Seeking asylum in the hills & transcendence on the trails

West Highland Way Race Report – 2012

The ‘Big One’

Can’t believe I’m writing my report already. It’s done. It’s gone for another year and already I’m dreading the long wait for its return. I love the West Highland Way race. There, I said it. There is always a drama, there are times when you’d choose to be anywhere else in the world but for now at least, it feels like a home-race.

I won’t go in to all the details – there are a lot of other reports for you to get through and you’ve probably heard most of the same stuff from me for a while. In short, training had been good, taper was pretty straightforward and I was more organised than the year before thanks to all we had learned on my first WHW race. I arrived in Milngavie feeling good but perhaps not as confident as I had hoped having pulled out of the Cateran Ultra after 20 miles or so due to stomach problems. It was an emotional exit having won it the year before and had been extra stoked by the fantastic line-up of talent on the day. It wasn’t to be though – so had to try to put it to the back of my mind.

The start

At 12.50am, we lined up in Milngavie for the start at 1.00am. Maybe the longest 10 minutes of your life when you just want to get going. The atmosphere at the start is difficult to describe. Whilst as individuals we all have our own plans, worries and concerns, for a minute or two it feels like we all understand (both runners and support crews) the sacrifices that have been made to get to the start line, the challenge that lies ahead and what it will take to reach the finish in Fort William. It felt like we were all in it together. It’s a special moment.

The line-up was again fantastic, Richie Cunningham was back to defend his title (again), David Gardiner was running, as was George Cairns, Craig Cunningham and the super-talented winner of the Lakeland 100 – Terry Conway.

The first few hours as usual feel pretty surreal. The weather only seemed to add to it as we tried our best to keep our feet dry for at least a couple of hours.

I had planned my pace right through the race and really tried hard to let the front guys go and stick with it. I sat in 4th for the first section and was happy to let them push on if that was their intention. I ended up staying in the lead group though with all the stopping at gates etc. and it seemed to be slightly less exposed to the elements as a group. We mostly didn’t speak, which always makes me chuckle. We’re all way too serious and athletic for that.

Going into Drymen the rain battered down – too late for a waterproof now, already soaked to the skin. As we  trudged through the bog towards the gate and up to the throng of Support crews I laughed out loud as the Team Pyllon WHW aircraft landing jackets were switched on once again – the flashing LED’s directing me to a fresh bottle, supplies and slap on the back.

Drymen – Balmaha (20 miles)

The rain seemed to get even heavier at this point (if that was at all possible) and there was no sign of the sun coming up as the four of us continued running up the climb from Drymen.

As we moved through the Forest (that is no more), the silence was broken and for the next 20 minutes or so Terry and I chatted. It was nice to get the chance to talk to such an accomplished runner and it was clear he had plans for the day!

Going up Conic Hill was as expected – mostly river-based but much darker than the previous year. It was going to be a challenge getting down the steep mud-slide on the other side and we joked about it as we neared the top. No view today, just a sudden mist to make it all the more challenging. At first I reached up to wipe my eyes until I realised, eyes don’t tend to steam up – I moved on without sharing this with my new pals.

We didn’t really hang about on the descent – seemed to be safer just to keep moving, the sooner we were off the slope, the better.

Balmaha – Rowardennan (27 miles)

I went straight through the CP and out onto the next climb. Craig and Terry followed and the other runner seemed to drop back a little.

Annoyingly I had to stop for the toilet  at Millarochy and that was pretty much the last I would see of Terry 😦 That put me into 4th and was the first time I had the chance to run on my own. I caught the runner in 3rd before Rowardennan and was running pretty well and feeling fresh along the stretch I normally don’t enjoy. At the carpark I met my support and finally changed some of the soaking wet gear I was wearing. Felt good to be dry and to finally dump the headtorch.

I ate breakfast as I walked and said goodbye to the crew who I wouldn’t now see until just after the halfway point.

Rowardennan – Inversnaid (34 miles)

The wind picked up on this section down the lochside. Was glad I had changed. A mile before the CP at Inversnaid I spotted Craig and caught him at the steps leading down to the Hotel. Sadly he seemed to be suffering some pain from a recurring injury. We chatted at the CP in-between swallowing midges and I left soon after.

Inversnaid – Beinglas (41 miles)

So that was me in 2nd place and it’s where I would stay for the rest of the race. Inversnaid to Beinglas takes you along the undulating banks of the loch to the campsite at the head. Always feels like a milestone to reach as the terrain changes and the views are very different. It was just a matter of keeping my head down and moving along this tricky section. With the rain still falling from the heavy sky, the quiet and empty trail, hills to one side, loch to the other I got a real a feeling of being just a tiny insignificant speck in nature’s playground – a happy speck .  I do consider myself to be extremely lucky to  be able to run in the places I do and I got a warm feeling about just being there in the moment and being free to move as I wanted. I was then rewarded with an eye to eye moment with a deer only a couple of minutes later. I like to think we connected for second and then she turned around, set off through the trees and disappeared into the rain,  showing me how offroad running should be done.

As I started the descent to Beinglas I  began to think about seeing my support again at Auchtertyre (just over halfway).

