Tuesday, July 01, 2014

West Highland Way Race 2014 – A Race Director’s Perspective

Now that the dust has settled on the 2014 race, I thought it was a good time for me to do my annual blog posting and stick down my thoughts on the race, while it is still relatively fresh in my mind. So here goes…..

I knew I had a hectic week coming up at work in the lead up to the race (of which more below), so I went in to the office on Sunday afternoon to get various bits and pieces sorted out, such as allocating the numbers to each runner, collating the support and medical details in a format they could be easily printed and accessed, chasing the few runners still needing to provide bits of information, and so on. I was there for 4 hours, but it was time well spent and I felt better when it was all finished. Everything felt under control with only a few days to go.

As expected it was a busy week, both at work and with some of the other things I am involved with. Monday was a busy day of meetings, then I had a Scottish Athletics board meeting at night where the board met the management team who will support and look after the Scottish athletes at the Commonwealth Games. It was great to see how well advanced the planning was, how enthusiastic everyone was, and I came home totally inspired. On Tuesday morning I attended at a sports law conference – not sure it was the best time to be hearing about various cases where event organisers were held liable for problems with their events – and then back to a number of meetings in the afternoon. At night I headed round to Run and Become to help with the packing of the goody bags, but by the time I arrived around 7pm it was just about finished thanks to some excellent work from Adrian, Murdo, Norman, Julie and Scott. Wednesday morning saw an early start: a taxi picked me up at 5.30am to take me to Waverley Station, and I headed through to Glasgow on the first train. I was chairing a series of question and answer sessions with Eilish McColgan, Nigel Holl (CEO of Scottish Athletics) and Stephen Maguire (Director of Coaching of Scottish Athletics): Glasgow on Wednesday morning, Dundee on Wednesday evening and Edinburgh on Thursday morning. Each of the three seminars lasted for around an hour and a half, with audiences of between 45 and 85 people, and after a train delay I didn’t get back home from Dundee until after 11pm on Wednesday evening. It was a long day, and possibly not the best preparation for the busy weekend to come. After the Eilish seminar on Thursday morning we had our weekly board meeting, then I had a quick check of my e-mails before heading through to Glasgow for a SAMH board meeting. I arrived back in Edinburgh about 7.30pm, finalised a few race bits and pieces in the office, put on my Out of Office, and headed home about 9pm. By the time I got home Sandra was in bed; I had hardly seen her all week.

Friday arrived – I always think of the Friday as race day – and I was up at 7am. I had to pick up a few things from the office before meeting Donald and Elaine at Run and Become at 9.30am to hand over numbers, pins and race info for the relay. I also met Steven, who was kindly helping out by transporting goody bags and race merchandise from Edinburgh to Milngavie in the van. Once the van was packed Steven dropped me off at Arnold Clark in Sighthill where I picked up my own van. I popped in to Sainsbury’s to pick up a few bits and pieces (including an extra packet of sandwich bags for the runners’ medical cards, as I was worried we might not have enough), had a quick bite to eat and headed home to pack the van. Sandra was already packed, and we left the house at 1pm. We had something to eat at McDonalds at Straiton then headed to Milngavie. The traffic was heavy but we got there about 3pm, and after a bit of a mix up about what Premier Inn we had booked we checked in for Sean and Laura, who were going to stay there for a few hours’ sleep after the race had started.

We didn’t stay in Milngavie but headed up to the Oak Tree, where we had a room booked. We stopped on route at the Beech Tree to check Lynne (the owner) was able to leave the car park gate open for race traffic, had a quick drink, then arrived in Balmaha around 5pm. After something to eat and a shower, we left at 7.30pm to set up registration at St Joseph’s Church from 8pm. Most of the helpers arrived shortly afterwards and before too long everything had been set up. It was clear that everyone knew what they were doing and there were a lot of experienced helpers in the room; it certainly made my job easy having such a good team around. This was something that happened throughout the whole race - the quality of people helping with every aspect of the race was great, and I am hugely appreciative to them all for all their efforts. Martin Stone from Sportident, the timing people, also arrived and set up the electronic cards.

As usual, there was a bit of rush when registration first opened, then it quietened down until closer to the start of the race. I did a quick interview with John for the podcast, went to see the Trossachs people, and said hello to many of the runners arriving. I had a bit of a panic when I couldn’t find the medical sheets, but thankfully they re-appeared amongst the car park passes. All seemed to go smoothly; as ever the lady from the church was a fantastic help, and great to work with. We are lucky to have people like her helping with the race.

At 12.30am Sean and I gave the race briefing, and it was almost time to start the race. I love the last half hour before the race starts. There is an incredible atmosphere – a mixture of excitement, nerves and general terror – but it is a fantastic sight to see everyone line up beside the tunnel. It meant a lot to me to see that Nigel Holl, the CEO of Scottish Athletics, had cycled down to see the start; I was also delighted that there had been no sign of the ‘Challenge’ which I later heard had started with its five runners further up in Milngavie. At exactly 1am I blew the hooter, and the runners were away. It didn’t take long for the runners and their support to clear, and Milngavie Station started returning to normal. We packed various bits and pieces in to the van, finished tidying the hall, and headed off. The first milestone – a successful start – had been reached.

