“There are as many reasons for running as there are days in the year, years in my life. But mostly I run because I am an animal and a child, an artist and a saint. So, too, are you. Find your own play, your own self-renewing compulsion, and you will become the person you are meant to be.”
~ George Sheehan
It was an idea conceived several months earlier in the year, when temperatures were warmer, trails easier to run and hours of daylight considerably greater. The concept was pretty simple – to run the West Highland Way in full, in mid-winter, in less than 24hours – something that, to our know knowledge, had not been achieved before. It was potentially another one of those ‘great idea at the time’ challenges, when the chance of failure is greater than success and a good dose of luck is required. But aren’t those the best?......
Mid-winter in long distance challenge terms can mean a few different things, but our take on it, in line with the guidance provided by the well respected Bob Graham Round club, was the weekend closest to the shortest day, this year (2009) Monday 21st December (a mid-winter round is defined as any time from the weekend before the shortest day through to the first period of decent weather after the shortest day but to be completed no later than 10 January). Our attempt was lined up for the weekend immediately preceding the shortest date given the following Saturday was Boxing Day, when families may not have been quite so understanding. Another nice feature of the date was that it fell exactly 6 months after the annual West Highland Way Race during which I set the 'summer', or longest day, record in 2006.
My partner-in-crime was Murdo McEwan, an Edinburgh based friend who is a true WHW enthusiast and a man of great WHW experience, not least from running a time of 19hrs 08mins as a vet in 2008. No further introductions needed. The original intention was for the two of us to run it together, with a target time of around 22 hours, however 10 days before the big day Murdo suffered a reoccurrence of a leg injury which forced his withdrawal. It was of huge disappointment to both of us, particularly given that detailed arrangements were already in place, but with Murdo's selfless enthusiasm for the mission to progress despite his inability to take part, I quickly made the decision to go ahead regardless.
One of the main reasons behind my decision was the quality of the support already in place. Murdo had arranged a first class line-up of support crews, all from Carnethy running club. They were split into three pairs to support the lower, middle and top sections of the route. The quality of these guys provided a reassuringly solid foundation for the challenge and the sort of opportunity that comes around rarely.
As a great bonus Lucy C, a fellow WHW 'summer' record holder, had also decided to have a bash at the challenge. Lucy was originally down to support however had been tempted by the opportunity to fill the vacant running spot left by Murdo’s withdrawal. Lucy and Murdo therefore made a straight swap. Lucy had, however, quite clearly stated that she was only going to 'have a go' as it was a very last minute decision to run, and she had not had opportunity to prepare at all.
By far and away the biggest threat to the project was the weather. The Scottish Highlands aren’t known for being particularly welcoming in late December with possible weather scenarios ranging from storms, snow, below freezing temperatures and not a lot between. This, you will appreciate, is the luck factor I referred to in my first paragraph, which would strongly dictate the outcome of the challenge (or the amount I suffered!). And so my attention in the final few days before the planned start time of 12.01am on Saturday 19th December was firmly focused on the weather forecast, and in particular what would that well-established low pressure weather pattern hugging the British Isles would bring.
The final forecasts turned out to be spot on; temperatures well below freezing for the whole run (-5ºC to 0ºC) and a 2-3hr band of snow passing through early Saturday afternoon. Beforehand I was undecided as to whether this was a good result or not. Positives: not much wind, frozen and dry trail, novelty of winter wonderland feeling, no rain. Negatives: very cold air to breathe for up to 24 hours, difficulty in regulating body temperature, risk of crew not making it to support points due to froze/ snow covered roads, ice all over the place, driving snow. On balance, I was happy with the forecast.
We all met on Friday evening at Murdo and Jo's in Edinburgh for the 'last supper', a brilliant home cooked feast prepared by Jo. I was pretty nervous by that point and my main concern was the weather, the cold in particular, having not run for such a long periods in sub-zero temperatures before. I also wondered whether the support crew guys themselves were quietly questioning my sanity in deciding to go ahead. They later rubbished that thought! The decision did however rest with me. Whilst there were certainly strong doubts and question marks in my mind, not least the potential risk of the crews getting stuck on frozen roads, on balance I felt the goal remained achievable and my outlook was simple; to give it a good go – nothing to lose.
