Sunday, 23 June 2013

West Highland Way Weekend

Just back from crewing the 2nd half of the WHW race for Ben Kemp. We went up to Tyndrum on the Friday night and were at Bein Glas Farm for a little after 7am. We knew this time was optimistic for Ben but you can't really take the risk that your runner gets to a checkpoint before you.
We really thought we were in for midges and pouring rain all day. It certainly looked like it at Bein Glas. There were clouds of midges flying round our heads and crawling on our clothes like lice.

Ben arrived at about 8.30, looking tired and with a mosaic of dead midges on his forehead but otherwise showing his usual fortitude. He had a cup of tea and some other bits and pieces, told us he'd probably have a shoe change at Auchtertyre and moved on through. We had filled up flasks of hot water at the hostel that morning so it was easy to get a brew together.

On the drive over to Auchtertyre the clouds lifted a bit and the sun shone through. It seemed like a good omen. Maybe today wasn't going to be as relentlessly wet and miserable as it had seemed. There was a bit more of a breeze at Auchtertyre so we were no longer plagued by midges. The farm shop was selling bacon rolls so Peter had one of those. Things were looking up.

We were making noodles for Ben so we had to predict when he was likely to be coming through in order to have them ready in advance. Peter did all this. Having done the Fling recently he had the distances pinned in his head much better than me. Ben came in a little later than predicted but his noodles were still warm! It seemed likely that he would slow down and we were prepared for this. Ben's a great runner but he has been massively busy with a young family and a very demanding work schedule and he has just not been able to train like he would have done a few years ago. He was looking like he was going to go through Tyndrum in about the same time he had taken to run the Highland Fling a couple of months back, so was clearly setting an ambitious pace. I think we both thought he would just slow people do in this race.

At Bein Glas he had been in 11th. By Bridge of Orchy I think he was in 9th place - thereabouts. We had assumed that Peter would be running with him from here, and I had a plan to get down the road quickly once I'd left them and go to the ski centre so I could get a run in myself. Ben's time was too near the leader's time however and couldn't have a support runner yet! I was kind of glad because it gave me company for longer. Looking ahead he would have to be at the ski centre after 3.33pm if Peter was to run with him from there. As it stood, he was a good half an hour ahead of this schedule and it seemed unlikely - but we primed him anyway. If it was marginal and he had the choice of pushing or taking it a bit easier then it would probably be wise to time it so he could have some company.

Peter and I took off and went for a run back along the WHW from the ski centre as I'd planned. I'd planned to do 5 out and 5 back, but as we ran we both started to get the feeling that Ben might be getting close. We were getting a bit paranoid that if he appeared it would look like we were supporting him and we were afraid of getting him DQ'd, so we had a plan if we did see him we'd take off immediately back to the ski centre. Peter could easily out-pace him at this stage, but I wasn't so sure about me. I had anticipated an easy, low-pressure run and didn't really want any dramas. At 4.5 miles into our run though - sure enough, the tall figure of Kemp appeared round a bend and we had to turn around and belt it back. In a way it didn't matter all that much. If Ben had of caught me, I could have dropped back and Peter could have run ahead, so maybe it was pride at stake. I had to out-distance the guy. He had, after all, about 70 miles in his legs. To my relief we did slowly pull away and to my surprise, later on, found out Ben had never seen us and didn't know we were there.

He came into the ski centre check point about an hour ahead of the time when Peter could have joined him - so it looked likely now that he would be flying solo the whole way. He was having a lonely race having seen almost no-one since the start. Peter bemoaned how much he'd been stuffing himself with toffees and treats as he had been anticipating getting a good 30 or so miles in! It didn't stop him continuing to fuel up though.

The drive to Kinlochleven was nice. The sun was out, lighting up the rhododendrons. I remembered driving this way on my own a few years back when we were supporting Richard for his WHW race. At that stage I'd been up for a good 24 hours and I felt very nervous of the huge drop offs at the side of the road. It was good to have company. At Kinlochleven Ben arrived a little ahead of when we'd predicted again and he was looking damn determined. We heard that a new record had been set for the race, the leader winning in 15 hours and 7 minutes. We realised that, barring disaster, we would be finishing in daylight and would even be in time to get an evening meal before going to bed. A cheering thought (for those of us who hadn't been stuffing ourselves with toffees.)

There had been sporadic downpours during the day, punctuated with spells of quite warm sunshine. As we saw Ben off on his lonely journey from Kinlochleven, the skies darkened again and it started to bucket down. We couldn't help but feel guilty, sitting in the car, listening to music, dry and comfortable and looking at the dramatic views all around us. Ben had been cheerful but clearly uncomfortable. It seemed unfair that in our team Ben got ALL the pain and we couldn't share it at all. Nothing to be done though but to get ourselves round to Lundavra and to will him on over the hills.

The sun came back out again for Lundavra and the check point people had a good fire going. This is such an atmospheric spot, it feels to me like the most far-flung point of the race. The only signs of civilisation are the roads themselves and the Telegraph poles marching up the hill, looking absurdly similar to the tall limbless trees in the foreground. It looks like one turned into the other at some point in their evolution.

The first of three runners who had been around Ben appeared and the guy who was manning the checkpoint and keeping the fire going produced a surprise. The theme to Rocky blared out across the desolate hills! It was a comical moment, and the runner coming towards us rose to the occasion and managed a bit of a dance, even though he had just run about 90 miles.

The next runner in was also not Ben and we were a little bit worried for him.

We needn't have worried because here he came, still running. He was looking in pain and like he was having to focus but still moving forwards quite convincingly. By now we had all realised that sub 20 hours was looking very likely. That was something we would never have predicted at the start of the day. Ben's chief concern was that he would take a wrong turn somewhere because he was so tired and didn't know the terrain well. All we could do was try to reassure. Some of his fear must have got into us because, even though we KNEW, we checked twice exactly what the directions would be from BraveHeart car park to the finish. It was pretty simple....straight down the road... We even measured it on the car's milometer. I had erroneously thought it was about 2 miles but it was actually pretty much exactly one mile - so we had this to tell Ben when he arrived.

He arrived looking pained and determined. Again I felt a twinge of guilt driving along in the car to the finish - so painless, so easy!

At the finish, Alison, Ben's wife, and their two boys and Alison's brother were already waiting/ We gave him a huge shout and cheer as he finished. It was quite a moment. 19hrs and 16 minutes!

He had left all his running out there and looked very wobbly for a while. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to see him pitch over. I saw him to the gent's showers door and had to leave him there - but Peter and Alison's Brother went in and hung around just in case. Fiona Rennie was at the finish so I went and chatted to her and she told me it wouldn't be unusual for a runner to drop after they'd finished running this race. Ben is just so tall though - you really don't want him keeling over.

So things got a lot more comfortable for us after that. We had a very welcome curry and some beer to drink and caught up with Alison's news after Ben had gone off to bed.

And today I am very tired and Ben was looking a whole lot fresher although his walking wasn't great!

It has been an exhausting but rather fun road movie of a weekend.

There'll be lots more photos and a whole other story over at Peter's Blog in due course!


Billy said...

Great effort from Ben and of course from you and Peter as support. At least you had the right kit for standing about! Been a bit out of touch with running fashion lately - those Hokas still look bizarre to me but I'll have to get a close-up look at a pair and see what all the fuss is about.



Yak Hunter said...

Ben did great didn't he?

Some of the Hokas are more challenging to look at than others. The Mafates particularly have that clown shoe je ne sais quoi. Me and Peter thought you were just the man to come up with a budget version though Billy.