Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Race Director's Story: the 2013 West Highland Way Race

We were heading down the road yesterday and Sandra said that a lot of people would be interested in hearing my story of the WHW Race. I'm on holiday today (Tuesday), and I realise if I don't write it all down now it will never happen. So here goes...suspect this might be a long post but I'll start typing and see where I get to....

I'll start this story on the Monday before the race. Less than a week to go, and it is obvious from the various posts on Facebook and Twitter that all of the runners were going through their various stages of taperitis, getting more and more excited. Only a few more sleeps to go. I realised I was going to struggle to do much running this week, so got up and 5.30am and ran with Sandra in to the city centre when she was doing one of her last runs, the headed back to the flat at a bit of a faster pace. Run done by 7am. I had a busy day at work - there aren't too many quiet days - then headed out to South Gyle to chair a Scottish Athletics board meeting. The meeting went really well. There is a real positive feel at the moment in Scottish Athletics; I feel that the whole sport is coming together, right from the top level where hardly a weekend goes by without more athletes achieving the Commonwealth Games standards, through to the clubs where we are seeing some fantastic results with the Club Together programme. The quality of the Scottish Athletics team is superb, and I left the meeting at 8.30pm on a real high, greatly encouraged by the way things are going. I stopped at the office to leave my suit and change in to my cycling kit, so I'd be able to cycle in the next morning, then stopped on the way home for a Chinese as it was too late to be cooking. Sandra was in bed when I got home and it was about 11pm by the time I had unwound enough to go to bed.

I went in to the office at 7.30am on Tuesday to spend an hour and a half on WHW stuff before starting my (paid) work. We were meeting at night to pack the goody bags, so I needed to make sure we had an up to date list of runners, along with the details of everyone's garment size. I had another full day but stopped at 5.30pm for a call with Martin Stone, the owner of SPORTident who were providing the timing equipment for the race. It was really useful to go through everything with Martin and by the time our call had finished I was confident we had (almost) everything in place to make sure it all went smoothly at the weekend. The only thing that I hadn't thought of was the fact we needed tables at each checkpoint to sit the timing stations on; it wasn't a problem as we still had time to get them. At about 6.40pm I headed round to Run and Become where Adrian, Murdo and Julie had already started packing the race goody bags. It didn't take us too long to get through them, and when we finished at 8.30pm I headed back to the office to work on the support crew and medical information. Everyone had submitted the information on time and in the correct format, but it was still a bit of a job to go through it all and ensure it was in a format that could be easily used if we were faced with an emergency situation on race day. By 11pm I had done more than half the entries, felt I had broken the back of it, and left the office and cycled home. Another late tea on my own and it was time for bed. No run for me today but that was fine; anything this week was a bit of a bonus.

I had set myself an objective of having everything done for the WHW Race by the close of play on Wednesday, so got up early again and headed in to the office. There were 5 things on my 'To Do' list in respect of the race: speak to Alan Kay about the Glencoe checkpoint, in particular making sure the route to the checkpoint was clearly marked so no-one could go wrong (there had been a bit of discussion on Facebook about people missing the checkpoint last year and I didn't want this to be an issue again); meet Adrian at 8am for a coffee and final de-brief to ensure we hadn't missed anything; ensure all the support crew information was in the correct format and had been sent to the Race Control team, along with all the contact numbers; script the prize giving for Sunday; and write up the race briefing for the Friday night. I was out of the office at various meetings for most of the day, but by 5.30pm I was able to start working on WHW stuff and had finished everything on the 'To Do' list just after 8pm. I cycled home with a feeling that everything had been done and was under control. Sandra was still up when I got home - I think she had forgotten what I looked like - and we had a couple of glasses of wine before heading to bed.

Thursday is always my busiest day at work as we have a board meeting in the morning, and I was pretty much back to back with meetings until 1pm. After that I travelled through to Glasgow for a SAMH board meeting, but managed to get a slightly earlier train which gave me time to pop in to the Blackfriars Bar and say hello to those at the WHW lunch. I had a quick coffee and headed along to the SAMH board meeting at 3pm. It finished about 6.30pm, I headed back by train to Edinburgh, then cycled home from the office. When I arrived home Sandra was still out at the Barefoot Ted presentation at Footworks Colin McPhail's shop, so I decided to head out for a run. I don't know if it was the adrenalin, the hot weather, or a combination of both, but I was absolutely flying - 5 miles in 7.04 pace, which is much faster than I've been running recently. Sandra arrived back, we had some tea, and I headed off to bed.

