West Highland Way Race report

Saturday 24th June 2017

I wasn’t sure I was going to write a race report for this my 41st ultra as sadly I had to dnf (did not finish) but our good friend Caroline said she was looking forward to reading it so here goes!

As I came onto the beach section about 21 miles into the race I started to accept my situation. I was going to dnf (did not finish) an ultra for the first time. This was my 7th West Highland Way and 41st ultra in total since I started in 2007.

A few more runners went past including good friend Lesley. I was feeling very sorry for myself and I could feel tears were welling up in my eyes. I had thought I could at least get to Beinglas Farm where Katrina was due to take over support duties or Rowardennan where Jonny was due to finish his spell.

But as acceptance hit home I realised that even those modest targets were beyond me. Every step now was painful and it was only going to get worse if I continued to stubbornly push on.

The tears that were forming came rushing out now as I accepted the fact that I was going to stop. As I came onto the road Calum (Lesley’s husband) was waiting for me. He had some tape and offered to patch me up if that would help but I was beyond tape!

I bend over in tears and Calum came over and gave me a hug. There was nothing he could say to make it better but I really appreciated his support and friendship.

After a few minutes we got into the car and drove to Sallochy where we met Jonny. We then drove to Rowardennan to give in my timer chip and officially dnf.

Thankfully the marshal at the checkpoint didn’t know me so I was able to hand it in and leave quickly!

As we drove to Balloch Jonny heard the full story. As we work together he has heard a few more times since the race!!

So how did it end like this? To answer that I’ll need to recap my year so far ….

My training had been going pretty well from January when I set out my 6 months plan with the aim of getting to the start line as fit and ready as possible.

I had a really good January followed by a mixed February when I tried to prepare for the National Cross Country and Inverness Half Marathon as well as continue my ultra bulid up. Looking back I struggled to do both and ended up doing neither particularly well.

March was better but I still had some runs when I felt I was struggling a bit. Also a small pain in my ankle developed which as a ‘good’ ultra runner I ignored hoping it would go away.

April was dominated by the Fling when I ran 10:38 which was about 30mins slower that I hoped I could do but was probably about par for my fitness and ability! I was aware of my ankle during the race but as it didn’t seem to hinder me I continued to run!

May was a really good month. I had an easy week after the Fling then 3 weeks of 50, 50 and 95 mile weeks. I the middle week I had an encouraging run on the Kilpatricks when I ran 35 mins faster than the same run in March.

The big week included my 3 day recce on the Ring o’ Fire course in Anglesea. Again I was conscious of my ankle but as it didn’t stop me running I hoped it settle down soon.

I had an easy week after Anglesea and then ran the Milngavie Trail race the following Sunday. I probably shouldn’t have run as my ankle was quite sore throughout the race but once again as it wasn’t so bad I just kept going.

I had planned to do a medium week with some final harder sessions but I decided to have 5 days off with the hope that the pain woudl ease off.

On Saturday I had arranged to run with Cammie and decided to go ahead. It was two weeks before the race and we had a great run on the Gleniffer Braes chatting about the race. Cammie was in great shape and I knew he was going to do well in the race.

My ankle was sore throughout the run and deep down I knew I was in some trouble. My taper plan was to run every other day for the next two weeks before the race but I decided it would be better to have two weeks off and hope that that would be enough to clear it up.

Also on the advice of others I went to see Matt Williamson, a Physio and friend. Matt was really helpful and identified the problem as my Posterior Tibilais Tendon. He was hopeful with two weeks rest and some rehab exercises it may be okay.

During those two weeks I didn’t run a single step which would not be my normal preparation but I had to trust that this was the only way to give me a chance. As the days went by my ankle definitely felt better but the killer sign was whenever I walked down stairs it was still sore.

I tried to block it out as much as possible and prepare as normal for this great race. I took Friday off and spent the day relaxing and getting my gear and food ready.

At 10.30pm Jonny, my support for the first night, arrived and we headed off to Milngavie at 11pm to register and get reasdy for the start.

I have been on the other side of the table for the past 3 years so it was good to be back on the runners side again. The registration process was very efficient and within a few minutes I was all sorted.

I greeted a few people and then went back to the car for a final rest before the briefing and the start.

Milngavie to Drymen
As soon as I set off I knew I was in trouble. My ankle was sore and basically just got worse with every mile. I was hoping above hope that it would ease off and give me a chance.

I had decided to run to my heart rate of 125 and right from the start I had to ease off to keep it that low. Normally when I’m running well I start abut half way down the field and slowly catch and overtake people.

Not today. I started about half wasy down the field and just went further and further back which did nothing for my confidence.

I ran with Lesley and Cammie for the first few miles and while they looked very comfortable with the pace I was finding it much harder than I should. I felt slugglish and uncomfortable.

I was so conscious of my sore ankle that I tried to change the way I was running which is never a good thing to do.