Milngavie just before midnight on the last Friday night before Christmas was not surprisingly quiet. It was strange arriving at the railway station to see the car park deserted having only ever seen it as a hive of activity on Fling or WHW race days before. Previous race memories came flooding back and continued to do so at various points of my journey that day.
We got out the car at the last minute, carried out a final kit check, posed for a couple of photos, then quietly headed off into the cold and darkness for the start of another episode of endurance running madness.
Conditions in Glasgow were certainly an improvement on Edinburgh; no frozen snow to contend with but the trail was frozen solid - tarmac hard - and surface water frozen solid too, making cautious footing the order of the day (well mostly night). The lowland section out of the Glasgow suburbs was gentle and uneventful as it always is; the calm before the storm in many respects. Olly and Jamie met us regularly at the road crossing points - Beechtree Inn and Drymen initially - fuelling us with warm tea, muller rice and crisps. I applied the same golden rule as usual – start eating and drinking early – wait until you feel like it and it’s probably too late. They provided reassuring and calming company at the brief stops we made. Lucy and I chatted a lot and generally put the world to rights, as well as stopping occasionally to appreciate the incredibly clear and star filled sky which was a genuine treat – the perfect night. It certainly felt to me like someone was looking down on us.
Conic Hill was a little tricky, the usual streams flowing down the trail had frozen, sometimes over the rock, making for slow going. For the first time in my dozen or so crossings of the hill it was also near-perfectly still at the top. The descent was unpleasant; icy, steep and dark but before long we had dropped into the Balmaha car park, arriving at around 3.40am, where the calming and assured presence of Olly and Jamie got us patched up and on our way again efficiently.
Loch-side (Lomond) trails provided welcome variety to the running (it’s amazing how much you can see on a clear winter’s night); the trail meandering northwards, mostly through woodland, gently rising and dipping but with a few beach sections and a wee bit of road. We trundled on at a sensible pace enjoying the wildlife sightings, including owls on two occasions, but very little else. Maybe even the wildlife was doing the sensible thing?
On the final leg of the lower section of the route, between Sallochy and Rowardennan, Lucy signalled her intention to call it a day. It was clearly something she had been thinking about for a while because she sounded assured with her decision - and one I respected her for. As Lucy points out in her very honest blog account, it is not really a challenge to take on half-heartedly, and unfortunately her heart just wasn't in it that day for various reasons. Lucy therefore took the brave, but completely sensible, decision to halt at Rowardennan and catch a lift back from there.
Rowardennan was the final meeting place with the lower crew, so there I waved good bye to Olly, Jamie and Lucy and thanked them for all their kindness and help. As I scuttled off into the darkness there was immediately a different feel to the run from running solo; a greater awareness of the distance ahead, the weather conditions and my night time surroundings. Ahead of me was a long unsupported section up to Beinglas Farm at the top of the Loch. It is a notoriously hazardous section of the trail, with many tricky rocky outcrops, lump and bumps to negotiate, so it was a time for caution with many faster, more runnable, sections ahead to save my energy for. The ice-on-rock was the greatest hazard, but despite the odd close shave I managed to get through to Inversnaid without too much drama.
Passing in front of the Inversnaid Hotel presented the greatest test of will power of the whole journey, wafts of freshly cooked bacon and eggs drifted across the trail, enticing me in for a feed-up. It was clearly not a time for such luxuries so I settled on my pocket full of sweets instead, and got my head down towards Beinglas where I knew Murdo and Russ would be waiting with a bucket full of porridge and a gallon of tea.
Dawn finally broke just after 8am, about as late as it ever gets. It had been a lengthy spell of night time running which had required plenty of concentration to prevent rock-trips and slips on the ice. I felt weary and jaded so looked forward to seeing Murdo and Russ, my middle crew, who would help to boost spirits and get me fixed up for the approaching climb up Glenn Falloch into the Highlands. Murdo had run out a mile or so from Beinglas and was a very welcome sight. We exchanged a few words to confirm all was well but I just wanted to get to Beinglas for breakfast without too much delay, and I was now far more conscious of time, so I cracked on.
