My preparation in the weeks leading up to the West Highland Way Race is never the same. This year, the wedding of my stepson Stephen and his fiancée Gillian in the Dominican Republic at the end of May meant that things had to be done a bit earlier than usual. Final race instructions were sent out in early May, with an end May deadline for return. Almost everyone managed to do what was asked, and after the normal chasing of a few stragglers, I had a clean sweep of information with just over two weeks to go to race day.
I felt very emotional about the race in the week leading up to it. The Facebook page was full of questions, previous race memories and various other chat, and I didn’t seem able to read any of it without the tears welling up in my eyes. Maybe it was the fact that 10 years ago, in 2009, our good friend Dario was organising the race for his tenth time; none of us were to know then that it would be his last, before being taken from us while out a run with friends in the Lochnagar hills. Maybe it was a recognition of the massive event the race has become, and the consequent pressure to deliver an excellent event, while maintaining the family feel which has always distinguished it from any other ultra marathon. Whatever it was, I was pleased to put on my out of office on the Thursday evening, and get myself into race weekend mode. Well not quite; I had a UK Athletics members’ council meeting on the Friday morning which I took part in by video conference, not being prepared to take the chance of being stranded in Birmingham if (as is too often the case) the airlines proved unreliable. I also managed a decent 6 mile run that morning, before heading home to pack for the weekend.
We left Edinburgh at 3pm on Friday afternoon and headed through to Drymen, where we had a room booked to allow me to grab a couple of hours’ sleep on the Saturday morning. Carol joined Sandra and me there for dinner and, despite very slow service and a bit of a strop about the time it was taking to get the bill, headed off at 7.30pm. We arrived at St Joseph’s Church just after 8pm to set up registration. Race night was underway.
I should at this stage pay tribute to the people at St Joseph’s Church. We have used the hall there for a number of years, and the way we are looked after is fantastic; they make us feel so welcome. I believe Fiona, who looks after the hall, now follows the race avidly all weekend, watching the online tracker to see how things are progressing. We are fortunate to have such great support, not only from St Joseph’s but also from people like Lynne at the Beech Tree Inn and the Fraser family at the Oak Tree Inn. A huge thank you to them all.
Registration opened 10 minutes early, at 8.50pm, and went very smoothly all night. I love seeing runners and support crews arrive, almost all faces struggling to hide the pre race nerves, even from people who have done it many times before. By midnight everyone had registered, and the station car park was filled with adrenalin. Sean and I did our briefing at 12.30am, then at 12.50am Adrian gave a lovely tribute to friends we have lost during the year. At exactly 1am the wife of one of those friends, 15 times finisher Tony Thistlethwaite, started the race with a blast of the hooter. 238 runners headed off through Milngavie town centre and in to the night. Sean, Adrian and I shook hands. The first bit was completed successfully. We had a race.
We tidied up the final bits and pieces in the hall, thanked the church caretaker, and headed to the car to head up the course. Before leaving I had a look around at the station car park, which was now completely quiet. No-one would have known that, only 15 minutes earlier, it had been the scene of one of the most iconic race starts in the Scottish running calendar.
It was a pleasant evening for running; a nice temperature and dry, with a good forecast for the whole weekend. We dropped in to the Beech Tree Inn to see the first runners go through, enjoying the wonderful sight of hundreds of headtorches heading along the old railway line; our own torchlight procession. I dropped Sandra off in Drymen so she could get a few hours’ sleep, then headed on to the first checkpoint at Balmaha. Although it was a decent night, and the midges at that stage were not too bad, it was noticeably darker than the previous year, with the leaders still needing their headtorches as they came in to the checkpoint. I chatted to a number of support crews and watched most of the field arrive. The car park was busy but managed (just) to cope with the volume of traffic. I had to deal with an incident where one of the leading runners arrived at the checkpoint from the wrong direction. It turned out he had taken a wrong turn and had missed out Conic Hill. After a quick assessment I decided that a one hour time penalty was appropriate, which was accepted by the runner and his crew.
Sean woke up around 5am, and I took my turn at grabbing a bit of sleep around 6am. I don’t get much sleep and was back up at 7.45am, but along with a shower and quick breakfast it was enough to freshen and perk me up for the day ahead. We drove round the loch and called in to Beinglas Farm, which I was pleased to see was a sea of calm; quite a contrast from the year before when we had all sorts of traffic problems there. I feel sorry for the runners not being able to meet their crews, but I spent a lot of time over the last year trying to find a solution, including a meeting with the landowner’s factor, and we couldn’t work out anything that would work, other than a ‘no support’ checkpoint. On the day I thought it worked well, in no small way due to the excellence of John Duncan and his crew who provided an enhanced service for the runners arriving there.
Auchtertyre had also been a worry. We were concerned that support crews would go there too early as they could not go to Beinglas. This worry increased when we heard a few days before the race that we wouldn’t be able to use the normal field because of the heavy rain. Fortunately John Kynaston was on top of this. He was in charge of the checkpoint and had printed off details of when each runner was expected to arrive, based on their actual arrival time at Balmaha. This worked well with most support crews doing what they had been being asked, and only a few being turned away and asked to come back closer to their runner’s arrival time.
Next stop for us was Bridge of Orchy. The first two runners had gone through, but we saw a few of those high up the field including the first lady, Siobhan Killingbeck. She had a decent lead and looked in great spirits, as did her crew. We left there and popped in to Glencoe, giving me a chance to thank Alan Kay for all his efforts manning the checkpoint over the years. Alan was one of the reasons I first got involved in the West Highland Way Race, having seen him wearing a race t shirt at the 1997 Inverness half marathon and being interested enough to find out a bit more about it from him. I attempted my first race in 1998 (which I failed miserably) and have been involved in some capacity every year since then, except 2002.
