A week since the finish of the West Highland Way race and it's taken me this long to sit down and pay tribute, not only to Jim Robertson, but to all those involved in a truly remarkable race.
As I have already blogged, I got involved when Jim's normal support runner had to drop out through work commitments. I, like many others in the club, had noticed something different to Jim's approach this year. He was fit, had no apparent injury or illnesses to hamper him and was determined to achieve that elusive 12th Goblet. I spoke to him about two weeks before the race, intending to give him a morale boost. I simply intended to tell him exactly what I had written here, that I was impressed with his preparation and fitness and that he was as ready to finish as I have ever seen him. At this time I didn't realise what Jim had previously achieved in the race. He was one of a very few double figure finishers, and is the only person ever to complete 10-in-a-row. Even Rangers and Celtic never got that far! So there I am assuring him that if I can get a weekend pass from Mairi I'd be his support runner. The following day I assured him I'd be there, and the day after that I told Mairi. I didn't tell her it was an overnighter though! Bravery has it's boundaries as well.
The next week I found I wasn't alone as Jim McKenzie also volunteered to run part of the last few legs. I had fancied running from Kingshouse to Fort William and even as Jim volunteered I still kept it as my intention to run that far just to dip my toe in the water. That plan was to go for a kybosh!
I planned to get organised after work on Friday and then travel to Rowardennan early enough to see Jim going through take some photos and then go up to Beinn Glas farm or Auchtertyre to take photos of the leaders. However I was sent to Goole and by the time I got home and got the shopping it was too late to get organised. As I was to return to Alexandria for 3pm to pick up Jim Mc I decided to have a longer lie and then go straight to the wigwams to photograph the leaders. Then I'd go home and get my gear ready and head to Tyndrum to catch JR go through.
I got my photos of the leaders and spoke to some of the support groups. Ian Beattie, not known to me as a runner but as a member of the Scottish Athletics executive a few years ago. He had dropped out at Rowardennan, and this was the first indication as to how tough this event was. If someone with his background in distance running had been struggling, just how would it be for lesser mortals who had little experience of this type of race.
Included in my photos at this time was Marco Consani who lives in Alexandria and runs, as does his wife Debbie, with Garscube Harriers. They are doing a lot of distance events for the Yorkhill Childrens Hospital charity, and this was one of the biggest challenges. Both suffered injuries, Marco a bad shin injury that severely hampered him, but he still finished in 20hrs 47 minutes. Debie hurt her knee when she twisted it going over a stile and finished in 30hrs45 minutes. Both were first timers and I amsure will be back next year and for some time to come. Debbie and Marco keep blogs and they certainly impress me with their training and preparations as does John Kynaston who blew everyone away (including himself!) by finishing in 19hrs59mins.
Back to Beinn Glas Farm where I checked in with Jim's support team his wife Helen, and their great friend Anne. Both ladies are veterans of many WHW campaigns as Anne's late husband Alex also completed many times. Jim was raising money this time around in aid of and in tribute to the McMillan nurses who cared for Alex during his illness. Jim had reached Rowardennan just on the time limit. Clubmate Geraldine had travelled up to the checkpoint to see him and reported he was doing well at that point.
I traveled home and after picking up my running gear and food picked up Jim McKenzie. We decided to check at Auchtertyre to see if JR had reached there and I nearly ran him over when we came across him wandering down the road towards the A82 drinking and eating. Jimmy Mc walked with him to the end of the road and when I picked him up informed me that he was going to run with Jim from Tyndrum as he thought Jim could do with the company!
That was the "plan" up in the air, as I then started running at Bridge of Orchy when the next stage began, with McKenzie driving to Kingshouse to take JR over the Devils staircase. I managed some more photos before they arrived at B of O including a couple of Jim Drummond with whom I have had the pleasure of accompanying on a couple of training runs at Aberfoyle. JD gave me a couple of message to pass on to JR but I decided that, discretion being the greater part of valour, to keep them to myself, just in case JR decided to chase JD all the way to Fort Bill for a well deserved hiding!
Jim's arrival at the Bridge involved a quite testy questioning by the race steward to assess his fitness to continue, but JR was in fine fettle well able to go on. Sean, the marshall, was worried about a forecast of cold rain heading in our direction and all runners were told they required full waterproofs to continue. Keith Hughes and Tony Gilmour had come into the checkpoint a little ahead of the two Jims and sweeper Joe Sheridan, but took a longer break and so it was only Jim and I as we set off over the hill towards Inveroran. At the top of the climb Jim admitted to being "buggered" but managed to raise a gallop on the downhill. At Victoria bridge, Keith Tony and Joe caught us and after meeting the two ladies for a snack and JR discovered the delights of Red Bull off we went towards Rannoch Moor. If said Red Bull ever wants a new campaign to promote it's effects, they need look no further than the bold boy who proceeded to set a cracking pace over the moor. So much so that Sean, the race steward who had been concerned re JR at Bridge of Orchy and who had walked back from Kingshouse to check our progress was suitably impressed with the pace and informed us that if it had been daylight we would be able to see the next group of runners ahead. Until then we had been navigating without the aid of torches and hadn't really noticed the daylight had gone. We continued to do so until we reached a cottage near the A82 where the lights from a 4x4 ended our night vision. At Kingshouse my first foray was over and I had to drive round to Kinlochleven as Jim McKenzie was taking Jim through the next stage. It also ended the sweeper stage for Joe although he continued to Kinlochleven "for the walk". Joe was also the sweeper during the Highland Fling and had accompanied Christine Dawson at the back of the field until her race ended at Beinn Glas as one of the Milburn 42 milers. His company was always good and is much appreciated down Milburn way.