Beinglas was a significant milestone in my ‘mind-map’ of the challenge. I was looking forward to the scenic but runnable sections of the route northwards of there, particularly the wild and open expanses across the drovers roads, and the novelty of running in the daylight (hmmm, all 8 hours of it).
Departing Beinglas I told the guys it was my intention to step it up a bit. I felt the timings up to Beinglas were a little slow at c 9 hours, but it had felt like I had been running briskly and sensibly given the conditions, so on reflection the pace was probably about right. There was, however, plenty of runnable trail ahead.
I had a good leg to the next meeting place, Carmyle Cottage, running the majority of the stiffly climbing vehicle track up Glenn Falloch. As I looked down at the Falls of Falloch down to my left it struck me just how cold it actually was, there were sheets of ice on slower parts of the river, not something you see every day. It was Russ’s turn to come out to meet me. He took my order, then flew back to the car to start preparing. The way he whizzed off into the distance made me realise I perhaps wasn’t motoring as much as I thought I was but he later told me he thought I was going well.
The farmyard section before the woods above Crianlarich – usually horribly mucky – was frozen solid so I could skip straight across it, a nice bonus. Indeed, having been running for c.10hours, my feet were still dry as a bone. There had been the odd incident of icy puddles giving way underfoot but the majority were frozen solid. Entering the woods at the top of Crianlarich and the descent to the A81 road crossing I started to think about reaching Tyndrum where I would take a proper pit stop for food. From that point I only had one thing on my mind – fish and chips for lunch from the Real Food Cafe. It’s not something I would usually go for but I suspect the cold was making my body work harder than ever to keep going so it was just my body craving high fat calories to help re-fuel. I wasn’t going to fight it so duly with made my request to the guys and spent the final four mile section to Tyndrum with my mouth watering and stomach rumbling.
On reaching Tyndrum at around 11.45am and hearing the news from Murdo that the cafe had not yet opened, I suspect my face was one of utter disappointment. The thought of fish and chips had dragged me through those last few tough miles when I was running out of steam and stuck in a low. There were however alternatives on offer. A nice big juicy a big juicy bacon sarnie, a hot pasty and a big mug of tea. Oh the simple things - all of a sudden the world wasn’t quite such a terrible place. The food was wolfed and charged me up to the max, but the weather had now turned, the band of wind and snow had arrived. So I added more layers - pertex bottoms and a fleecy neck warmer - in preparation for the exposed sections ahead.
I knew from the forecast that the band of snow was only due to last a couple of hours so I felt confident tackling it head on in the knowledge it wouldn’t last forever. I crossed the A81 by Brodies store and consciously tore into the climbing trail ahead leading out of Tyndrum, trying to run every inch I could. Running a quick pace was a natural urge my body seemed to support, it was fighting to keep warm after a prolonged halt. The hill climb certainly seemed to do the trick, my core soon warmed then my extremities quickly followed suit. I enjoyed running in the snow, and before long the fresh powder was accumulating nicely on the trail. In addition to the novelty factor the snow helped to cushion my strides and level out the unevenness underfoot, particularly appreciated after all the rutted and frozen terrain before.
It was real winter wonderland stuff. I felt so lucky to be out there and running in such beautiful surroundings with fabulous support behind me. On the final stretch before Bridge of Orchy it was Alun who came out to meet me. I was in good spirits, we chatted a bit, but the stop at the car in the station car park was minimal, I wanted to crack on and enjoy every moment of the conditions as well as make the best of the remaining daylight.
Over at Victoria Bridge, the start of the Rannoch Moor crossing, I picked up Russ who had kindly offered to run this long, exposed section with me. I was excited about the chance to have some company on the run and he also appeared raring to go. We left through the gate on to the old drover's road running side-by-side and remained so all the way across. In fact, aside from a brief unscheduled pit-stop, we ran the whole leg without stopping covering the 9mile stretch in just over 75mins. It was good going, our inspiration undoubtedly coming from the incredible conditions. The winter skies were gently glowing at the end of the day, several inches of beautiful powder lay on the ground and there were deer roaming all around us. In fact, their tracks in the snow were the only signs of life out there. On meeting the support guys again on the ski centre road before the Kingshouse Hotel we were both grinning ear-to-ear. It was without doubt one of the best bits of running i've ever experienced. I'm sure Russ's sentiments were the same.