I ran with Lesley Allen for a while. She was doing her first West Highland Way race and had been given lots of good advice which she was following to the letter. So she was walking all the hills and setting off at a very sensible pace.

When we reached the road section before Drymen my good friend Robert Osfield caught up. Normally I really enjoy chatting to Robert as he had lots of interesting thoughts on ultra running but I just didn’t want to chat! Sorry Robert.

I was going through a real battle as I knew my ankle was not going to ease off and it was only going to get worse.

In my podcast chat with Lesley the following week I said that this first section could be summed up with the word denial. I didn’t want to face up to the truth of what was happening.

I came into Drymen in 2hrs 25mins which was about 10mins slower than my sub 23hr plan. That wasn’t a disaster but the fact that I wasn’t running very easily was.

Drymen to Balmaha
The key word for this section was reality as I started to come to terms with the fact that I was in real trouble and at very best this was going to be a long long day and at worse I was not going to make it.

I wasn’t yet ready to face the fact that I would have to stop so I opted for the first option that this would be a battle to just finish.

As I climbed the first hill out of Drymen I caught up with Cammie who explained that he had missed his support at Drymen and was a bit concerned that he didn’t have enough water.

We walked up the hill together but as soon as we were able to run Cammie was away and I was left behind. When I tried to run my ankle was really sore for the first few strides and then just sore!

Jonny was waiting for me at the start of the forest. Because I was so slow the light was up so I could give him my head torch. I tried to appear positive but I don’t think I fooled him!!

A few more runners went past but I couldn’t do much about it. One of them was Neil MacRitchie on his way to his 13th finish and 100th ultra altogether! It was good to chat to Neil but once we hit the downhill bit to the bottom of Conic HIll he was away and I couldn’t run very easily on that section.

Once I reached the bridge and started climbing my ankle felt a bit easier and I decided to forget about my heart rate and jsut push up as best I could.

I went past Neil and a couple of other runners which was frustrating in its own way as it showed me that my fitness was there but it was my tendon that was letting me down.

Once I reached the top and started the descent reality hit me big time as I literally could not run at all. My ankle was so sore that I couldn’t put any pressure on it and so I was reduced to a slow walk all the way down.

Several more runners went past me and reality was hitting me big time now. What was I going to do? If I can’t run at all then can I make it by walking only? I didn’t really want to face the fact that I was grinding to a halt.

A few more runners went past me on the approach to Balmaha including Lesley who was surprised and concerned to see me. She was moving well and I wished all the best as she ran past me to the checkpoint.

Jonny met me at Balmaha and as we walked to the car I explained my situation. Basically I remember saying that I was not able to run and I was going to walk until the race timed me out!

Balmaha to my dnf

Our initial plan was for Jonny to meet me at Sallochy but he said that he would stay until Rowardennan if that would help.

As I left Balmaha I tried to work out my options. I couldn’t run but if I could walk at 3 miles an hour for the remaining 75 miles I could still beat the cut offs. The problem was I was only walking at 1 mile an hour!

Peter Duggan caught me just as we went past the white cottage. He was working on a very conservative start and was keeping to do it. I wished him well as he set off up the hill.

I slowly made my way up the short hill to the viewpoint where Ryan and Bekki were married 5 years ago. West Highland Way legend Fiona Rennie went past me again having stopped a little longer at Balmaha.

Once over the top and onto the descent acceptance (my third key word) was coming to the forefront of my mind. I just couldn’t put any weight on my ankle so it was a slow painful descent.

My plan of just keeping going until I was timed out seemed a really silly idea. How much damage could I do by walking for another hour or more. I had always promised myself that I would be willing to dnf if I was injured and could do more damage by carrying on.

I was thinking that we have a holiday to Indonesia to visit Emma, Yonas and Noah leaving the following Saturday and if I carried on could I put that in doubt. I knew it wasn’t worth it but acceptance is so hard especially when this race means so much to me!

Once I had met Calum and accepted my dnf I switched to support mode. Katrina and I met at Balloch and we spend the rest of the weekend supporting our friends in the race. But that’s for another post.

– [ ]

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2 Responses to West Highland Way Race report

  1. Sandra says:

    Think it shows we are all human. No shame in a DNF, I’ve had them for less for sure! I know how much this race means t you John so I hope you’ve drawn line under if and moved on to next project and you’re ankle heals quickly. Enjoy that holiday, italready looks like paradise and I look forward to seeing/hearing all about it!

  2. j0hncassidy says:

    Very honest and in a way, heartwarming report John. I’ve listened to all of the WHW podcasts and read your blogs so have an understanding of what this means to you. I was helping out at Kinlochleven and saw you and Katrina there encourage people on despite how you must have felt personally. I take my hat off to you, you’ll come back stronger for this experience. Thank you again for all that you do for others involved in ultrarunning.

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