How quickly fades the pain of the struggle. The brain is already shuffling the images, the memories; sorting to the fore the elation and pride, burying deeper the raw and the painful. The goblet is won. I’m deeply satisfied. But, Jings, the path to winning it was so completely at odds with my innocent prior vision.
Here’s the tale.
I’m not sleeping, just resting for a couple of hours at the hotel. I’ve already registered, been weighed and tagged. All other luggage has gone with Andrew1 in the car. Midnight! Time to go. I make a slow, energy-conserving half-mile amble to the start. A full car park in the midnight darkness and a press of runners and supporters. I wander a bit, but happen not to see any familiar faces yet. I’m calm. I feel confident in my preparation. Around me is not the excited buzz of the Fling, but a more subdued, studied note of runners preparing for a serious task. I’m fine until 10 minutes before the start when I start shivering. Just nerves, I reason. Pure and simple.
The momentum gathers, and time swings faster towards the off. A safety briefing. Fine words to acknowledge Duncan Watson and Bobby Shields, the original WHW racers, who will lead us out. Warm words for Dario Melaragni, and a minute of respectful applause from the field. Then the countdown and Gillian Melaragni starts the 2010 WHW race.
To Rowardennan, 27 miles:
We’re through the underpass and along the High Street, then onto the Way itself and soon it’s not the town anymore. It’s a sparkling chain of headtorches, bobbing and twisting through the forest. We’re bunched together, lighting the path sure enough, but also darkening the darkness just beyond. Past Beech Tree (7m) I find myself in a group, which is handy for gate-opening, but I keep wanting to drop off the back. I recognise John K’s voice, for it is he in the dark, and we joke about letting the peloton shield us from the wind. I’ve not settled yet, feeling various aches, and I finally decide that I’m cold, so out comes the jacket. Straight through Drymen, and then onto the forest tracks. I’m overtaken on Conic Hill by a fast clambering Peter Duggan.
I find a reasonably soft and grassy line down Conic and then straight through Balmaha, pausing only to re-fill with water. Walking out of the carpark, eating, and along by the loch, I’m thinking for the first (and as it turns out, only) time today ‘This is what it should be like’. The sun’s not yet up, but the loch is calm and beautiful.
Into Rowardennan broadly on schedule. A few doubts are whispering in my ear, but I brush them aside. I’m glad to see Andrew1, with a good cup of tea and something decent to eat.
To Auchtertyre, 50 miles:
After Rowardennan, I make sure to walk all the way up the hill, then I’m running the downhill and the single track to Inversnaid. It’s a beautiful morning now, with the sun full on the other side of the loch, and our side still in shadow. In fact, it’s still nicely cool.
As I come into Inversnaid, I‘m forced to admit that something is amiss today. There’s no spring in my step. Everything is just that bit harder than it should be. I grab my drop bag and wander over to a sunny spot to re-fuel and to ponder. Well, let’s get on to Beinglas. Bridget and Andrew2 will be there and I can re-assess. The next rocky bit of trail is actually easier than I expect. I can hear the sleeper train clattering up the other side of the loch bringing Bridget and Andrew2 to Ardlui, and suddenly I’m really looking forward to meeting them at Beinglas. Hug needed. A happy meet-up with all my support team at Beinglas. A seat. A cup of tea. Re-fuel.
I don’t want to admit to them (just arrived) that I’m not going well today. Nor do I want to admit it to myself. So, off out again. Walk and jog, walk and jog up Glen Falloch. And then the switchbacks. I’ve decided to walk them today, ostensibly to protect my legs for later on, but truth be told, it was all I could do. Back at ground level, I can just about raise a run into Auchtertyre.
Andrew2 does a great job of ‘spotting’, and reports ahead by walkie-talkie that I need a change of shoes. And yes to a rice pudding please. I deal with the blister and change shoes. My shoulders slump a bit. Here I am at Auchtertyre, an hour slower than in the Fling. It should be that much easier and yet I feel worse. Empty. Drained. In the previous 4-5 weeks, I reckoned I had given myself the perfect build-up. Well, it may have been the perfect build-up for younger legs than mine. In reality, I probably drained all energy through my various recces and relays. Hindsight is great isn’t it? So, now begins the painful process of re-adjusting the goals for the day.
OK, Iain, let’s slug it out, then. I jettison my camera here – as much for the mental significance of stripping everything down for the challenge. Just 45 miles to go.