From Glencoe we drove round to Kinlochleven, managing for the first time to get ourselves ahead of the race leader. We didn’t have long to wait before Rowen Boswood arrived. He was looking strong, had established a good lead, and after a very quick stop headed off for the final 15 miles to Fort William. Although anything can happen in an ultra, I didn’t see him losing the lead he had, and it was great to see the excitement amongst his crew who, like Rowen (and indeed Siobhan) were experiencing the race for the first time.
Before going to the finish we headed up the narrow road to the last meeting point at Lundavra. It is only 7 miles from here to the end of the race, but feels very remote. The checkpoint team were here, along with Rowen’s crew, but it was still very quiet. Rowen came through more or less in the
time we expected and once again wasted no time at the checkpoint, preferring to push on to the finish. We expected him to get there in a bit over an hour, so headed back down the road towards the finish. It was clear that, unless something went badly wrong, he was going to finish in a very fast time of not much over 15 hours.
I arrived in Fort William feeling slightly nervous about how the new finish at the Nevis Centre would work. I had a vision in my head of how I hoped it would work, but how would it turn out in practice? Would we end up with the leader heading down Fort William high street, completely lost? Would support crews know where to find the Nevis centre? I shouldn’t have worried. Adrian Stott and team had done a great job, both of marking the final section of the race and in setting up the finish inside the hall. It looked superb; a real theatre for those arriving. We set up the last few things and waited for the leader to arrive. When we heard cheering from outside we knew he was nearly there; Rowen came in to the Nevis centre, crossed the line and recorded the sixth faster time ever of 15 hours 14 minutes. It was his longest ever ultra, first time he had raced over 55 miles, and first time taking part in the race. A wonderful performance.
Rob Payne finished second in 16 hours 9 minutes, followed by a slightly disappointed James Stewart in 16 hours 42 minutes. It says much for James’s qualities as a runner that a sub 17 hour run was a disappointment, and even more about his fighting qualities that he was able to keep going when he knew it was not his day. Not far behind was the first lady, Siobhan Killingbeck. She finished sixth overall in 17 hours 41 minutes, the third fastest ladies’ time ever. A remarkable performance from someone who was completing her first long ultra marathon, and who is better known as an extreme triathlete, having previously won the Celtman. I have to admit that her lack of ultra running experience meant her entry was one of the ones we considered when deciding if all entrants had ‘adequate relevant experience’; our decision that she had was well and truly vindicated.
I stayed at the Nevis Centre until around 9pm, and then headed back up to Lundavra to see how things were going there. It was a lot busier than it had been earlier, and there were a lot more midges around. From there I headed back to the Nevis Centre for a short while before driving down to the Kinlochleven checkpoint. Everything seemed fairly quiet and I was able to grab another hour and three quarters sleep, and freshen up with a shower. By that stage some of the 30 hour plus runners were arriving, all looking tired but mostly in good spirits and determined to make it to the finish. I left Kinlochleven at 4am and returned to the Nevis Centre. Seeing the later finishers is a very emotional experience, knowing how much effort they have put in and the length of time they have been out on the route. They were well looked after by the finish, welfare and medical teams.
The Nevis centre began filling up for the prizegiving from around 10am, and the atmosphere got better and better. By the time the final finishers were arriving there must have been 200 people in the hall, and the reception every finisher received was fantastic. I watched the oldest ever finisher cross the line – Rob Reid, 73 – and the oldest ever female finisher – Norma Bone, 67. What an inspiration they are to people of all ages. The 196th and final finisher crossed the line just before 11.30am, and we had half an hour to turn the hall in to a theatre for the prizegiving.
As always, the prizegiving was an emotional and wonderful occasion. All finishers received their goblet in finishing order. A special presentation was made to Neil Rutherford on his tenth finish, and to Rob Reid for being the oldest finisher. Murdo McEwan and Alan Kay, both of whom are stepping down this year, were presented with bottles of whisky to thank them for their many years of service. The final finisher, Stephen Wise, received his goblet from the first finisher, Rowen Boswood. It is a lovely tradition and, for the first time all weekend, had me struggling to contain my emotions.
Adrian, Sean and I were then presented with a lovely memento from Murdo to mark our many years of service to the race. I should point out that none of us plan to give up yet.
We had a few beers, a bit of sleep, then headed to the Great Glen for a few more beers and the chance to catch up with others who had been involved in the race. We reconvened on the Monday in the same place for some breakfast, then headed our separate ways. We left Fort William around 5pm and headed back to Edinburgh, with a stop at the Real Food Café in Tyndrum for some tea. It was the end of a wonderful weekend.
It is now just over a week after the race and I have had a chance to reflect on it properly. While I am sure there are areas we can improve, overall I think the organisation went really well, and the quality of the race was as good as I could have hoped. The new finish at the Nevis centre worked really well. It gave us more space, and provided a better atmosphere for the runners and their support crews when they finished. The main thing that made the race so outstanding, however, was the people. Everyone involved in the organisation was brilliant, with an absolute focus on providing as good an experience as possible for everyone taking part. It is a pleasure to be involved in something so special, where people work together so well to produce an event which is truly world class. The West Highland Way Race family is an amazing group of people, and it is a privilege to be the Race Director of such a wonderful event. A huge thank you to everyone who played their part; this race shows that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they work together with a common goal.