Supporting the West Highland Way Race

The West Highland Way Race has a very special place in my life. It was the first ultra that I entered and right from my first training run on the routeI have loved being part of this amazing race. This weekend, even though I didn’t run, was just as special.

I count it a real privilege to be on the committee helping to make it happen. My main role is keeping the web site up to date, producing the podcasts and generally  supporting where I can.

Initially this year my plan was to support my friend Jonny through to Rowardennan and then be around the race to keep twitter updated etc. I was a bit concerned that I didn’t really have a clear role and wondered how it would go.

Then the team who were due to look after Lundavra had to pull out due to work commitments so Katrina and I volunteered to step in.

So here is a summary of my weekend …..

Friday 20th June 2014

I picked up the hired van from Arnold Clark and drove to East Kilbride to pick up the precious goblets.  I did feel the responsibility to drive very carefully!!

van

On the way back I called in at Hampden Sports Clinic for my next session with Mhairi. She is working hard to realign the bones in my foot.

In the afternoon I went for my first run for a week and was encouraged that my calf felt a lot better. A couple of twinges but nothing too bad.

At 7.15pm I set off for Milngavie to help with setting up registration. There were a number of volunteers and we soon had everything set up for the runners arriving from 9pm. We transferred the goblets to Ian’s van so I had room for stuff we needed for Lundavra.

hall

Over the next few hours the runners arrived.  I was making sure all the checkpoints had a list of runners. Even though we are using SPORTident for the chip timing it;s good for the marshals to have a list of who has been through their checkpoint.

I really enjoyed having a quick chat with lots of runners and support crews. I was conscious that I didn’t want to keep folk on their feet too long as they needed to rest before the start of the challenge.

I love the whole atmosphere of the car park.  It feels very different when you are supporting rather than running.  I thought about how I felt each time before starting and it’s that sense of just wanting to get going.

Jonny Rowan arrived just after 11.30pm and I helped him register and get ready for the race. He was in good shape and ready to get going.  We sat in the van for a few minutes before heading out for the race briefing.

Almost everyone I spoke to about marshalling at Lundavra mentioned the bonfire.  I really wanted to be able to have a fire but didn’t know whether I’d be able to get enough wood.  So when I saw the pile of cardboard boxes that all the race bags came in I took those!

At 12.30am Ian and Sean gave the race briefing (photo thanks to Graeme Hewitson) …

briefing

Saturday 21st June 2014

I walked down the high street to video the start of the race and it was great to see so many friends and family lining the route to give the runners a big cheer as they started on their journey to Fort William.

Once the runners were away I headed back to the van and drove to the Garadhban Forest where I had arranged to meet Jonny. When I got there I parked next to Andy who was supporting Sarah.

When I said to Andy I was going to collect some wood for the fire at Lundavra he immediately sprang into action and offered to help. Over the next 45mins or so we collected a fair amount and cut it up to fit in the van. Thanks Andy!

As it is still dark it is hard to see who is coming but Paul Giblin has a very distinct running style so he was easy to spot. He was running with Robbie Britton and they were really moving. It looked like they were going to have a real race.

Over the next hour or so we cheered lots of runners through. There were a number of supporters at this spot so it was a good atmosphere. It was easier to spot runners once it got lighter but I nearly missed Jonny.  He seemed okay but said his knees and hip were sore.

I gave him his food, filled his water, took his head torch and off he went to Conic Hill and Balmaha.  I stayed around for another 20mins or so cheering runners as they went through and then drove to Balmaha.

The car park was absolutely full of cars and supporters. It’s a amazing place at 4am on a race day.  I had a wander about seeing various runners pass through. I saw Fionna Ross and Rosie Bell who were leading the women’s race set off just behind each other.

The midges were bad so I wandered up the path to see the runners as they came down from Conic Hill. It was great to so many looking good and obviously happy to be running and moving well.

I was expecting Jonny about 4.30am (3.30 race time) and sure enough he came in right on schedule but he didn’t look happy at all. His knees and hip were hurting big time and he was obviously finding it tough going. This is not good when you still have 75 miles to go!

I tried to encourage him but did wonder whether this was going badly wrong. His last words were for me to tell Francis, his partner, that he was going to be well behind his splits!

I went over to the Oak Tree for a bacon roll and cup of tea. They were doing a superb job keeping the support teams fed and watered. We really appreciate the fact that are willing to open up and serve us right through the night.

I jumped back into the van and headed up the road to Rowardennan. Jonny had a drop bag at Rowardennan so I’d arranged to see him at a passing point about 3miles from Rowardennan.

I saw a number of runners on the various paths that you can see from the road. I saw Jonny who seemed to be running a lot better and was sure enough when he arrived at our meeting point he was in good spirits.

Jonny said the pain killers had kicked in and he was feeling better.  He took some water and was away again. The next time I would see him would be Lundavra!

I drove to Drymen to Francis’ ‘Kip in the Kirk’ b&b.  I arrived about 5.45am. Francis was due to leave at 8am when she was going to meet friends Jo and Jason and head up to Beinglas to meet Jonny.