Although the race doesn't technically start until the Saturday morning, I always feel it is race day when I wake up on the Friday morning of WHW Race weekend. I had taken the day as a holiday but had a lot to do, so set the alarm for 8am and got up then. I packed all my kit for the weekend and at about 10am I headed out for a run. I combined this with collecting my van for the weekend from Thrifty at Haymarket - killing 2 birds with the one stone - and again I was delighted how well I ran, 7.25 pace for 5 miles, a decent pace considering how hot it was. Before going home I called in to the office to collect all the things needed for race day, such as the medical cards, the parking permits, the emergency contact information, pens, and the trophies for those who were in line to finish their 10th WHW Race. Sandra was ready when I arrived home at about 1pm, and after a quick sandwich we headed through to Milngavie.

Stan had collected the finishers' goblets from Glencairn Crystal a few weeks earlier, and I had arranged to meet him in Milngavie at 3pm to hand them over. That all went to plan, and shortly afterwards two of Sandra's backup team (Susan and her partner Howard)arrived at the Milngavie Premier Inn, where Sandra had booked a room to let her relax for the few hours before the race. Susan and Howard headed out for a run. I went along to Tesco in Milngavie to collect a few things and, more importantly, to give Sandra the chance to have a couple of hours sleep. I arrived back at 6pm and we headed through to the Beefeater for our pre race meal. Unfortunately the service was terrible, and I didn't have time to finish my meal before I needed to head along to set up registration at St Joseph's Church at 8pm.

When I arrived at the Church Hall there were a few helpers already there, including Davie Hall (who was in charge of registration) and George and Karen, who were involved with the sweeping. Martin Stone arrived shortly afterwards with his timing equipment, and everything was set up and ready to go by the 'opening time' of 9pm. As in previous years, we had quite a crowd wanting to register at 9pm, presumably so they could head back and relax a bit before the race. After the initial rush things quietened down a bit. I headed out to see Stuart Ballantyne and his team from Trossachs Search and Rescue - they were already set up at the far end of the car park and collecting drop bags for Rowardennan and Inversnaid. The Trossachs guys provide great support to the race, and I was delighted to see that everything was working in accordance with the plan. The atmosphere in the Church Hall was great - I love seeing so many nervous and excited people in the few hours before the start of the race. It was a pleasure to work with the lady from the church. She couldn't have been more helpful, even making tea and coffee for the team working on registration. I later found out she was supposed to be on holiday that week, but changed her arrangements because she enjoys the race so much and the people associated with it. Not for the last time, it brought home to me what a great race this is, and what a fantastic group of people it is who are associated with it.

At 12.30am I headed out and gave the race briefing. As always, I could smell the tension in the air. It is a magnificent sight to look out and see so many people who were about to head off on this massive challenge. I was a bit nervous about quoting Fiona's inspirational words - I hadn't been able to do it when I was practising the night before without tears running down my face - but it all went well, and I hope it sent people off with a poignant reminder of what this race is really about. At about 12.50am I headed to the start line, gave the '10 minute to go' announcement, saw Sandra and wished her all the best, and got ready for the start. At exactly 1am I pressed the hooter and everyone was off. We had 181 runners, all hoping to make it to Fort William before noon on Sunday. It was a nice feeling to see everyone head off - it felt like the first part of the planning had been completed successfully - and there was an odd silence in the car park which had been so noisy just a few minutes earlier. I collected a few things from the hall, which had already been tidied by the registration team, and headed across to the van.

I left Milngavie and started to head towards the Beech Tree. Lynne on the Radio was on Radio Clyde - she's had a bit of banter with Sandra in the past about her running, so I sent her a tweet saying I had just seen 181 runners head off on the WHW Race to Fort William. She read it out almost right away, which amused me greatly, although I suspect few people heard it. Soon afterwards I arrived at the Beech Tree which was busy, with the car park almost full. The owner there is lovely - she opens her wee hut each year and sells hot rolls and coffee - so I had a quick coffee, said hello and thanked her. It is one of the things I love about the WHW Race - there are so many people who appreciate it and want to help out in any way they can. After that I headed to Drymen, expecting to have a bit of time before anyone arrived. But no sooner had I got there and the first 2 runners went through - Paul Giblin and Robert Souter. I looked at my watch and couldn't believe it; 1.29. What were they doing running at that pace? Surely it was too fast? It also caused a bit of panic - that was much faster than we had expected or planned; would the checkpoints be ready in time? I headed straight back to the car and drove round to Balmaha, to let the checkpoint team know they might be in action quicker than they had expected. Fortunately Davie was there already, and Martin arrived shortly afterwards to set up the timing station. It was all under control, so I headed across to the Oak Tree for a coffee and a roll.

