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West Highland Way 2012.

Posted by Rob Woollen on June 27, 2012 at 11:20 AM

The West Highland Way Race is a 95 mile ultra-marathon, running through the Highlands directly from Milngavie (7 miles north of Glasgow) to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. Many consider it an achievement to walk the path in a week, but this race is non-stop with a 36 hour time limit (of course you stop to eat and change clothes). With around 15,000 ft of ascent it is no walk in the park and I ran last year as part of a team with my Tough Guy ( http://www.toughguy.co.uk ) buddy Denzil. we finished in just under 32 hours, and both realised that running in a team is a difficult thing to do. Towards the end of the race, my pain was such that whilst I could maintain a good pace on the flat, and a reasonable pace uphill, downhill was agony and I had to almost crawl. Denzil was ok on the downs, but struggling on the uphills and needing more and more rest stops. My advice to anyone running ultras is just to do your own thing. I had crewed a race for Denzil a week before and he had given me a few of 9-Bars to fuel me through the race. So much nicer than the Powerbar I had taken with me last year.

This year I read about an old school friend, Jonny Dee, whose son has been diagnosed with a genetic disorder which prevents him from sitting unaided or walking http://menmedia.co.uk/manchestereveningnews/news/s/1465089_parents-in-race-against-time-for-boy-with-incurable-spinal-muscular-atrophy. I wanted to do something to help so I signed up for the WHW again with the aim of completing in under 30 hours and raising £1000 for the SMA Trust. Thank you to all who sponsored me. Anyone reading this who still wants to can go along to http://www.justgiving.com/rob-woollen - the site is still live for a month or so.

As a personal trainer I spend a lot of my time running with clients, so this formed about 90% of my training.This year I was invited to be part of a trial at Leeds Met University which involved weekly 90 minute runs at altitude followed by 5km time trials which came in handy for getting at least slightly longer runs in. I also managed to fit in a couple of marathons. I have always maintained that I would never run a marathon, but when we got our very own in Manchester for the first time in 10 years, I had to enter. I ran the race in 3:30:08 which was around what I would have expected. A month later I ran the Stockholm marathon with Jonny Dee.

My race crew consisted of my crew from last year, the amazing Rick Kilburn and Ste Trevor, along with dedicated runner Matt Johnson. We were fully expecting me to leave Glencoe after 9pm and therefore have a mandatory support runner so Rick and Matt had discussed sharing the last 24 miles. Learning from last year I booked a room at the Premier Inn for the boys to get a kip after I left. This made a real difference to them - they took it in shifts, with Ric seeing me off at the start while the others slept, and then the others seeing me through up to Rowardennan while Ric slept. They then joined up and saw me at Auchentyre.

The first 19 miles went well. I wore Inov-8 Flyroc shoes as last time I had a couple of nasty falls coming towards Conic. This time I had a couple of near misses, one rolling on my left ankle and one pulling my right groin a little. Nothing to worry about. Knowing that I suffer with my knees on long runs, I had opted to wear two neoprene knee supports. Perhaps a little rash as I had never worn them before.

When I met Matt and Ste at the first checkpoint I found that I had forgotten to pack my change of clothes, and had to run on in my soaking wet ones. I discarded my knee supports as they seemed to be adding nothing but chafing. Luckily Ste had a spare jacket for me, and Matt had a spare hat, so I got on my way a little down but warmer than I could have been. I was already experiencing some pain but was expecting this - I have a dodgy right leg from a tight adductor and a hamstring overuse injury. I found my stride and hit Rowardennan a little later than I hoped. But when I got there I found that my mileage was wrong and I was actually making good time. "I'll be fairly quick over this next part", I told my crew, "I remember it from last year, it is fairly flat".

The run up the side of Loch Lomond is picturesque but fairly brutal. What I had failed to remember is that this stage is 25 miles long! The bit I "remembered" was about 2 miles long, leaving 24 miles of fairly unforgiving terrain! I was really glad to see a familiar face at the Beinglas drop bag stop. Dinah ran with me for part of my first attempt last year and had been forced to pull out of the race in advance. Thanks for crewing Dinah!. After catching up it was on to Auchentyre.

At Auchentyre I was glad to eat my Chicken Porridge (1 tin chicken soup, 3 sachets ready brek) and felt right as rain. The boys had picked up my clothes and I was refreshed and warm! I can hardly remember the run over to Bridge of Orchy, but what was in my mind was that I had run over half the course in under 12 hours. I was feeling good even though my legs were pretty painful. For an hour or two I had been pretty cold and I knew I needed some better clothing. Fortunately at Bridge of Orchy Matt gave me the perfect jacket. A runner in the opoposite direction had told me to keep my on a lady ahead of me as she did not seem to look good.  When I caught her up we had a chat and she was thinkiing of quitting. I walked with her until we met her husband. I saw her at the checkpoint and she had decided to pull out. she was understandably gutted but should be very proud of the fact that she made it so far in pain.

