left to go. He was pretty shaky shortly after leaving Kinlochleven, but he rallied again.  After that he was fine until the end, even managing a jog to the finish line.

Chris came into Glencoe as 139th male. When we checked in at Kinlochleven he had somehow gone up to 134th male. In the overall standings, he’d gone from 175th to 171st position. It had taken us 4 hours 5 minutes after a 30-minute stopover at Glencoe to cover just under 11 miles, and he’d actually gone forwards in the field. That blows my mind and is testament to just how much a second night without sleep takes it out of you.

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  1. Frank Benham says:

    excellent well done to all the runners I ran this race in 1988 and 1989 and again in 1993 and was eaten alive every time by the midges even with protection they still manage to get mr

    1. Pauline Belford says:

      Thanks Frank, and well done on completing this race three times. Yes, the midges certainly added something to the experience!

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