The Way of the Midge

What is it about doing a 100 mile race that makes you want to do another one immediately? After the Hardmoors 110 last year, I wanted to try something else, something that I could push myself to improve on. So many people that  love Hardmoors love the West Highland Way race, so I decided to apply and think about it later if I got in. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to get the chance to think about it too much until I’d actually set off from Milngavie at 1am last Saturday morning.

Jayson and I had recced some of the route last year and I was feeling pretty good about not getting lost and maybe being able to put in a decent time. There are a lot of runnable sections, a couple of not too huge hills and some nice descents. I thought my only issue was going to be the lochside section from Rowardennan to Beinglas Farm, as it is so rooty and rocky which doesn’t suit me at all. Roll on June!

Then ‘life stuff’ happened. Lots of it. I still wasn’t getting any good training sessions in after the 55 DNF, and my head had no room in it for an impending 96 mile race. So, it took me by surprise when I found myself standing next to Milngavie train station with almost 200 other runners about to start what is often billed as one of the toughest ultras out there. Suddenly, we were off.

The first 19 miles to Balmaha are very quick. Running along an old railway line in the dark, I actually felt pretty good for a change at the start. The pace was comfortable and I seemed to be at the sharp end of the race. This was when things started to go a bit wrong! I arrived in Balmaha after 3 hours and 4 minutes having had at least 3 toilet stops and feeling a bit grumpy. It was a shame, as the climb up Conic Hill with the moon high over the hills and the water, with no need for a head torch was stunning. And I was within sight of Lizzie Wraith, so I should have been really pleased! The support here was incredible, as it was at every checkpoint: I couldn’t believe the volume of people that were voluntarily up and chirpy at that time! Jayson and Adam quickly got me topped up with water and sent me on my way to Rowardennan. Jayson later told me he was worried here as I had only asked for Clif Shot Blox – something which usually comes later when I can’t stomach ‘real food’. I just couldn’t face eating much knowing how my tummy might react,so I took some tablets to settle it and ploughed on.

The 7.7 miles to Rowardennan are lovely, consisting of rolling paths in woodland and some glimpses of the loch to the left. But, coming onto the road into Rowardennan at dawn, we all got a taste of what was to be a very testing few hours. A small cloud of midges hit me as I ran into the car park checkpoint and suddenly, I was covered in them. Jayson found me, rammed a net over my head and made me sit on a bench to change my shoes. I’d planned to go from my Scott RCs to my Scott Kinabalus as the tread is more grippy and they’re more supportive. It was a frantic few minutes as the little critters were descending on everyone in the car park in their millions. I had never seen anything like it. I sprayed Deet all over my arms, head and legs and took off again, not looking forward to this next technical section.

A lot of other runners were using their buffs to cover as much of their face as possible but I kept the net on and it seemed to work. It didn’t stop them covering the rest of me though, even with the spray. It was like ploughing through a wall of them! Things didn’t improve when I dropped down on the lower lochside path and because I was moving so slowly, I seemed to notice them more. I did think I was just being an English wuss, but I ended up running with Neil Rutherford, a veteran of the WHW, who told me they were the worst he’d ever seen them. There was a lot of loud, mutual annoyance going on for the next few hours! In the couple of miles coming in to Beinglas Farm, I pulled away from Neil and the midges dispersed a little. At around 9am, the day was starting to warm up, but Jayson had made me a much needed cup of chai and got a cheese sandwich ready for me as I climbed up and away from the loch. My tummy had settled now but I think it was maybe too little too late for me to regain that energy I had lost and I was finding it hard going. I was filling up both my bottles every time I stopped but couldn’t really get many calories in.

Auchertyre WHW

Coming into Auchertyre, after the Great Midge Battle 2016. You don’t know. You weren’t there.

The 10 mile stretch to Auchertyre was much quieter on the midge front, so I took the net off and it felt great to breath air again. The path here is quite undulating but nothing too strenuous so I made a bit of time up and reached the checkpoint in just over 2 hours. By this time, the sun was blazing hot and the support crews were enjoying themselves much more than they had been at Rowardennan! This was the first of two weigh-in stations and the marshal told Jayson to keep an eye on me as I had lost 2kgs. Not surprising really, considering the huge dinner I had the night before and all the toilet stops! I was starting to feel the heat too, and Jayson and I both thought the other had packed the suncream, so we had to borrow some from Neil who had caught me back up and was looking great again. I was ravenous when I got here and very quickly demolished a bowl of super noodles. My stomach ballooned and pretty much stayed that way for the rest of the day, I think because I was so dehydrated and trying to hold onto as much as possible. This did make it a bit uncomfortable to run too but I definitely needed to stuff my face! I changed from a tshirt into my Xbionic Trick vest to stay cooler and set out again clutching a packet of crisps, with Jayson and Adam saying they would meet me at the other side of Tyndrum a couple of miles later with an ice lolly.

