Seeking asylum in the hills & transcendence on the trails

West Highland Way Race – 2014 (report)

I’ll keep it brief, since it’s been a while since the race.

This time it felt different. Circumstances meant I couldn’t focus so much on the race due to work, certainly not at the same level as the year before. That said, when I could finally confirm I was doing it (last minute) I had trained well and was feeling strong.

Chat before the race was all about Robbie Britton – ‘2013 Ultra-runner of the Year’ in the @ukrunrambles initiative. He’d be fast. He’d run the first sections at record pace and I’d never be able to stick with him. In truth I was happy to hear those statements and to get the chance to see up-close what the hype was all about. Talent and potential don’t account for everything that’s needed in a 100 mile race and where I may be lacking in those I make up in other ways.

Robbie certainly wasn’t the only competition either. The confirmed talent on the start list ensured it was always going to be a fast race and any one of up to ten people were capable of taking the win.

First half of the race went pretty well. Perhaps quicker than I intended. There was no big panic when Robbie took the lead 15 miles in, other than when I caught my lead foot over the top of Conic Hill and went down heavily on my knee and elbow. For a split second you think the worst but after a few minutes and a hobble down to Balmaha there was nothing for it but to push on.

It was nice to ditch the head torch at Rowardennan as well as the long sleeves and I settled into the chase and my own rhythm.

At Beinglas I was 5 minutes down but feeling good and I was happy to see my support and a race official (unlike the previous year).

I saw the leader Robbie on the next long section as he marched up the climb near the cottages. I didn’t need any further encouragement and pushed hard into the hills around Crianlarich. Immediately after the road crossing at Ewich I saw him again, this time only 200m in front and I gave it everything I had to close the gap. I passed him before the next checkpoint (just 100m ahead). I didn’t stop (the scales hadn’t arrived) and I pushed straight out again with some supplies in hand from my incredibly professional support.

I passed the finish of the Highland Fling in under 7:20 and wondered why I’d never managed a decent time in that race. Next time!

To Bridge of Orchy I was very conscious that I needed to build a gap and continue to hit my target CP times. I kept my mind as clear as possible and focused on my pace and timings whilst remembering to track my drinking and food. The Osmo, HoneyStinger and homemade bars were all going to plan and I wasn’t experiencing the slumps I had in the past.

I was up on my time by Bridge of Orchy but knew the next section would be make or break. Rannoch Moor is tough going as most runners begin to feel tired by that point and the sight of trail miles in front creeping up towards Glencoe tests the mind as much as the cobbles do the feet and ankles. It’s easy to slow without realising it so I kept an eye on my pace at all times.

Still no sign from the support crew that the race was secured at Glencoe. 25 miles of trail and some strong competition still meant anything could happen. I was given some more food, a restock, some words and I was off again towards the foot of the Devils Staircase.

I knew that if I could get over the Staircase without a sign of someone close behind the win was mine (assuming no great disaster). Over the top the pain in my knee from the early trip started to cut through. I had hoped to be much quicker on the long descent but the inside ‘mechanics’ of my knee was more than a little tender – the cut at this point being just a distraction.

Another quick bite to eat at Kinlochleven and a stressed looking support made me feel a little panicked as I was sent off up the climb onto the long rocky Lairig Mor trail towards Fort William. I was still on course for breaking the record and achieving my target finish time.  I was told not to worry about who was behind me and how close they were but that I needed to move. 15 miles to go!

It’s always a lonely stretch. I was still focused on my time despite just wanting to take a break for the mental relief more than the physical.

At Lundavra my crew were there as usual and made sure I didn’t hang around despite the obvious temptation. By that point sometimes you just want to chat, just think of something other than times, miles and checkpoints. I heard some familiar voices and one shout in particular ran through my head for the final miles.

By this point my watch battery had gone as had the ability for me to mentally calculate expected finish time and miles remaining let alone average pace.

At the top of the final climb I stopped for a minute, turned around and looked back at the trail. I took a long deep breath and thought about the journey. Not just the race itself but everything else I’d put into it. I thought about the previous year and other than the knee I was feeling stronger than the last time. With that, I turned back around and set off for Fort William and the finish.

At Braveheart carpark my emotions started to bubble up. I had a couple of moments with Stevie and my Dad. Only they knew what had gone into this race and what it meant to me. I also saw Ian and Sandra again too which meant they must have been following the last few sections of the race. That made it feel much more worthwhile.