Sandra and I have known the owners of the Oak Tree, Sandy and Lucy, for a few years. They are a lovely couple, and opening up the Oak Tree to serve coffee and rolls at that time in the morning is a wonderful gesture. I had a quick chat with Lucy, ate my roll, and headed back out to the car ark to see the first few runners coming through. We checked that the timing system was working properly - it was - and then I headed up with Martin to set up the Rowardennan checkpoint and timing station.

The midges at Rowardennan were bad, so I was glad when we had everything set up and the drop bags laid out. Paul Giblin arrived in a super fast time, and had opened up a large gap from the second runner. Already it was clear that, if he could hold it together, we were going to see something special. I headed back down the road, stopping between the camp sites to see the runners come through. Sandra passed looking strong, and I headed down to the Oak Tree where I had planned to grab a few hours sleep.

Unfortunately the plan to sleep did not work. I lay on the bed with my mind racing, adrenalin pumping through my body, and unable to get to sleep. Just as I had almost dropped off, my phone woke me with a text to sat the checkpoint team were not able to get in to Beinglas Farm because the gate was locked. I didn't even know there was a gate, but this was a problem. There is only an intermittent phone signal at the Oak Tree, so I wasn't able to phone Adrian or speak to Ross or Noanie who were in charge of the checkpoint. I felt pretty helpless; miles away, no phone signal, and no real idea of what was happening. There was no way I was going to get any sleep now. Paul came through there at 6.58am, before the gate had opened and with most of the checkpoint team still on the wrong side of the gate. Thankfully Noanie had managed to get in and was able to make a manual note of his time and give him a few gels to keep him going. I finally got a signal, spoke to Adrian and approved Paul's support team having special dispensation to meet him further up Glen Falloch, as they hadn't been able to get in to Beinglas. I don't even know if this message got through to them. Fortunately the gates opened at 7am and the checkpoint team (plus Martin) were able to get in, and record the times of the rest of the runners.

I got up and had a shower, a quick breakfast, and headed round the southern end of Loch Lomond. I stopped in Balloch when I had a decent phone signal, and updated myself with the race progress. By this stage I think Paul had reached Auchteryre in under 8 hours and was showing no signs of slowing. It was already looking like a remarkable performance was on the cards. I arrived at Beinglas and was met by Ross, who told me there had been a bit of a hassle with the owner. Ross had done a good job in sorting things out, but it was clear I would need to have a chat with him and make sure things were ok. I found the owner shortly afterwards, apologised for the hassle, and we agreed that next year we would sit down beforehand and plan things better. I waited to see Sandra come through then left Beinglas feeling that things were under control. It is great to have people like Noanie and Ross who have the presence to take control of a situation when something happens that is not in the plan. All of our marshals are like that - they are experienced people who I can rely on to work things out, and as a race we are very lucky to have their help.

After Beinglas I drove up to Auchtertyre. It was clear that the checkpoint team had everything under control, and there were none of the problems that had occurred last year. I said a quick hello and headed on up the road to Bridge of Orchy. By the time I arrived there the first 3 runners had already passed, so I stayed for about half an hour for a coffee with Tim, Muriel and Jane while the next few runners come through. I was aware that I needed to get to Kinlochleven before the first runner - I was looking after Martin here while he set up the timing system, while Adrian was heading to set up the finish at Fort William - so I headed straight for Glencoe. As I headed up the ski road towards the checkpoint I passed Paul running down the road, having been through the checkpoint already. At that stage I knew a new record was definitely going to happen, unless the wheels fell off which did not look likely; he looked remarkably good for a man who had covered 71 miles in 10 hours 33 minutes. I did a quick calculation in my head - 5 hours from here was more than achievable for a runner of Paul's ability, and if he did that he would come finish in about 15 and a half hours.