Running through Tyndrum – not a checkpoint, but still drawing a crowd – brought a very welcome surprise but also made me realise how much I was suffering. As I ran toward the road crossing, a chap was sitting in a deckchair with a big sign behind him saying ‘Shine Bright You Diamond’. He looked up and saw me coming, grabbed a laminated sheet, scanned it and said ‘Well done Kimberley’. This nearly had me in tears: what a lovely thing to do, especially over 50 miles into a race when the smallest gesture means so much. What really set me off though were the relay runners. I just happened to get there as they were about to set off, and I’m so glad I did. They started cheering and whooping when they saw me and as I ran towards them, they parted for me, applauding and shouting as I ran through them all. I started sobbing as I walked up the hill they were about to run up and as they passed me, it set me off again. Jayson and Adam met me at the top with a Calippo and as I relayed the story, I started crying again! Although it’s an incredible thing to feel these emotions in these events, I still had over 40 miles to go and was totally shattered.

By this time, the iPod was plugged in and I was just grinding it out as best I could. Music always helps distract me and I even manage to have a little sing along at times. For most of the stretch down to Bridge of Orchy, I was trotting along nicely. The course was so dry: even cow poo alley was easy enough to just go around instead of the comical rock clinging I’d had to do on the recce. I think it was around this time that my right IT band started tweaking a bit, probably because I was losing any kind of form from fatigue. One more thing to worry about! Over the road and after the pub at Bridge of Orchy, Jayson had parked up right next to the footpath I was heading towards and was trying really hard to get me to eat. I managed one and half pots of jelly: not many calories but at least it was something. John Kynaston was there waiting for his runner and he assured me I was doing really well. It certainly helps to hear that from someone so experienced! I headed up the next climb, still chugging away but feeling generally rough.

I think this section was christened ‘Jelly Baby Hill’ for pretty obvious reasons: someone at the top with Jelly Babies – Murdo, I think. I still have a slightly addled brain! Because I had my earphones in, I didn’t quite understand what was happening though, when I could hear a little tune in the background of my music that didn’t quite fit. I looked up and saw someone playing… I’m not sure: a tin whistle or flute? I turned my music down and was treated to the Star Wars theme tune. Very uplifting! As I ran (ok, walked) past these two very lovely gentlemen, I think Murdo said something encouraging to me but, like I said, addled brain!

I had run some of the moor section to Glencoe Ski Centre before, so thought I knew roughly how far off I was, but it felt like I was up there for a long time. Eventually, Jayson came into view and told me how much further I had to go; I think he said a few miles. Funny how a few miles can seem overwhelming when you’re tired. The descents were hurting my ITB now and I was going much slower down them than I wanted to. I made it though, and at about 71 miles in, decided that I wanted Adam to join me. Adam had done the race last year and had an horrendous case of trenchfoot, wrecking his hopes of a sub 20 hour finish. He had finished though, so I knew he could chivvy me along. We set off down the road towards the Devil’s Staircase and it felt good to just be able to watch his feet in front of me and follow in his steps, not thinking about feeling sore or tired, just focusing on one step at a time. We managed to stop a couple of times and admire the view: it really is a spectacular part of the world and the weather permitted us to see it at it’s best. The Devil’s Staircase was long, but not too hard, even though we were moving slowly. The other side really got to me though. I had to warn Adam several times not to worry too much about the weird noises I had started to make. I even plugged my earphones back in for most of the descent to try and drown out my pained grunting.  This part is all a blur to be honest. I just know I was worried about my legs, having not had this issue for a long time, and I desperately wanted to get to the end. Out of nowhere, I needed the loo again, so had to stop, but I felt better for it.