I made myself a cup of tea and spent some time looking at the splits from Balmaha and Rowardennan on my iPad. I fell asleep for 30mins or so. At 7am I could hear Francis was up so handed over the race documents and waved her off at 8am.

My plan was to try and get a few hours sleep before leaving about 11.30am to meet Katrina and head up to Lundavra but that 30min nap had taken the edge off my tiredness and also I realised that Paul and Robbie were running faster than I’d anticipated so realised we needed to get to Lundavra earlier than the 2.30pm I had planned.

I rang Katrina and arranged to meet at Duck Bay Hotel at 11am rather than our original 12.30pm. I had a shower and some breakfast and waited until I’d seen that Jonny was through Beinglas on the splits. I knew that once I left Drymen I wouldn’t be able to get much information as their is very little mobile reception at Lundavra.

I could see that Paul and Robbie were over 45mins up on Paul’s time from last year. It looked like they were neck and neck and having some battle.

I drove to Duck Bay and while I waited for Katrina to arrive collected some more wood! We left our car there and set off for Lundavra in the van.  On the journey I filled Katrina in on the race so far.

We arrived at Tyndrum just before 12noon so decided to stop at the Green Welly to see the start of the Relay.  We literally arrived just in time to see them set off up the hill. Steven and Norman from Kilbarchan were there. They were running the race with David who was running the first leg.

As we chatted to a few folk Jonny Duncan ran through. Two things stand out. One he was running up the hill which after 53miles of running was impressive and second he had no top on which wasn’t quite so impressive !!

We were back in the van and set off for Lundavra.  We arrived just after 1.30pm.  This would be our base until 8.45am the next day!

We quickly got set up not that there was a lot to set up.  Ian and Sandra arrived and we put up the gazebo, unloaded the wood, got the music box ready and waited for Paul to arrive.

Paul came along at 2.09 (race time 13:09). He say much but his team quickly got him what he needed and he away.  I thought if he runs this last 7miles in 1:10 he will be around 14:20 and that what was he did.  An amazing performance. I checked on an app on my phone and that works out as 9:06 pace for 95miles which includes 14,000 ft of ascent.

L01

Just over 30mins later Robbie Britton arrives.  He was carrying a stick and I thought he asked where is the bonfire. I explained that we are going to light it when it gets dark but I realised that he read my Facebook post asking support teams to bring some wood if they could! This was his contribution! What a star.  He went on to finish under 15hrs on his first West Highland Way Race.

L02

We knew there would be a gap to 3rd place so we used that time to get the fire ready and collect some more wood. Now that all the trees have been cut down it was harder to find but we were able to get enough and as the weather has been so dry it was ready to burn.

We felt really cut off from the rest of the race as we didn’t have any mobile signal so couldn’t check the excellent SPORTident live updates.  So when a support crew arrived it was good to chat to them and find out who they were supporting and when did they think their runner would arrive.

Dawn soon arrived with another couple and they set up ready to meet Matt Williamson.  I have been interviewing Matt on the West Highland Way Race podcasts and so was really hoping he could hold on to 3rd place.  I did find it funny as Dawn maticulously set out her tray with a whole variety of different options. I knew full well that Matt would only take 1 thing at best.

dawn

 

It was great to see Matt looking strong and he did finish well for a 3rd place finish in 16:05:07.  I’m looking forward to interviewing Matt for the next podcast.

L03

The next 3 runners took another hour or so but from 7th place onwards we had a steady flow of stream of runners coming through until about 5am when it eased off a bit.

Katrina and I settled into a pattern ….

  • We chatted to the support team and found out how their runner was doing.
  • When we spotted a runner in the distance we put on some music at full blast. We had the Rocky theme or the London Marathon theme.  It was fun to see runners respond to the music with a run.
  • As they arrived we took their number and recorded their time.  I’m glad we did as when support crews arrived they wanted to know whether their runner had been through.
  • I tried to take a photo of each runner.  As the night wore on and runners were obviously struggling a bit Katrina encouraged me to ask whether they wanted a photo rather than just take it! Most did.
  • We offered any help we could.  Even though there isn’t officially any water available at checkpoints we did take some water and coke in case runners weren’t being met.  I’m glad we did have some as quite a few had a drink.
  • We then made sure they knew what was to come.  Particularly for those who have been on the route before I wanted to be honest with them about what was to come. I told them there was 6.95miles to go. The first 4 miles was undulating with ups and downs and then they had a 3mile downhill run to Fort William.
  • I also found myself giving lots of runners challenges! For example I would ask them whether they can still run.  If the answer was yes I’d say if you can run the downhills you can do this section in 1hr 20mins which means you will finish in under 20hrs. Later on it would be 1.40 for a 25hr finish etc.  I hope it helped some of them to focus on something other than the pain!
  • We then sent them on their way with a message to enjoy the glory leg.

We manned the checkpoint for almost 20hrs but I can honestly say the time flew by and I really enjoyed watching the runners and their support crews.  Some needed more help and encouragement that others.

It was also good to see the relay runners come through and we noted their times as well.  We were particularly looking out for Steven (Kilbarchan team) …..

L04

… and Caroline ….

L06

One of my favourite photos was Jonny (still with no top on) and Antonia who was supporting him ….