Alun and Andy took over support crew duties at Kingshouse, to see me through the all important final stages when the wheels were most likely to fall off. Glen Coe was a beautiful sight in the fading light. The sky glowed various colours against the white and grey of the mountains. I began to appreciate my decision to step the pace up from Beinglas because it gave me the opportunity to run Glen Coe in the last-light and enjoy the fabulous views. I loved every step of this stage of the run, it felt like a real honour to be there, a real treat.
Alun joined me for the climb over the Devil’s Staircase when it was back into a much smaller word evolving around the 10 metre radius of a headtorch beam. We expected to get buffeted at the top by the northerly wind which had accompanied the earlier band of snow, but it must have dropped just as we made the pass, because it was almost perfectly still up there. The snow had obviously been drifting because it lay six inches or so deep in the channel of the trail creating great conditions for the meandering descent. The crunchy powder provided good grip allowing us to skip down at a good lick. However as we dropped down towards Kinlochleven at sea level the snow thinned out, switching instead to ice which was far less grippy and not trustworthy underfoot. The starkly contrasting conditions brought a change in my mood as I struggled to negotiate the ice and found the slower pace and patience required plain frustrating.
The icy conditions and my tiring legs resulted in a significant low point at Kinlochleven where I met the support guys once again. It was all starting to take it’s toll; 81miles into the challenge I felt done and felt fatally glued to the chair I had parked myself in. I scoffed a few bits of food down, but was sick of the sight of the contents of my food box. I started to get settled and nicely comfortable in my down jacket but there was urgency coming from the support guys, they were shimmying me along, conscious it was a crucial stage, and not time for me to start loafing around. It was also getting extremely cold. In the few minutes I stopped my body temperature plummeted, so much so the only sensible thing to do was run. And with that thought I did, heading out of town, up the rocky path to the hanging valley of Lairigmore.
Trail conditions in the valley were awful. Ice, ice, ice, it was everywhere. The mountain streams crossing the track every few hundred yards had obviously recently been in flood, had spilt over the track and were now frozen. Great. It made the going painfully slow and frustrating, my confidence not helped by several falls on the nasty ice. It felt like I was going at crawling pace and that it took an eternity to get across to Lundavra where the guys were waiting.
My sense of humour had now completely gone so I only stopped for a brief moment at Lundavra, sparing the support guys my grumbles, feeling instead that I should get to Fort William without further torment. Andy kindly joined me for this final leg. I wasn’t really in a chatting mood but massively appreciated the company which kept me pushing on which I might not have managed on my own. The conditions were much better through the woods and I managed to pick up a bit of momentum, albeit the effort required to do so was significant. I moaned and groaned quite a bit, mainly jokily, helping to release a bit of the frustration and emotion that had built over the previous leg. Andy must have been wondering about my unusual motivational techniques having never run with me before!
As ever, it was a real relief to emerge on to the main vehicle track which descends all the way into Fort William. There is only one way to run that stretch and it is hard. We had a good blast down there, probably pushing 6 minute miles, but feeling a lot quicker. There was no snow on the track, just the odd icy puddle which I missed in the blur and plunged my foot into. I was back on form, enjoying the run in.
Alun and Murdo were there waiting at the bottom of the hill, joining me for the final stretch along the road into Fort William. The town was quiet and in hibernation, much like Milngavie had been so many hours earlier. Having looked forward to arriving there for so long, and finishing what had been such a big challenge for me, it was a strangely subdued atmosphere, but what was I expecting?
I touched the official WHW finish sign outside the visitor’s centre as I passed, but the endpoint I had in mind was the same as for the race, the Leisure Centre. I ran across the car park and on to the steps of the Leisure Centre, reaching there 21 hours and 14minutes after I had set out from Milngavie, having successfully completed a memorable journey in true winter conditions. I am the first to admit I had a decent dose of luck, that was always going to be needed, but boy did I enjoy it.......
With special thanks to Murdo & Jo McEwan, Lucy, Jamie, Olly, Russ, Andy & Alun who made it all possible.
- Jez Bragg
- Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!