Jayson met us again a couple of miles outside of Kinlochleven, the last checkpoint and weigh-in. He was worried that I was going to have lost more weight as I had only been able to get small amounts of food in. I was drinking loads though and my stomach still felt bloated. We ambled down the last steep descent and I had to have a little walk on the road. Into the leisure centre, onto the scales and I had put the 2kgs back on! I could only think that I was holding onto all the liquid I’d been drinking. I managed some fruit here and forced down most of a cheese sandwich on the way out of town. Adam was a bit spooked by a wide eyed local out for a walk in the woods, waving his walking stick! I think he was just interested in us…

Rather than think of this last leg as one long stretch, Adam told me that there was a high point where someone put out prayer flags and another point where the marshals had a bonfire called Lundavra. It was about 6 miles from the end from there so it all seemed much more doable. We kept pushing on, jogging the flats and descents and walking the ascents. It cooled down a bit so we both put our jackets on, and the midges had started to appear too. They weren’t too bad though as long as you kept moving. I did have one final weird episode where, in the space of about an hour, I peed about 5 times! This did worry me as all the fluid I was putting in wasn’t getting absorbed. I just had to keep drinking! Jayson ran out to meet us again and topped my bottles up. We eventually saw the prayer flags in the distance and got a nice picture where I look a lot happier than I felt! You could hear the party at Lundavra before you could see it and, even though I can’t remember the tune they played as we approached, it was a nice little boost to get the cheers again so close to the end. Jayson left us and the next time we would see him would be in Fort William…

Prayer flags WHW

The famous prayer flags. A lovely sight!

I had forgotten about the last little steep climb into the woods which turned out to be a nasty sting. As we climbed up, Adam pointed out that we had caught up 5 or 6 guys who seemed to have joined forces. He said that we’d be overtaking them soon. I did try to believe him. It was also here that I think I realised I may have been hallucinating for a while. I had been seeing faces in things all day: rocks, trees, clouds and had just sort of accepted it was normal. I do remember one thing very vividly though. As I walked up this last hill, I looked down and saw two small rocks sitting about four feet apart with bunny rabbit faces on them, then looking up and seeing two very different faces in some felled tree stumps. I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if it’s a Scottish thing to carve and paint faces into stuff?’ Remembering all this on Sunday morning did make me realise how this race had driven me into a place I’d never been before!

Adam had been right: we did catch the guys up. I was convinced there was only a couple of miles left and I could hold them off. Then Jayson appeared at the top of what I thought was my descent to the road. He told us it was ‘only about 3 and a half miles to go’. I nearly cried and throttled him. It seemed too far! The noises I was emitting were awful now, but uncontrollable. I had never felt so utterly spent before.I kept expecting the right turn down to the road but it didn’t come. Jayson and Adam were so encouraging but I felt defeated. When we eventually turned down to the road, I knew sub 21.30 was out of the question, so I set my sights on 21.35 instead. Not too much difference. The guys we had overtaken got past us again as I had to have a small walk break but I was past caring! When the leisure centre came into sight, I let myself go and fnally, 21 hours and 34 minutes after I had set off, I shuffled under the inflatable arch. Needing to sit down, but not really knowing how or where, I plonked into the nearest chair which I think belonged to a marshal. Jayson ushered me inside and I slid onto the floor, completely in the way but I just wanted to stretch my legs out. I dissolved into tears, not of joy but sheer exhaustion and relief. When I eventually got into a chair and got a cup of tea, Karen Leaf (Hardmoors masseur) came and congratulated me. I think she cried too! I remember David Scott sitting next to me and being equally as spaced out after doing an incredible time of 20 hours something. I had met him a couple of months earlier on a recce and we had run together for a couple of hours, at the end of which he bought me an Irn Bru. Thanks David, and well done again!

The end of this journey sees me laying in the changing rooms for a while with Karen trying to feed me toast which I couldn’t swallow for being so dehydrated; puking into a funny disposable cardboard bowl from the first aid lady which made me feel 100% better and eating supernoodles while laying on a recliner wrapped in a fleece. Such a glamorous hobby. Almost a week on, and I’m surprised with how my legs and feet feel. Heavy, yes but I could get up and down stairs easily just a day later. My feet were fine too. Only one blister that I didn’t notice and all my toenails intact. In fact I think they were the only thing that didn’t cause me any pain! Thanks Tony Holland @the Ultra Runner Store for the Scott Kinabalus. I highly recommend them for rock hard, very long races! To sum up, this one has been a learning experience. As only my second 100 miler, it was very different to the 110. Last year, everything went right: this year, everything did not. Preparation really is key and, as I start to think about what to do next year, I’ll definitely have that in mind. The CCC in August should be a fine French patisserie piece of cake after this Scottish monster!

WHW finish

Post tears, pre-puke!

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Knowing when to stop.Crazy, Colossal with some Calamities.