Beinglas – Auchtertyre Farm (50 miles)

Quick chat with the friendly people at the CP (a read of the surprise messages stuck to my drop bag) and I was off again with a new bottle and some tasty snacks. They’d do for the uphill section!

No real let up in the weather as I made it to the gate above Crianlarich to the ‘Enchanted Forest’. The rollercoaster that never seems to end. I just wanted to get to the road and finally onto the farm to my crew. My Mum and Natalie met me a few hundred yards before the farm and when I reached the carpark I was honoured with the Cowbell being rung by none other than Lucy Colquhoun (easily one of the very best runners I’ve ever raced with). I later found out it was the UTMB CCC race winner bell – honoured! I was weighed, I quickly changed some clothes and had some food from the wide selection that Team Pyllon had prepared.  It’s only after I watched some video taken there that I realised just how little I say to my support through races. They never moan though despite my ill-manners. As I headed off with a few goodbyes (and grumpy requests) they checked me out and I was back on my own again.

Auchtertyre Farm – Bridge of Orchy (60miles)

Again it was strange reaching the camp-site next to the finish of the Highland Fling. No point in dwelling on it – I still had about 42miles to go. I passed the Green Wellie stop and continued to climb as the rain hammered down. There were a few WHW walkers on this section –  huge packs and poncho’s (you know they type). I just couldn’t understand why they’d be doing it in such miserable conditions, but I guess I wasn’t really in a position to question their madness.

Bridge of Orchy – Glencoe (70miles)

By Bridge of Orchy there didn’t appear to be anyone closing in on me. Had expected to see Richie C at some point even though I hadn’t slowed too much. Terry was long gone but I was feeling good and with some positive chat from the A-team, some more food and drinks I was on the climb again.

At the top of the climb I was thrilled to see Murdo again and his saltire. How’s that for commitment!! A few pyllon howls of appreciation, an orange jelly baby and I was heading down towards Victoria Bridge. I passed Debbie and Sharon going the other way, they gave me a smile, some words of encouragement and I was soon down at the start of the “cobbles”. This is always tough and was the first time I was starting to feel tired. A pep-talk from my sis and I was pushing myself across the moor to Glencoe. This was probably my hardest spell and it’s something I’ll need to sort if I’m to post a quicker time next year.

Glencoe – Kinlochleven (81 miles)

By the ski-centre the wind was howling and the rain heavy. That was all forgotten when I realised a friend I haven’t seen for ages had driven out to see me (with his family). I felt bad that the weather was so awful and that I’d only be able to chat for a minute but also genuinely touched that they’d made such a huge effort.  It made the thought of the Devil’s Staircase a little less daunting.

Food was now being forced upon me and I knew better than to argue at this point despite the non-complementary flavour combinations. And with a few good hugs and good luck messages I headed off towards the Devil’s staircase.

I worked hard on the climb but didn’t manage to run as much as I had planned up the zig-zagging path. Once at the top I moved as quickly as I could on the downhill.

Kinlochleven you can see from a few miles away but for some reason it never seems to get any closer despite best efforts. I had other things on my mind though….

…..the year before.

As I got close to the point of my navigational disaster in the 2011 race I did chuckle to myself. Not this time my friend. I was minutes from safety last year I just had no idea that my decision-making and rational thinking might be affected by 14 hours of solid running.  It was nice to reach the CP and not have blown my race.

More food, drinks and a change of gloves and it was back out onto the steep climb up onto Larig Mor.

Kinlochleven – Lundavra (88 miles)

It’s bleak on the Mor at the best of times. It was wild on WHW race day. The wind and rain were relentless, the trails were flooded and the rocks were sharp. But, I was getting close! It was the first time I really started to feel cold though and I’ll admit now, with all the rain that was falling, the puddles and stream crossings I didn’t  much feel like stopping for a pee. Why not enjoy the free warmth anyway??

Lundavra – Fort William (96 miles – according to my Garmin)

When I finally reached Lundavra the crew were there. Looking pretty tired for the first time but excited too that their own endurance test would soon be over and that I might actually be pleased at the end.

I was getting tired now and was happy to reach the top of the final climb and onto the forest track. I turned around and looked back down the trail and  couldn’t see anyone behind me. I knew I was now safe in 2nd place and I wanted the race to be over now. Can’t be much more than 3 – 4 miles but they’re always the longest. I knew I was going to be very close to sub-17 so kept moving as best I could.  As I moved down and around the switchbacks I had worked out that I wouldn’t quite make the time. The miles were confusing me though as it appeared that I was closer to 95 miles than the location (from experience) was telling me. As I reached the Braveheart carpark my Dad was there to see that I was ok. It made a difference and I picked up the pace on the road anyway. As I reached the 30mph signs I realised I probably could have made the time – maybe too late now. I legged it along the final stretch and as I turned into the carpark and headed for the entrance of the leisure centre I couldn’t stop the howls. My crew was delighted and there were 15 or so others clapping. It’s a very special feeling indeed and I thank everyone who made the effort to see me in.  I savoured the moment of placing my hands on the doors and the WHW race was over again for another year.