The final mile or so of road into Fort William felt good. Usually a bit of a drag but I got totally lost within myself  thinking about the experiences of the day and back to the training runs where I’d allowed myself to dream about what it would feel like to win it again.

As I neared the finish I could hear a piper and that was all I needed to finally accept that I had done it. I finished the 2014 race as the winner, breaking my own course record from the previous year by 47 minutes. Doesn’t sound a lot to most maybe, but for me personally, I’d improved by 2 hours and 40 minutes in 2 x races. It was also the first time anyone had run sub 15 hours. Robbie also went on to run sub-15.

I sat on the step outside the Sports Centre for a few minutes, glad to be finished and relieved that it had gone to plan as much as that’s possible over that time-frame. My support had been incredible and whilst it’s a solo event we really had delivered as a team.

The presentation next day was emotional. Some people had really given their all just to get to the start-line never-mind finish such a gruelling event (over 2 nights for some). The response from everyone when I picked up the winners plate was humbling to say the least. Not sure it was deserved but it was hugely appreciated and something I’ll remember for a long time.

Huge thanks to the support crew – even when I had my own reservations you had every confidence in me. Thanks also to my Sponsors; Nathan Performance, Osmo nutrition, HoneyStinger, feetures and all the Nine Point Nine family. Having the support of brands and products that I genuinely believe in has made this much more of a partnership and I think we’re moving in the right direction.

Thanks to Daniel Gerber (Glasgow Osteo) for the continued support and treatment.

To everyone who gave a nod or shout on the course whether part of the race or just ‘Walking the Way’. It’s all heard and it all makes a difference.

Finally to the whole WHW race team – it’s a special race and wouldn’t happen without your hard work. It means so much to an awful lot of people and it’s that spirit that pushes us to deliver performances that will all have their place in history from wins, to DNF’s and 35 hour completions.

So that was it for another year. I read somewhere recently that my win last year was an ‘outlier’ result – meaning that it was just a lucky day – a freak result – an unaccountable win. Well that’s a second one and it’s quicker again. Is that a double outlier?

Read more about the race:

Runnersworld

Guardian online

Official site

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10 responses

  1. Ian

    Fantastic report Paul. We were following you for the whole race, but it took us until the last few sections to catch up! I said last year it was a privilege to see your performance first hand; it was even more of a privilege this year. As I said to one of the papers, it was world class. Many congratulations again. Ian

    August 18, 2014 at 1:24 pm

  2. Staggering. Congratulations, and thanks for taking the time to write it up.

    August 18, 2014 at 1:38 pm

  3. When I see your posts I know I’m going to be blown away, You sound so strong, focussed, confident and totally awesome. What an achievement. Thank you for sharing it with us all. 🙂

    August 18, 2014 at 3:27 pm

  4. Mark

    Hot dam ! You da man 👊👊🏃🏃🏃🗻🗻

    August 18, 2014 at 8:39 pm

  5. Rosie Bell

    Fantastic reading and certainly Not an “outlier” result, who ever reported that obviously doesn’t know you

    August 18, 2014 at 9:59 pm

  6. Awesome – really impressive stuff!

    August 19, 2014 at 7:10 pm

  7. Great report Paul.

    I first found out just how staggering your race was going when I arrived at the top Mam Carraigh – I got my jelly baby and was informed that you had already passed through Kinlochleven. I chuffed to be running well 60 miles into my first WHWR but was already 20 freakin miles behind you! While the distance was somewhat incomprehensible It was really inspiring to think that you were once again the race of your life and resetting everyones understanding of what is possible. I felt prividiged to be part of that great race and helped spur me on.

    Another inspiring aspect your race this year is how it builds on progressions year on year. John Kynaston posted the WHWR performances over the years and shows how you progressed from a 19:07 to 14:20 over four consective races. Getting 33% faster over 4 years is awesome progress.

    Is there any chance you could write a blog post that plots the changes in your fitness, training and racing that has allowed such a transformation over such as short number of years?

    August 20, 2014 at 10:09 am

  8. Inspirational stuff, Paul. The dedication from your 444 alarm tweets to the single-mindedness that shines out through this write-up is role model. I plan on hitting the WHW one day for the big dance and it’s the achievements of you and your likes at the front and friends who do the same race in 6, 10, 20 hours more which inspires.

    Well done again. Drink it in and maybe we’ll see a 3rd outlier in 2015.

    August 22, 2014 at 4:39 pm

  9. You’re starting to like this race dude, enjoyed the read!

    October 9, 2014 at 10:00 pm

  10. Best of luck at the weekend Paul

    June 17, 2015 at 10:23 pm

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