A Winter West Highland Way – report
It made more sense for me to do it as a reverse rather than trying to sort out accommodation at the Fort William side (or worse – sit on a train back to Glasgow). I decided on a day, booked a train ticket and that was it. The Winter WHW was on.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t just doing this as it sounded like a good idea or just to see how far I could go – it wasn’t ‘spur of the moment’ – I had tailored my training for an attempt and had a target time in mind. The Jez Bragg record of 21hrs 14mins.
Thursday came around quickly and before I knew it I was heading for Queen Street Station with everything I’d need to survive the run (I hoped). It must have been the coldest day of the year to date and I was more than a little concerned about being under-dressed. With just under 2L of fluid in my pack, food and some spares I didn’t really have much room for emergency clothes. Still, no going back now.
The train left at 6.20pm from a very frosty Glasgow. I hoped that it might warm a little as we went north (as referenced in the forecast). I ate on the train. The carriage was pretty quiet and cold which didn’t really give me a chance to think about anything other than how tough the first 35 miles might be. There were no signs at any of the stops that things were warming up at all.
When the train finally creaked into a deserted Fort William I did question my sanity. It was freezing, everyone I knew was probably heading to a warm bed and I had at least 96 challenges ahead.
I made my way over to the Sports Centre (the end of the official WHW race). Even that was closed. Was a strange feeling to be there and it only being the start of another WHW adventure.
I sent a text to confirm my start time (22.15) and that was it – I was off across the car park and into the darkness.
I was at least glad to be moving and warming up. It was however colder that I expected but once past the Braveheart car park and the climbing began I settled in. As I climbed the forest track the moon lit up a snow-capped Ben Nevis. ‘Yeah, it’s definitely colder than the forecast.’
The second I left the wide forest track I knew things were going to be tough with the first slip of many. Lairigmor was going be a nightmare. It was. There are so many streams that cross the rocky path and most were frozen. It was a challenge staying upright but I motored-on (mostly for fear of exposure or tripping and breaking something with no easy way out). The downhill into Kinlochleven was treacherous and I actually managed to cut back on myself somehow and ended up reaching the road well outside the village. ‘Great….some extra distance already’. Still, I was happy that I had ticked off the first couple of sections. The next was going to be a challenge.
As I headed towards the longest climb of the route I was a little behind schedule – not much I could do about it, I really couldn’t afford a bad fall. It was past midnight, easily sub-zero temperatures and few people knew where I was, so I didn’t beat myself up too much. The ice was only going to get worse anyway as the temperature continued to drop as I pushed on up towards the Devil’s staircase. I knew I’d feel slightly less stressed once I made it up and over the top – a bad fall before that and I knew I’d be in serious trouble. Stopping even for a minute and I was shivering with cold. At the top the clouds cleared and the moon shone on a snow-capped Glencoe – an incredible sight through increasingly blurred eyes.
I was going to be over an hour down on plan by the time I reached the Ski Centre, but I’d made it across some of the tougher stuff in one piece, was drinking ok and had sunk a few energy gels – so all good (other than the rainbow effect my eyes were now providing).
Rannoch Moor was as welcoming as always. This time it was ice though. I had a bad fall but the adrenaline masked most of the pain and I kept moving. My drinks bladder finally froze over and I cursed myself for forgetting to drink for 20 mins or so (to keep the flow going). ‘Amateur’ I thought. I also had to switch head-torch as number 1 was fading fast. I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up but knew that wouldn’t happen until closer to 7am (and certainly past Bridge of Orchy).
On the climb up past Victoria Bridge I was really thirsty and dug out my UTMB saviour – the foldable cup and stopped at a stream. Wouldn’t have been anyone’s number one choice of drinking water but I was willing to risk it.
Bridge of Orchy to Tyndrum was a drag. I think it was my first real slump. Maybe the added adrenaline of ensuring I didn’t die had finally worn off now that the terrain was a little easier and there were signs of civilisation. I longed for the sunrise. I was cold and I still had maybe 60 miles to run.
As I got nearer to Tyndrum I could finally see some signs of life and a break in the dark sky. I half wished I was further behind schedule as the Green Welly Stop or Real Food Cafe would have been open and I could have enjoyed some warm food. I passed the finish of the Highland Fling and whilst I wasn’t quite half-way it was a milestone. Only 53 miles to go now – and every step was taking me closer to home. My phone must have picked up a signal here and I received some messages / tweets from friends that gave me something nice to think about before reaching the enchanted forest. I was happy to be doing this attempt unsupported but when I received a text from one of ‘TeamPyllon’ (my Mum) saying she was heading for Beinglas I can’t say I was annoyed (‘please bring porridge or noodles‘ I thought).