I arrived at Kinlochleven and met Julie, who was looking after the checkpoint, and Paul's mum, dad and sister, who were doing his support. We had a chat and I reminded them that while Terry Conway's time last year of 15.39 was the best time on the route since 1991, the actual best time ever recorded was Dave Wallace in 1989 of 15.26. I asked them to make sure Paul knew this - I didn't want him to coast in to Fort William thinking he had the best ever time if he managed to beat last year's 15.39. It was also a chance to put to bed the argument about whether the course before 1991 was harder or easier - if he could beat 15.26 that would be the best time ever, full stop. We watched Paul come in and out of the checkpoint. He looked a bit tired, as you would expect after 81 miles, but didn't look as though he was slowing. Chris Ellis arrived just as Paul was leaving. The look of disbelief on Chris's face was something I remember for a long time, as he had expected to have another hour to set things up before anyone arrived.

Martin and I went for a quick toastie in the Tailrace Inn, and we when we came back we saw Marco come through in 2nd place, also on schedule for an amazing time. I knew I didn't have too much time to get to the finish, given the pace Paul was running, so I left Kinlochleven and headed up to Fort William. Adrian and Alan had already set up the finish - we wanted to make it more of an 'occasion' this year with a defined finishing straight and a banner - and we prepared ourselves for Paul's arrival, with Martin setting up the final timing station. Paul's support crew were pacing around nervously, but they had seen him through Lundavra and knew he was still going well and on schedule. At 4.07pm Paul came in to the car park, crossing the line in a new record of 15 hour 7 minutes and 29 seconds. It was an incredible moment, one I will remember for a long time. His support team were very emotional. Paul looked remarkably fresh. It was a truly remarkable performance by a remarkable athlete.

After the photos were taken and the congratulations offered, we started to prepare for the second runner's arrival. Marco's support crew arrived - comprising a trio of international athletes who between hold many of the Scottish ultra running records - and we knew he wouldn't be far away. Marco finished just after 5pm with a time of 16.03.48 - the 4th fastest time, and a PB by around 2 hours. I was delighted for Marco. I have known him since we worked together in the 1990s. At that time he didn't run at all, and to see the progress he has made has been amazing.

Richie Cunningham came in soon afterwards in another remarkable time of 16.27.30. Richie won the race in 2010 and 2011, but DNF'd last year. It was great to see him return to this level of performance, and he wasn't far away from his best time. Shortly after Richie finished, I decided to head back down to Kinlochleven to spend a few hours there. I knew I was likely to miss the finish of the female race, which was a shame, but against that I was keen to see how Kinlochleven checkpoint operated. I arrived there about 6pm and saw quite a number of runners come through. I had a good catch up with Chris Ellis - it is great for us to have Chris involved, with all of his medical knowledge and experience - and I even managed to find time for a steak pie supper from the local chippie. The internet connection at KLL was much better than FW, so I phoned Adrian and Mags (the race control team, who were in FW) and suggested it would make more sense for them to base themselves in KLL. Sandra's backup team arrived soon afterwards, and at about 8.15pm Sandra arrived at the checkpoint. She was in good spirits, hadn't had any problems with her ankle, and as long as she held things together she was well on course for a sub 24 hour finish. She headed off with Nick as her support runner, and I got ready to head back up towards Fort William.

By that stage the only checkpoint I hadn't visited was Lundavra. I checked in for Sandra at the Premier Inn, then headed up the narrow and winding road to the Lundavra checkpoint. Neal, Caroline and Caroline's parents were there, and it looked like a party was already in progress. They had set up a big tent, and any time a runner appeared over the hill they greeted them with a blast of music (mainly the Rocky theme when I was there, but there were a few other variations). It was absolutely brilliant, and must have given the runners such a boost. I saw a number of very tired runners pass through, all knowing they were on the final leg and had only 7 miles to the finish. Sandra arrived at exactly 10.30pm (21 hours 30 mins); hopefully her sub 24 hour target was in the bag. I watched her head off on the last section, going really well, and headed back to the car to drive back to the Leisure Centre. She arrived there at 12.11 pm in a time of 23 hours 11 minutes, with a huge smile on her face. I was delighted for her, and for her support crew - like everyone else, she had worked incredibly hard for it and was totally elated by her achievement.

