The biggest race of my life to date
Following an almost DNF experience on the Highland Fling race, sorting out my hydration and nutrition in the approach to the West Highland Way Race was my priority. I had learned a few things from my most recent Fling experience:
1) Water is not enough for these kinds of distances. Although the right amount of water can be sufficient for anything up to marathon distances, ultramarathons require runners to take on electrolyte supplements in addition to water. This is of course affected by how much you sweat during a race. For me, this is A LOT. So, I need to take an electrolyte supplement in my water to keep me properly hydrated and performing at my peak.
2) Sugar is not your friend. Yes, sugary foods can give you a quick burst of energy, but over ultra distances this peak of energy fades quickly into a trough which can be difficult to claw your way out of. Ultramarathons require runners to be regularly taking on real, nutritious, protein-packed food.
I planned my food and drink for checkpoints during the West Highland Way Race accordingly.
My training in the lead up to the race consisted of mostly interval-based sessions and hill-reps, as I already had the distance in my legs from the Fling only 7 weeks before.
West Highland Way Race Day
The West Highland Way Race covers 95-miles of trails winding their way north from Milngavie to Fort William, taking in spectacular scenery, 14,000 ft of ascent and representing the biggest challenge of my life so far. At 1am on the Saturday morning, with ultra-vests packed, just 200 trail ultra-runners set off from Milngavie with a collective goal: get to Fort William within the next 35 hours.
We set off from Milngavie with excitement, elation and last minute advice and good-lucks from our crews. I knew I had sorted my previous issues as my feet found their rhythm across the trails.
The first 20-miles passed in a haze of adrenaline and conversation with other runners.
My least favourite section approached: the 22-mile loch-side trail between Balmaha and Beinglas. I got my head down and somehow before I knew it I was looking up towards the checkpoint at Beinglas.
Things heat up!
Something I hadn’t anticipated was the heat: it was a really hot day, meaning that staying on top of my hydration became even more essential. At every checkpoint I took on some fluids and traded my empty soft flasks for full ones from my crew (with one always containing electrolyte supplements). I passed through Auchtertyre (51 miles) and Bridge of Orchy (60 miles) feeling strong.
The way my body and mind felt at 51 miles was unrecognisable from the pain I had been experiencing at that point in the Highland Fling race. By the time I reached Glencoe (71 miles) I was repeating my new mantra to myself: ‘It was always going to hurt, just keep putting one foot in front of the other’.
The fight to the finish!
Leaving Glencoe, the next major obstacle was the Devil’s Staircase (aptly named in this situation). It has never seemed so unbelievably high to me as when I already had 76 miles in my legs. I passed through Kinlochleven (the last checkpoint of the race) at around 11pm after getting up a good pace on the descent in.
Soup and coffee later I high-tailed it out of a gathering swarm of midges and set off on the last leg of the journey. Lairig Mor is an atmospheric and beautiful place, but I wasn’t able to appreciate it on this occasion because I was focusing on putting one foot in front of the other over the remaining 15 miles.I was running through my second night on the West Highland Way Race and every inch of my body knew it.
I ran across the finish line at Fort William 5:27am, after covering 95 miles in 28 hours, 27 minutes and 14 seconds.
All I wanted to do was jump up and down and celebrate with my family and friends, but all my body was capable of was crawling into my tent, elated, muddy and exhausted.
Behind The Scenes: The Crew
Although I completed the West Highland Way Race, no trail runner can complete an ultra without the help of an enthusiastic and long-suffering support crew.
Mine consisted of my mum, my big sister, her bearded partner, my best friend and my partner.
Those 5 people fed, watered, encouraged, teased, persuaded and tough-loved me from Milngavie to Fort William. I can honestly say I would not have completed it without them.
My greatest advice if anyone is looking to start distance trail running: find a loyal crew, feed them, love them, appreciate them. They are your greatest asset.
Keeping morale up is essential, and for this I am eternally grateful for the gift that is support runners. Although they can’t take away the pain and exhaustion so far into this kind of race, their conversation and encouragement is invaluable.
This is never more apparent than when you mistake a rock for a pillow over Lairig Mor (still the best 10 minute nap I’ve ever had). My big sister and best friend ensured I didn’t stay there and get hypothermia (a very real possibility in a Scottish summer), persuading me, singing to me and just generally keeping me convinced that forward was the right direction.
It was an experience that will not soon be forgotten!!! You have to do it to believe it. Surely the Devil O’ The Highlands Footrace (43 miles) has to be a breeze after this…
Will I claim the Triple Crown? … Keep following the Run4It blog to find out!