A phone call from Geraldine to check on progress was ended prematurely when the McKenzie antique mobile gave up the ghost. I can't talk, as my super duper 3 mobile Sony Ericsson state of the art communication system hadn't given a cheep of a signal since we left Balloch!
I drove round to Kinlochleven intending getting my head down for a few hours.
I didn't go into the medical centre at first and parked outside, trying to get my head down. No chance! All the coming and going at the centre and a loud, banging door meant sleep was impossible. The start of a heavy rainstorm with driving winds and torrential rain added to the problem (wondered briefly how the runners were doing, then turned up the heater) and then nature called. I went into use the toilet to find a casualty clearing station, with medical staff obviously concerned about the condition of some of the runners who were showing some pretty worrying signs. If anyone has any doubts about how hard this race is, than a visit here will soon put them right. On top of that the physios and masseuses were working overtime. Saw Jim Drummond and found that Debbie had probably been in the centre when I was outside trying to get some beauty sleep. Apologies Debbie, I am sure you needed the encouragement more than I need beauty sleep!
I went back to the car, got my head down, and the next thing I knew McKenzie was banging the window! Looking very wet and bedraggled, he was looking forward to replacing me as team sleeper!
A couple of cups of tea, during the 20 minute break Jim and the others had agreed on, and we were off up the hill out of Kinlochleven. By taking a shortish break we had set out ahead of several other runners who had taken long breaks at Kinlochleven. That meant the sweeper was no longer with us, unless you counted Keith who had started the race as a sweeper but continued to the finish. Accompanied by his mate Dave, Tony and his daughter, Jim and I set off towards Lundarva.
In November 2005 I ran in the Lochaber and JR had driven the mini bus up the Lundarva Road to drop Anne and Margo off to walk into FW. As I was bursting for a pee at that time I was expecting to find a hotel or bothy up there to facilitate relief. I found nothing. That's how bleak that place is. As I saw that the road disappeared into the never ending distance I remarked how it must be pretty daunting after 70 odd miles! Next time I'll shut my mouth. A few photographs taken en route shows apparent high spirits but then the rain started again. McKenzies fault we agreed. He's doing a rain dance down in Fort William. It worked ya "^*&^$!
Tony was struggling with his feet and a few others passed us having progressed since Kinlochleven. Two had passed us on the climb but we re-passed them on the Lairig Mor. Jim was regaling me of tales of past races including stories of running partners having hallucinations. Scary stuff. At last we smelt the smoke from the fire at Lundarva. Two guys at a tent in the woods were the first we met. "Number 11" said Jim, wondering where the usual steward was. And I'm number 12 said an old fellow apparently having had the benefit of a dram or two. Wrong checkpoint! Hee Haw! No wonder we call Jim, Donkey.
Up to the real checkpoint and found the famous fire on it's last embers. JD's daughter, Anne, Helen, and Tony's wife had all driven up to Lundarva and tea was offered and accepted. I almost said to Jim that it was all downhill from here, but thought better of it. 150 yards later I realised the wisdom of that decision when a wee killer hill was negotiated. Soon, though, we were climbing through the forest above Glen Nevis and then the last climb to the last summit of the Way. This was the highlight for me as I saw the smile on JR's face as he realised it really was all downhill from here. If he had to roll down the hill he would. But nothing was coming between him and that 12th Goblet!
The last couple of miles were still hard work on the quads, but I was confident enough in Jim to run on ahead to dig out my big camera to take the finishing photos. I, however followed the WHW markers onto the main road. As I walked along it I wasn't too chuffed to see Jim appear with the others as they appeared from the race route! I still managed to get top the leisure centre ahead of him in enough time to warn the officials of his arrival and get the all important pics of Jim and the quaich! And he got two goes at it!
Only two people have finished this race more times than Jim Robertson and they have a few years to catch up on his record of being the oldest ever finisher. Jim McKenzie and I were only witnesses to this final achievement. There for safety and a bit of company and support along the way. Other than Jim picking JR up after a fall on the staircase we did nothing to carry him, or otherwise aid him on his way. It was all his own work. I don't think however he would have managed it without the remarkable support of Helen and Anne.
That brings me to my tribute to all the runners and support teams. This is a marvellous event made even more so than by the fantastic contributions made by the runners support teams who follow their runner from checkpoint to checkpoint, layby to layby, through thick and thin, to make sure their nutritional, hydration and physical needs are met. Add the race officials, marshalls, administrators, medical staff and masseurs all of whom go that extra mile to make sure the event runs, if not smoothly, then safely and enjoyably(?). It really makes it special and I for one Millie can't wait to try it for myself. At the moment I'm not alone!
After a big scottish breakfast at Morrisons Jimmy McKenzie and I got to the prizegiving just as first prize was being awarded to Jens Lukas. Therefter followed the longest prizegiving I've ever seen. But deservedly so. Every finisher gets a goblet and every finisher more than deserves to be presented with it individually. It's done with an astonishingly personnalised commentary by the race organiser Dario who looks great in pink by the way!