The West Highland Way Race, with its 30+ year history, can only be described an iconic classic. So when earlier this year our friend David got a place, Linda and I enthusiastically volunteered to join Gita (his partner) and McIver (their collie) to do the crewing. Little did we know what we were letting ourselves in for ...
For those who do not know, the West Highland Way is Scotland's premier long distance walking route that goes from Milngavie near Glasgow to Fort William. It is some 96 miles long, and involves nearly 15,000 feet of vertical ascent. Each year many thousands of people walk it, typically taking around a week to finish. The competitors in the Race, run since 1988, must complete the route in no more than 35 hours, and for that they receive a coveted commemorative crystal goblet.
What sets the Race apart from most other running events is that the prize giving ceremony only takes places after all runners finish, so that all the runners, and crews, can be present; this makes for a very special occasion with a unique, hard to describe, atmosphere. But I am jumping ahead here.
Let's rewind to Friday evening, 23 June 2017. Linda and I arrive in Milngavie about an hour before the 1am start. We made no special arrangements to meed David and Gita here, which immediately shows our lack of grasp of the scale of the event -- there must be over a thousand or so folk milling around the railway station! We wander about for a while, and make a couple of visits to the registration point, but there is no sign of our friends.
Having more or less reconciled ourselves to not finding David, we bump into him by sheer chance just before the briefing. He seems in good spirits. Gita has already left to get some sleep, and we wander off to High Street, leaving David to his own thoughts.
There is a visible Polis presence, for whom I expect tonight makes a change from the typical Friday night in Milngavie. I am hoping to get some pictures of David as they set off, but, of course, I fail to spot him.
Then off to Balmaha for a little sleep. It is only at this point, as we make steady progress in a column of hundreds of vehicles, I begin to appreciate the importance of the 1am start. Our arrangement is to get together with Gita at 3am, so I get up about that time to go to the loo -- to my dismay the visitor centre and its toilets are closed, my already low opinion of the way the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Parks is run sinking even more. In contrast, the Oak Inn has opened specially at 2am, but with all the good will in the world its toilet simply can't cope.
Linda calls Gita and we are told to look for the annoying orange flashing lights. It's a recovery van, with three laddies trying to fix Gita's headlights, which both blew on her drive to here. This is not a great news. The laddies are nice enough, but I am sceptical of success when one of them confides in me that the Kangoo uses 'strange giant bulbs' they've never seen before (referring to an H4!), and which, obviously, they don't have with them. At this point the most important thing is to shoo them away, because David should be arriving shortly, and there is nothing to be gained by him knowing about any of this.
He arrives bang on time, on good form, has some food and is off again. Gita stays behind waiting for daylight, while Linda and I set off in hope of finding H4 bulbs somewhere at 5am on Sunday morning; we succeed eventually at Dumbarton Euro Garages, after no luck in the, rather fortified, BP garage in Alexandria.
The next crew stop is Ben Glas farm. Here only one vehicle per crew is allowed, so we regroup first, make ourselves some cooked breakfast among the midges, change Gita's bulbs ... lot of time to kill, so a visit to the Falls of Falloch, deserted at this early hour.
At Ben Glas we don't have long to wait as David arrives at the check point slightly ahead of time, but convinced he is going too slow (we are aiming for a sub 24h finish).
By the time we arrive at Tyndrum the lack of sleep is beginning to catch up with us. We are operating on our own time, where everything is measured from a zero at Milngavie to (hopefully) just under 24 in Fort William. We have completely lost any sense of how that might relate to 'normal' time. In this private timezone it is the middle of an afternoon, and it comes as a bit of a shock that we can't get three fish suppers from the Real Food Cafe, because they only put on the friers after breakfast! Fortunately it's not a long wait till 11am, and, our fish suppers in Gita's car, we are off to the Auchtertyre check point.
We don't have long to wait. David arrives on schedule, but the effort is beginning to show. Some food, change of clothes, and he is off. For some reason, I decide that since the stove is out I might just as well make a flask coffee and soup for the next stop -- I don't know why, with hindsight this does not make that much sense, but by now none of us are operating at full metal capacity, so I am faffing about for bit with the food before we head on.
Next stop Bridge of Orchy. By the time we get there we are all properly knackered. The girls decide to get some sleep, but I don't sleep well in daylight and tend to wake up with a nasty headache, so I go for a walk instead. It starts raining almost immediately -- the 'weather' we knew was to come for the second half of the race is nearly with us.
A 45min walk does my brain good, but also stirs my bowels, so a quick trip to the hotel is due. My conscience doesn't allow me to just use the facilities, so I sit at the bar for a bit nursing a pint of lemonade, before making good on why I really came here (I am fairly certain I fell asleep in the cubicle, for I do not think I was that long but by the time I step out there is a long queue, and everyone is giving me the evil eye).