I finished in 17 hours and 26 seconds, in 2nd.

Turns out it was a very special day indeed as Terry smashed the course record. A truly remarkable performance from a genuinely nice guy. What a talent to share some time with and nice to have been part of a historic WHW race.


Can I thank all the race organisers / marshalls / runners and support teams who made it a race that continues to grow inside me. It’s a unique event and I’ll always be grateful for the experiences it has given me.

To my awesome twitter support (friends) especially: @runner786 @dingdongrun @johnnnny_M  @goodonskis @xplantrunner @gruppox @mrafletch and @fivefootdead

To Scotland’s finest osteopath Daniel Gerber (@glasgowosteo) who is always there to ensure I can run as far and as hard as I want to.

Finally to my amazing Support team – Mum, Dad, Nicola and Natalie. Again, I simply couldn’t have done it without you. You’re unfaltering support is way more than I deserve, not just on the day itself but through all my ridiculous training schedules, my strict eating rituals and all-round general obsession – you’re amazing. Only 3 more WHW’s and there will be a crystal goblet for each of us 😉

Can’t wait for the next one or for someone to finally sort out a winter reverse WHW 😉

I’ll sort out a post or two from the Support Crew who will tell it like it really is! to follow…

22 responses

  1. Davie Bell

    Great report Paul genuinely delighted for you, no one I know trains and disciplines themselves more than you , well deserved and glad you put last years mishap to bed for good.

    July 6, 2012 at 9:43 am

    • Cheers DB.

      Looking forward to the ‘tour’ now.

      I’ll bring enough lentils for you – don’t worry 😉

      July 10, 2012 at 5:17 pm

  2. Nitnat

    Great report, was glad to be part of it again. I was shattered just watching you run it!!!! I was delighted to see u so happy at the finish line and v proud to see u pick up 2nd place. Nats xx

    July 6, 2012 at 10:03 am

  3. Great report Paul, we were all so chuffed for you when the news filtered back that you’d smashed out a great race and come second – after the challenges of the year so far you really deserved it.
    I met your Mum at the finish line! She came over to say hello when I was slumped in a heap at around 06:30 awaiting my runner.
    See you around soon 🙂

    July 6, 2012 at 10:40 am

    • Cheers Rhona, that’s really kind. Sometimes I think the Supporting must be tougher than the running!

      See you soon,


      July 10, 2012 at 5:18 pm

  4. Richie

    Well done Paul, you ran a top class race in terrible conditions, well deserved.

    July 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    • Thanks Richie. That really means a lot.

      Hope you’re well.


      July 10, 2012 at 5:19 pm

  5. Thomas

    Great report. And you do look so much happier than after last year’s finish!
    Outstanding performance in particular in those conditions. A very well deserved 2nd place. Very well done!

    July 6, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    • Cheers Thomas. Didn’t feel right that you weren’t running however!

      You’ll be back racing the WHW next year?


      July 10, 2012 at 5:20 pm

      • Thomas

        Paul, yes it was a bit weird not to run this year. But I would have had a disaster of a race in that weather.
        Though I was still in the race as a supporter which gave me a completely different perspective. But the plan is to be back next year! As a runner. Can’t wait!


        July 11, 2012 at 9:52 am

      • That must have been really strange being on the other side Thomas.

        Hope Silke is recovering well!


        July 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm

  6. Minty

    What a brilliant run, and your support team are pretty amazing as well – out in all weathers always with a smile and ready for a chat. A real team effort. Good luck in your future races.

    July 6, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    • Thanks Ian. Yeah, I’ve been (mostly) lucky landing a solid Support Crew!

      They know far more people than me though – I just get to hear the stories after the race.

      What races you got planned for the rest of the year?

      July 10, 2012 at 5:23 pm

  7. As always you amaze the hell out of me with your abilities , you train religiously and your self motivation is beyond belief , you deserve every thing you achieve and you just keep getting better !! stick in mate your the Great Danes big goolies !!!!

    July 8, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    • Mark – your words always spur me on. Hasn’t been an easy year but I’ll keep on going.

      Bring on Chamonix!

      July 10, 2012 at 5:26 pm

  8. Jo

    Great race Paul
    Loved it all in spite of the weather. Well done. X

    July 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    • You guys were awesome (other than the p*ss-taking that I now know about!)

      You made all the difference.


      July 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm

  9. Great report Paul and interesting to see where you were in the darkness compared to us slow folks. What a result, chuffed to bits for you after your troubles at Cateran.

    July 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm

  10. Great report and a great run. Now trying to work out how to allow you to run harder and faster. It’s been a privilege to treat you the past year.

    July 9, 2012 at 7:58 am

  11. Fantastic, Paul.
    You looked like you were cruising when we saw you before Victoria Bridge. Hope you’re recoveing well.
    Debs c

    July 9, 2012 at 9:37 am

  12. massively massively well done, what a race, and what a performance. well done and thanks for giving your loyal readers a happy ending. It was all a bit Wuthering heights last year! Legend! 🙂

    August 15, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    • Thanks a lot Sue, that’s really kind. Thanks for reading / commenting 🙂

      August 20, 2012 at 9:09 am

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