L05

Jonny had a superb run.  He was hoping for under 24hrs and finished in 19:35:15!!

We lit the fire about 10pm and we were able to keep it going right to the end.  The cardboard boxes burned really brightly and gave off a lot of heat so whenever I thought it was flagging a bit I would put a cupboard box on and then a larger trunk which kept it going.

fire

Sunday 22nd June 2014

Here are some highlights from the evening ….

  • Playing with Cairn as Debs and Sharon waited for Fionna Ross to come through.  We played sword fighting with a couple of sticks and then a throwing competition with stones. Cairn was very clever at giving me a small stone to his big one of the other sway round depending on the game we played!
  • Tom Boland’s Mum.  She was so fun and would callout, ‘You have a customer’ whenever a runner appeared in the distance.  We missed her when she left!
  • The midges were a pain!  When we first arrived there was a breeze so it was great but as they evening wore on the breeze died down and the midges appeared.  The fire was great as it drove them away.
  • Lots of runners thanked me for the podcasts saying they have been really helpful.
  • One support brought us a fish supper which we shared. Then Caroline brought a couple up for us so we were well fed.
  • A couple of support teams brought a pile of wood to help with the fire.
  • It was great to see many friends coming through determined to finish off their race.
  • Support crews were so positive and wanted to help their runner in whatever way they could.
  • We had a good crowd at one point around the fire and I was so glad we were able to keep it going.
  • It was only really dark for about an hour and once it starting getting light again it lifted everyone’s spirits.

I was getting a little concerned that Jonny hadn’t been through then 3 set of runners passed on a message that he was coming …. slowly and he was having a tough time but he was coming!

Then at 2.24pm he arrived with Francis and another runner and his support.  I must admit I’ve never seen him so low and tired.  He reminded me so much of how I felt in 2011 when I struggled.  I also knew that, like me, he was going to finish. It wasn’t going to be easy but he would get there.

Francis,his partner, was superb encouraging Jonny to get up and get going.  She was looking for any positive encouragement. When I told him he was 116th Francis immediately told Jonny there were over 70 behind him!!

jonny

As they set off for the final leg my heart went out to them as I knew how tough that last 7miles was going to be.  I’m spoken to Jonny since and it was stomach issues that really brought him down in the end.  I’ve no doubt he will be back to get a better time!

George and Karen arrived about 6am and we worked out between us who was still to come.  The final 10 runners arrived between 7am and 8.30am.  I must admit this final hour did drag a bit but Katrina was determined that we did as good a job for them as the previous 147!

The final runner eventually arrived followed by the 3 sweepers and we were free to dampen down the fire and drive to Fort William.

sweepers

Jeff Smith from Wilderness Mountain Rescue who had also been at bios post for 20hrs called in on his way back. Thanks Jeff for all your hard work!

jeff

The final photo was taken of Katrina and I at the end of our (ultra) marathon shift!

john& Katrina

Caroline very kindly offered us a showering her room at the Travel Lodge. It felt so good to have a shower and then go and enjoy the buffet breakfast. I was feeling really sleepy by now so went back to her room for a 30min sleep which definitely helped.

At 11.45am we walked over to the Nevis Centre for the prize giving.  The West Highland Way Race is special in so many ways but the prize giving is extra specie. Each and every finisher is presented with a crystal goblet and Ian reads them out in order of their finishing position from 1st to last.

The following 3 photos were taken by Davie Hall. Here are the rest of his photos

pr1

I had the privilege of presenting them with Sean and as runner came out to collect their prized goblet you see the emotion on their face.  I had many a tear in my eye as I know just how special it is.

There were a couple of standing ovations.  Firstly for Paul Giblin as he was presented with the winning shield for 1st place.  There must have been almost 1,000 people in the room and they all knew just how special that run was.

pr2

There were 5 people who completed 10 West Highland Way Races. They were presented with a decanter as well as their goblet.  Fiona Rennie the last of the 10 to receive her decanter was given a standing ovation as everyone knew what Fiona had battled though to get their.

pr3

So another West Highland Way Race is over.  I really enjoyed being part of the race in a different capacity.  It is such an honour to be involved in helping to make this race happen.

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2 Responses to Supporting the West Highland Way Race

  1. Ian says:

    Great post John, and a huge thanks to you and Katrina for all your efforts over the weekend.

  2. Kynon says:

    It was a pleasure to see your friendly faces at Lundavra (and the music was absolutely inspired!) – knowing that once we get there, that means the end is very definitely within reach! I did wonder if the photo of us sweepers would make it into the race blog… 😉
    I am still lost for words at everyone’s achievements, and the performances of Paul & Robbie in particular – for now they are providing me with some slightly worrying levels of inspiration for my own running goals! The Nevis Centre clearly needs to do something about all the dust in the air during the award ceremony…there was definitely something in my eye when Fiona Rennie got her 10 award! I was also really happy that Fritz (last place) made it, and was clearly so happy to have done so, given how close he came to jacking it in at KLL…
    Another cracking weekend, all in all. Roll on next year, although I think I will have a different role then, as Rhona is hoping to run it…

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