Ultra Marathon

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

The Final Countdown

Gary drove me to the hotel and we begged a third room card from reception. Ian was fast asleep in one of the single beds (it was a family room) and I baggsied the other single bed. Jagoda had an ETA that was less than an hour away, but they’re really inaccurate by that point and I really, really just wanted to sleep. Gary wasn’t keen to go to the finish line by himself and hang around for up to 2 hours, so he just fell asleep on top of the double bed.

After a pleasant 90 minutes or so of sleep (fully clothed in the running kit I had just run 20 miles in – though I did manage to take my trainers off) Alan bursts into the room saying “Wake up bitches, we’re back.” He had, as promised, pushed Jagoda hard over that final 15 miles, and she had done a fantastic job. She completely smashed her time from last year by 3 hours, finishing in 26 hours and 47 minutes with a big sprint finish. Her overall placing was 117th, but her split position for that final leg was 79th!

Absolutely amazing.

Despite not having slept for over 40 hours, she was completely hyper and not ready to collapse. Ian hadn’t brought any of their stuff in from the car so I persuaded them it didn’t make sense for them to shower.  Everyone went to bed – Gary giving up the double bed and sleeping on the floor so that Jagoda could get a couple of hours of sleep in the manner she deserved after her trials.

All finished and time for breakfast

After two hours that seemed to pass in sixty seconds, Gary got a message from Anna to say they were around a mile from the finish. That wasn’t enough time for us all to get showered, so we all jumped out of bed, put on our trainers, and headed over to the Nevis Centre. I’d thought Chris would be doing a zombie shuffle, but he actually jogged the final 150 metres or so to the finish line.

He finished in 31 hours and 12 minutes, and it was a phenomenal achievement.

The state of the soles of his feet are too horrifying for me to post the photo I took.

He was falling asleep at breakfast, then during the presentations, then in the car on the way back. He’d repeatedly said on the final couple of sections that he was never doing this race again but by Monday evening he was talking about the next time. How quickly the pain is forgotten, maybe it’s like childbirth?

Presentation Ceremony

The presentations were standing room only by the time we arrived but I love that everyone gets presented with their goblet individually. They also streamlined it this year by calling people up by time bands so there were groups of about 20 runners at a time waiting and ready to go up, much like at a graduation ceremony.

Donna had come over and directed Chris to a seat, seeing how much he was in need of one, and he promptly fell asleep. A nice lady from Strathearn Harriers woke him in time for him to see Jagoda getting presented with her trophy, and got him up at the right time to collect his. The winner presents the final finisher with their goblet, and this elicits some of the biggest cheers of the presentations. I loved that idea, and it recognises that no matter how long it takes, you’ve all done the same distance. In many respects it’s much tougher for the final finisher, who was on their feet for over 34 hours compared to the winner who had to run for *only* 15 hours or so, and only endured one night of sleep deprivation rather than two.

Three victorious Footers with their goblets

Concluding Thoughts

The West Highland Way is an amazing experience. I never fully appreciated just how much it takes out of the runners, and what a phenomenal achievement finishing it is. Looking at the cut-off times you might think “35 hours to cover 95 ½ miles is just a brisk walk, that can’t be too hard”. But you’d be completely wrong. These runners are covering 95 ½ miles of beautiful but rough terrain, with over 3500 metres of climbing.  The descents take it out of the legs too. Marathon runners typically hit the wall at around 21 miles. Imagine hitting the wall then and thinking “There’s still another 75 miles to go.” Here you hit a wall after the wall, which just so happens to be after two other walls.   236 runners started the race, but only 196 completed it.  There were several DNFing at each checkpoint from Balmaha to Glencoe, and a couple at the later checkpoints.

I loved the experience of crewing at this race, but it didn’t tempt me to run it. Watching Chris and a few other runners round about us struggle with extreme sleep deprivation was more than enough to make me think it wasn’t for me. I was surprised when Gary was so keen to sign up.  He was trying to work out if it was possible for him to meet the ballot requirements (i.e. having done a suitable qualifying ultra) in time for 2020 without having done any races further than half marathon distance up to this point. It has got me considering doing the Devil though. After all, it’s only 42 miles and could be done in daylight!

This race has only 300 places, and takes place mostly in the Scottish wilderness.  It’s a very different experience from a typical road race. But the sheer amount of support crew and checkpoints mean that even when the field spreads out you’re never alone for long. It’s also incredibly well organised and supported by the organisers, marshals and medics who volunteer throughout the weekend.

Mission Completed for the Cookie Crew

If you want to get a feel for whether you’d want to add this race to your bucket list, I’d highly recommend crewing for another runner. You can see the highs, the inevitable lows (though Jagoda seemed to avoid the lows, and smiled the whole way through!), the breath-taking scenery, and the swarms of midges.  Importantly you also get time for naps along the way.  Plus you only need to worry about having to jump into action every few hours.

If you’re not new to Ultra-running, this is definitely not a race for beginners. But if you know what you’re letting yourself in for in terms of distance and time on your feet, I can’t think of a more spectacular route.

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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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