There was a rush of finishers in the period up to the 24 hour mark, then it quietened down for a while. I found the quiet sections quite difficult - I hadn't had a problem with tiredness at all, but when it was quiet it became a bit more difficult. It didn't seem to be dark for very long - by 3am it was getting light again, and we were in to the new day. Adrian, Alan, Silke and I took turns at doing the various jobs (recording finishing times, weighing, printing out the splits for the runners, answering various questions, and so on). It was great to see the elation of all the finishers - it is clear how much finishing means to everyone involved, and it is a real privilege to be able to share this moment with the runners and their support teams. The timing system made it really easy for us to know who was still out on the course. I had a shower at 6am and felt a lot better; before we knew it we were waiting for the last few runners, with many of the earlier finishers who had reappeared at the Leisure Centre to support those coming in. The last finisher, Peter Ritchie, came in just after 11am, and we finished packing everything up before heading to the Nevis Centre for the prize giving.

The prize giving was an incredible event. I have never seen so many people attending; there must have been more than 500 people in the room, with about a third unable to get a seat. As mentioned earlier I had scripted the format of the prize giving a few days earlier, as I knew I would be too tired to do it on the day. I was deeply moved by the emotion in the room. Paul received a wonderful and deserved reception when he collected his trophy, as did Gareth when he was announced as the oldest finisher. I was very moved by the reception I was given when Adrian thanked me for the work. People loved it when Paul presented Peter with his goblet as last finisher. The West Highland Way Race family is an amazing group of people, and this is an incredible race.

I left the prize giving with a feeling of satisfaction, a job well done. We went for a couple of drinks and something to eat before heading to bed at 5pm for a couple of hours sleep prior to the night out. I was in two minds about whether to go to bed - I had been awake for 57 hours without a sleep and was scared if I slept I wouldn't be able to get back up again in a a few hours for the night out. However I was falling asleep on my feet, so didn't really have any choice. Sure enough when the alarm went off I had no idea at all of where I was, or why my alarm was going off at 7.30pm, and promptly fell asleep again. I was woken 20 minutes later with a call from Susan wondering where we were, so struggled in to the shower in a state of semi consciousness. It took an hour or so to come round, but once I had had my first pint in the Ben Nevis bar (thanks Norma!) I felt a lot better. We had a wonderful night sharing race stories, and headed to bed about 2am. We met a number of friends he next day for breakfast, then headed back to Edinburgh, calling in at my Mum and Dad's house on route.

One day on, I am still buzzing about the weekend. It was brilliant. There are still a few things to do, but I returned the van this morning, dealt with a few bits and pieces, and should be able to put this year's race to bed in the next week or so. I would like to thank everyone who was involved, in any capacity: the runners, the support crews, the marshalls, the sweep teams, the medical teams, the timing people, and all the other helpers who help make this, in my view, the best race in the world. It is a privilege to be the Race Director of the West Highland Way Race. I look forward to seeing you all again next year.


Helen said...

What a great read Ian! So glad that you seem to get the same buzz out of the weekend as everyone else, the amount of time and effort you put in to this is phenomenal and appreciated much more than words can express. This was our first foray into the world of the WHW family and I can't imagine not being part of it in one role or another for years to come xx

John Kynaston said...

Great to see a post on your blog! and a really interesting one at that.

Hope you are recovering well from the weekend and thanks again for all your hard work!


rhona @redwinerunner.com said...

What a fascinating read! It's so interesting to see how things work from your side of things; I'm not surprised you didn't sleep for 57 hours with so many things to worry about.
I was honoured to be a part of the sweep team and contribute to this great event; thank you for all the hard work you do - it's my favourite weekend of the year :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story it is great to read about your experiences and challenges. We are all indebted to you and your team for all the work you do to keep us safe.

Matt Moroz said...

Fantastic stuff regarding build up, and great to hear a bit more detail regarding Paul's amazing performance too. Already looking forward to next year!!!

Anonymous said...

Great build up to the race, shows just what goes through the being prior to the big event. Great story and very well told.

Marco Consani said...

Thank God I was just running it. Your "race" lasts all week.

Seriously though Ian - Thank you for all the hard work (and love) that you put into this race. We are all so grateful.


Ulster hospitals ICU charity walk said...

Great story dude enjoyed reading it

karl zeiner said...

Enjoyed reading that Iran.

brendan o'hagan said...

many thanks ian and to all your whw family for an amazing event...