The rollercoaster above Crianlarich wasn’t as bad as it normally feels – maybe that was down to the light. It didn’t feel any warmer but the colours and sights really made a difference. Well, for half an hour anyway. By the time I reached cow-poo alley I was cursing the ice again. This was a fairly straightforward section that was taking much longer than expected with wide sections of dark ice across long stretches of the trail. I was really getting thirsty now but there was no-where to drink. I was cold too – it felt like any calories I could get in to me were being used just to keep my body temperature up. Supplies were mostly gels but I was worried about using too many and leaving myself short before the end. I pushed on and was delighted to see wee J-Doll standing at the farm waiting for me.
I didn’t say much – mostly cursed the ice. I started shivering a minute after stopping and the porridge didn’t do much to stave it off. I took off my pack and pulled on my only spare jumper. I say jumper – I think it was designed for chillier desert conditions. My Mum asked me if I wanted to go on. I swore. I wasn’t suffering right through the night to give up here with just over 40 miles to go. As I said my goodbyes and headed off to shiver up the climb I cursed myself for the whole idea. I wanted this…..’what an idiot‘.
As I headed for Inversnaid the sun was pretty much in my face the whole section. It felt good although with the low sun and the blurring and pain in my eyes I can’t say I saw very much. I smiled as I passed Dario’s post and wondered what he would have thought about this attempt. The last few miles were a drag – I thought I was getting there and from nowhere I had another section to do. I was glad to finally pass the hotel – I was moving fairly well and if I could keep it up to Rowardennan I might still have a small chance of getting close to the ‘Jez record’. I certainly wasn’t going to make my target time.
My Mum was at Rowardennan, I drank some noodles, filled my bladder, defrosted the bite-valve and started moving again within a couple of minutes. At least these sections weren’t too icy so I had to make the most of it. I ran as hard as I could to give myself a chance by Balmaha. Figured I might need a couple of hours for each of the last 2 sections. It was hard pushing on but I kept telling myself I could still do it. I reached Balmaha with a small chance in my pocket.
At the foot of Conic Hill another quarter of Team Pyllon appeared with a smile. I had a few mouthfuls of soup, dug out my head-torch from my bag and headed on. I mumbled and moaned as I left the car park to their jokes. “Get on with it” was the final bit of encouragement. I cursed my way up the first part of the hill….’get on with it?’ yeah, ‘you try getting f@ck*ng on with it‘….it was a worthwhile distraction before the last of my fears were confirmed. Conic Hill hadn’t escaped the ice. It was over I thought – the climb would be manageable but the descent would be a nightmare. It was – the stream that normally flows over the rocky path was solid ice. There was just no way to get off the hill at speed. I had worked hard to make back the time but was now going to be un-done by the descent of a relatively piddley hill. Aaaaaaargh…….
As I got halfway down I couldn’t believe I was switching back on the head-torch. That’s the day gone already? When I finally escaped the ice onto the wide forest track it was as dark as the start in Fort William (some 18hours or so earlier). I was glad to be running again and moved quickly towards the forest car park and then down into Drymen. I felt remarkably good and looking at the watch, I still had a chance. Some squeezy fruit and drink refill I left the crew of the 2 with ‘I can still f@ck*ng do this‘ ringing in their ears.
The last 12 miles were some of the best I’ve ever run in my life. Hard to explain and probably too personal for a blog anyway – but all the suffering to date (and to come), the cold 80+ miles already covered was worth it for these moments alone. I ran hard on every single metre of the trail towards Milngavie and the finish. It was going to be really tight but I knew that it was there and it was going to happen as long as I wanted it.
I reached the other side of the under-pass (the official start of the WHW race) at 19.18 in a time of 21hrs and 03mins. Somehow I’d pulled it out of the bag. It had been a bigger journey than I had ever thought it would be. I was a little emotional at the end when the crew finally made it over to the car park. Yes, I was tired, I had some really acute pain in my eyes on top of the normal ultra sores and badly needed food and sleep. I had however experienced a couple of hours of something on an other level that will stay with me for a long time. Something much more than target times, racing, winning or completing a challenge. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand it or that it really matters (or to anyone reading this). I’m just more aware of how lucky I am to have the chance to really question myself through the sport and I’m thankful for it. We’re probably all guilty of taking too much for granted.
By the time I arrived home my eyes were screaming. It felt like needles were being pressed into the cores. After a bath I was getting really distressed – I couldn’t escape the pain at all (eyes closed, light, dark, painkillers) nothing was working. We called NHS 24 and after an hour or so they sent us down to A&E. Turns out I’d frozen my cornea’s and the thawing (some point maybe after Glencoe) had caused ulceration. At that point I really didn’t care about my sight I just needed the pain to stop. Seconds after they put dye into my eyes the pain ceased. I instantly wanted to sleep having been up for over 40 hours by this point. Sadly it wore off within 20 mins and it was a very tough night in terms of sleep and pain.
A trip to the specialist the next day and I’m told eyes will recover ok.
So a bit of drama to finish it off. I seriously owe some decent Christmas presents this year. My family support seems to be un-wavering.
That’s it for now folks. Winter West Highland Way….DONE.
Goggles ahoy from now on!