Outside the sun is back out, which is good. As I am about to turn down the road toward the bridge, I catch a glimpse of a runner that moves lot like David. Nah, the clothes are wrong; except then I vaguely remember him changing at Auchtertyre ... sh!t, it's David right enough, a long, very long, time ahead of our schedule.
He is glad to see me, thinking I have been waiting for him here on the corner! Should I tell him??? I excuse myself and sprint down the hill where both girls are still soundly asleep. There are some muffled words from inside the cars, which I can't hear clearly, but can venture a guess, then a lot of commotion. At the same time, there are car shenanigans taking place, parking is very tight here and with our tail gate open the other crew can't open theirs or something. A lot of our stuff falls out onto the road in the process. David does not stop long, and the only reason this pit-stop is not a disaster is that the coffee and soup are already made from Auchtertyre!
By the time we get to Glencoe ski centre the weather has arrived in earnest: it's cold, windy and pissing down. My head is feeling like a giant hangover, I try to sleep for a bit, but it's not helping and neither coffee nor sugar are making any difference. Time to stop feeling sorry for myself, the way the weather is just now I think it is likely that the organisers might insist that the runners are accompanied from now on, so I go to get changed.
But there is no sign of David, and we are all getting rather nervous. He arrives some twenty minutes later than we expected him to, visibly exhausted, soaked to skin and very cold. He is a sight for sore eyes, and all three of us are thinking this is it, but nobody wants to broach the subject.
Eventually, as a round about way, I ask 'do you want me to come along?', fully expecting him to say he was calling it, but instead he simply says 'yes'. There are lots of guts in those three letters, and this, ultimately, will become the moment that in the following weeks and months we will keep returning to.
And so we are off, walking, rather slowly, down the road. By the time we get to Kings House my headache is gone, and I am operating quite normally again (nothing like a bit of exercise!), keeping an eye on the pace, doing the math. I am aware I am talking too much, but conditions are so crap I feel I need to, so neither of us has time to think about that.
Up on the high ground above Kinlochleven it's very windy and our feet are in an inch or two of freezing water more or less constantly. We are moving slower than we need to be, and I am dreading the prospect of getting changed in this weather in a car park. But we pick up the pace a bit on the descent, even overtaking a few people who overtook us earlier on.
Just as we reach the village the sun comes out briefly, blowing some of the bleakness away. And to my great relief Linda and Gita managed to find some space inside the sports centre where the check point is. We don't have time to hang about here, the last two legs were both slower than the 24h pace, claiming back the buffer David built up to Bridge or Orchy. So just getting changed, a bite to eat, hot tea, an official kit check (from here on support runner is mandatory).
We manage a good pace on the climb out, but less so once the route starts descending the other side; I am reminded of the old fellrunner's wisdom, it's not the climbs that get you. The ground here is rough, and after 80 miles David's feet are hurting.
I am not much company, it takes all my effort to concentrate on setting the pace. At times I feel quite bad about pushing him, but I am determined not to let him finish in 24:02; we are either going to make it under 24h, or blow up properly, and just now it could go either way. There is another runner who joins us on the climb out of nowhere, and he makes up for me with conversation.
As we are approaching Lundavra I am glad to hear David saying that if the ground was a bit better he feels he could still do some running, so when we hit the good path beyond, I pick up the pace a bit, but there is no response from behind me. At this point I think that's it, the 24h dream is gone. But in fact David perks up not much later. I turn around at the bottom of the big descent -- it's an amazing sight, a line of bobbing head torches as far as I can see.
I am concerned about the climb out, but it turns out David is still climbing well, and as we start the final descend to Fort William gets proper second wind. We are running about 6-7min/km, overtaking quite a few people, and I am having hard time keeping up with him. We lose some of the energy on the final stretch of the road, which feels much longer than it should be, but that no longer matters, we are going to make it, and David eventually finishes in 23:42:31.
And then it's the prize giving the next day. This is hard to describe, it really needs to be experienced. 2017 was a particularly special year, with Rob Sinclair setting a new race record of 13:41:08. This is a truly amazing feat.
But as I sit there that morning to my mind, the new record is not as amazing as Nicole Brown, the last finisher, coming in just a few minutes earlier, in 34:40:28. Having been out the previous night in the awful weather for just five hours or so, I can honestly say I would not have stuck it out for another twenty hours of the same if you were paying me. And this, I think, is what the West Highland Way Race is ultimately about.
So yes, if you get a chance to crew on the West Highland Way, do so, it is worth it, unique, and unforgettable.
PS: The organisers recommend using two crew teams, and with hindsight this is wise. We just could not resist the temptation of seeing the start of the race, and did underestimate the fatigue that would bring.