To Bridge of Orchy, 60 miles:
Heading out of Auchtertyre, I’m pleased to say hello to Andy Cole, who seems to have arrived ahead of his support. He’ll pass me again soon, going well. A quick meet again with my team at Brodie’s in Tyndrum. Grab an iced tea and a change of hat. Walk up the hill.
The sun is so intense, the air so sparkling clear. Beinn Dorain is standing guard over Bridge of Orchy. There’s a strong and cool north wind in our faces. At the watershed, where road and railway meet, folk driving along are tooting their support. I’m grateful for it. The best I can manage on this section is a shuffle. I’m so pleased to see Andrew2 sitting on a rock, in the distance waiting for me. And we head down to the checkpoint.
To Glencoe, 71 miles:
Bridget and the Andrews do a grand job of cheering me up, and we arrange to meet again over the hill at Inveroran. After slogging up the hill, (is this the hottest part of the day?) it’s great to see Murdo at the top with his Saltire. I muster a bit of a jog down the hill. My team are at Inveroran.
A quick Coke and then off along the next road section to Victoria Bridge. I have a nice civilised chat with a couple of walkers about what a fine day it is and how lucky we are to be out in this lovely place. I’m then through the gate and on the long military road up to Rannoch Moor. This is where all hope of a decent finish leaves me. My spirit drains. My legs are dead. The way curves to the horizon and not a step I make brings the crest any closer. Folk are passing me and taking hope with them. Eventually I see Bridget, just down from the Glencoe checkpoint, watching with concern. Emotion wells up inside me. I’m so relieved to see her. It’s also knowing my support team have put such a superb operation together just for me. I take Bridget’s hand. I know I’ve turned the corner. To finish is my only target now.
To Kinlochleven, 81 miles
At the Glencoe checkpoint, Andrew2 is geared up to run the next section with me and I’m energised by his enthusiasm. Doubt is replaced by certainty. We set off down the hill to Kingshouse.
It’s great to have his company after the despair of Rannoch Moor. What fantastic evening shadows there are on Buchaille Etive Mor. Wee toy cars zoom past below in the warm orange glow of the lowering sun. I regret now my leaving my camera. Andrew2 rejoins the car at Altnafeadh.
I’ll see them next at KLL. I slog up the Devil’s Staircase. No-one in sight behind and just a few folk visible on the zigzags ahead and above. What glorious light at the top. I break into a desultory jog on the downhill, but am soon cursing the rocks. Every step risks a stumble now.
I’m in the golden light one moment, shadow the next. I have to walk the steep downhill track into KLL. Everything is just too painful and tender. Even the memory is tender of me being able to fly down here only the previous month. The last of the direct sun has gone as I come into KLL. I’m weighed, just on my limit. I have a seat inside and re-group for the final section. Andrew1 makes the brilliant suggestion of sausage and chips. Yum. Real food.
To the Finish, 95 miles:
How ‘right’ it is for Andrew2 to be my support through the night on this final section. I’m happy and as proud as a father can be to be putting my trust in him.
I can’t run any more, just to walk in from here is the objective. But we make good time on the climb up to the Lairig Mhor, the half-moon ever bright on our shoulder. Our last glimpse of Kinlochleven. In the dusk, we pass the re-assuring presence of the mountain medics at their post.
My knee is beginning to grumble now. Since Auchtertyre, I’ve been favouring the leg where the heel is blistered, and now the imbalance is crocking my knee. But just slog on.
In the gloaming now, I’m seeing visions. Strange signposts, buildings with lights, which only resolve at the last minute into the reflections they are of the moon in puddles. I’m getting slower, and Andrew is ever so patient, doling out encouraging rations of raisins every so often to keep up the momentum.
Will the flames of Lundavra never appear? They do of course and we take a 5 minute rest at the bonfire. Then more up-hills and into the forest gloom, all vision limited to the circle of headtorch light at our feet. (And the big spiders just beyond!)
At last, we’re at the head of the forest trail above Glen Nevis and we can call ahead to alert Bridget and Andrew1. It seems a long, long way down. Bridget joins us at the Braveheart carpark for the final mile together. Coming up the steps of the Leisure Centre, I touch the finish. I’m there! We’re there. Shake hands, sup the whisky.
I’m so pleased finally to have done it, so grateful for their support, so proud of Andrew, so tired, so satisfied. A finish. My time, 27:04:45, on a day when time became the least consideration.
This finish is truly dedicated to my support team. Bridget, and the two Andrews. I could not have done it without you. Fantastic job. Thank you! And to the many, many people – race committee, marshals, volunteers, mountain rescue folks, those runners who finished, those who didn’t finish this time – and all those others, sung and unsung, who keep this race alive and thriving.