Bridge of Orchy is a memorable place for me. For one, it is where my support crew greet me with a bowl of ravioli! Excellent! But it is also the place where I know I will come on to face Ranoch Moor. Last year I sat on a rock as I climbed the unending hill and gave serious consideration to calling it a day. It is not the distance, nor the hill that gets me, but the cruel, hard, , uneven, sharp , fist-shaped cobbles. Every step is agony. I knew that I was losing time on the hill, but I made a decision to take my time and not exascerbate my knees. It was the right move. I made Glencoe with my mental health intact - last time I was close to quitting but this year I was on fire! By the time I got there I knew that I had probably lost my chance of getting round in a day. But I made the right choice and stand by it. I continually questioned myself throughout the run - if I was not running why not? I only allowed myself to walk when the terrain demanded it (mostly due to my leg). And when I was walking it was as fast as I could possibly do it.

A nice baked potato and beans and some chocolate milk and I was off. 9-Bars restocked and my New Balance trail shoes on. Next up was the Devil's Staircase. Now I had remarked to the boys that I did not think it deserved its name - if my memory served me correctly it was not all that bad. I was wrong! It was a killer. It occurs to me now that when I ran with Denzil we may have stopped a few times - I went full power to the top. Coming down towards Kinlochleven was a mixed experience. I felt strong but my legs were killing me and picking my way through the rocky surfaces was not pleasant at all. I stopped to pick up some pieces of what appeared to be marble from the streams for the boys.

Every time I got on the flat or uphill, I found myself taking a good few places on the run. But every time we came to a downhill I was unable to maintain my advantage. What should have been an chance for a bit of speed was a limping drag and I kept playing leapfrog with the same people. I came into Kinlochleven for my weigh-in and eat a pack of Jaffa cakes!

We were just outside the 10pm cutoff for a support runner so Ste had decided to run with me. He had no trouble keeping up with my limp, but I powered along taking every possible opportunity to run when it was flat, and power-striding the hills. At this point I could hardly lift my right leg. Ste listened to a number of expletives as my dragging foot hit rock after rock, sending a shot of pain up my leg. By the time we hit the bonfire, I was ready for this to be over. Matt geared up to join me and Ste decided to stay with us. We were off! Only about 10k to go. Disaster nearly struck as I limped over a rock and promptly fell - nearly right down the cliff face. Matt and Ste couldn't believe that I was unhurt - apparently I just folded over a huge sharp boulder that should have broken my ribs. Perhaps I was just too soft and flexible in my tired state! Regardless I got up and ran on. As we approached the 5km point I knew that I could afford to run that little bit harder. It did not matter any more if I hurt my legs - they had hardly ay more to do. I pushed hard down the hill and took a few places. On the flat I pushed up towards a 7 minute mile.

"Please tell me that is it!" I begged my crew as the turning for the leisure centre came into sight. "Leisure centre", read Matt. I dug deep, pushed hard and finished at a sprint. Apologies to those who witnessed the sight of a wild-eyed madman, groaning and frothing at the mouth as he pushed in to the finish line.

I finished in just under 25 hours 50 mins, nearly 6 hours quicker than last time. I could not have done it without my support crew who were as slick as a pit crew - I never had to ask for anything it was just done. While I was keeping warm running, those guys were waiting for me in the rain.

I am glad to say that I feel like I did my very best. I never once gave myself permission to give less than 100%. When I could not run I tried to always walk fast. Even on Ranoch Moor where I was kind to my knees I powered up as fast as I could. that is the spirit of the ultra-runner.

Categories: Racing and events

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8 Comments

Reply Rick Kilburn
3:48 PM on June 27, 2012 
A privilege ti witness first hand. Tremendous effort, Rob.
Reply John Kemp
4:06 PM on June 27, 2012 
Not sure what happened to my last comment - but it was just congratulating you on a superb performance. Most of us reading that blog could not imagine walking that in a day. To run it in a little over 24 hours is truely inspiring to anyone getting fit (like me at the mo)... well done on the hard mental and physical test, looking forward to catching up with you in August at our camping weekend in the lakes
Kempy
Reply Jess
3:27 AM on October 1, 2013 
Great achievement raising all that money. Definitely something to be proud of! personal training is a good way to train too as well as training your clients at the same time! Good job :)
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12:54 PM on December 30, 2014 
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