Sandra and I headed up to the Beech Tree, saw the first runners come through, and had a quick word with George and Karen. In the darkness I didn’t recognise Alan, Rosie Bell’s husband, which was a bit embarrassing. We didn’t stay there too long, but headed up the road to Balmaha, making a quick detour to Garadhban Forest. We were too late arriving there to see Paul Giblin and Robbie Britton go through – it was already clear that these two guys had made a great start and were capable of something very special. We also saw the first of the ‘Challenge’ checkpoints which I thought looked a bit pathetic. From there we did a quick turn and travelled to Balmaha, said hello to Davie at the checkpoint - providing a couple of new people for the midges to devour - and quickly went in to the sanctuary of the Oak Tree. We were able to get Wifi in there and follow the runners going through the checkpoint via the Sportident app, while enjoying a welcome coffee and bacon roll.

We stayed in the Oak Tree for quite a while, following the race and chatting to the support crews who came in. After a while we decided to take a drive up to Rowardennan and see how things were going there. The road up was quiet, but Paul and Robbie had already passed through by the time we arrived. We didn’t stay long; had a quick word with Richard and Robert from the safety of our car – the midges were as bad as I have ever seen them – then returned down the road to the Oak Tree. We didn’t see many runners at all and were able to get some idea of how much the field had spread out, even at this early stage of the race.

On our return the Oak Tree was jumping and after a bit of chat we decided to head to bed for a couple of hours’ sleep. I have to give a huge thanks to Lucy, Sandy and family for opening up the Oak Tree for us on race night. It makes a fantastic difference to the support crews to be able to get something hot to eat and drink, and to be able to use the facilities. We went to bed about 5.30am, but I was wakened by two phone calls and two texts and decided at 7.30am would be as well getting up. Still, two hours of disturbed sleep was better than none, and after a shower and some breakfast we were ready to head further up the course.

As we travelled along the south side of Loch Lomond I spoke on the phone to Sean. It was clear that Paul and Robbie were continue to run at a record pace, and our biggest problem was ensuring that Martin (the Sportident timing man) arrived in time at each checkpoint. We had a fairly slow trip up Loch Lomond – the traffic was already heavy and moving slowly through the roadworks. We called in to Beinglas and I was pleased to see it all looked calm, both at the field where everyone was parking and at the checkpoint. We spoke to Helen and John and watched some of the runners come in. Many of them looked shattered, but I always found the section in to Beinglas one of the hardest and I was confident they would pick up on the next section.

Just before leaving Graeme told me that there had been an accident on the A82. I asked one of the Trossachs guys about it, but it seemed to have been cleared so we continued north. I would have liked to have gone in to Auchtertyre but we needed to go to By The Way and check the relay registration. From all the feedback Auchtertyre worked extremely well this year, marshalled in the usual professional way by Lee and her family. This was a theme throughout the weekend: people at checkpoints who knew exactly what they were doing, and looking after the runners and their support teams superbly. The race is really lucky to have so many experienced people giving up their weekend to help, and I am hugely grateful to all of them. It certainly makes my role as RD much easier to know everywhere is in such good hands.

It was no surprise to see the relay registration at By The Way working well, with Donald and Elaine fully in control. At around 11.40am I headed over to the relay start, gave a quick briefing 10 minutes before the start, then set the 32 runners off at exactly 12 noon. The runners coming through Tyndrum just before the relay start were given a fantastic reception – the race instructions had asked all relay runners to make a point of congratulating the full race runners as they passed, and it certainly seemed to happen at Tyndrum. Hopefully it happened elsewhere too. We didn’t hang about long and drove to Bridge of Orchy, said a quick hello to Sean and Laura, then continued on to Glencoe. I was already aware that the car park was going to be full of people taking part in a biking competition, but my heart sank when I saw it. This was normally our easiest checkpoint in terms of parking; today it had the potential to be a nightmare, particularly later on when more runners were arriving. Still, not much we could do at this stage, and it was just something else for the experienced team of Alan, Silke et al to cope with. I think they did an excellent job; although very busy at times, they managed to get everyone through successfully.

We would have liked to have headed to Kinlochleven, but Paul was going so quickly that we would not be able to get there before him. We had just left Glencoe when we received a text from Julie, saying Paul had already been through Kinlochleven, arriving there at 12.42pm. That was incredible - he was motoring, and a new record now seemed a certainty. We did a quick calculation – not easy when you haven’t had much sleep – and reckoned we should be able to get to Lundavra in time to see him, but didn’t have much time to spare. The traffic remained slow, and the wee road up to Lundavra is never the best, but we got there about 15 minutes before Paul came through and had time for a quick chat with John and Katrina, who were setting things up. They were in for a long shift, but on the positive side there was a nice breeze and it seemed to be keeping the midges away. Paul passed through, didn’t stop for more than a minute, and looked very strong as he ran up the hill out of the checkpoint. We jumped in the van and down to Lochaber Leisure Centre, let the team there know Paul was on his way from Lundavra, and headed out to Braveheart car park to see him coming in. We had a bit of a chat with his crew before he arrived; once he reached Braveheart carpark we jumped back in to the van, headed back to the Leisure Centre, and waited for him to reach the finish. It was very emotional seeing him cross the line and record his time at 14.20.11, 47 minutes faster than his time from the previous year. We had seen something very special indeed; a truly world class performance. We didn’t have long to wait for Robbie, who finished in 14.47.48. That was another outstanding performance, one that was 20 minutes faster than the old record. It had been an outstanding race between the superb athletes.

We stayed at the Leisure Centre for a while, watching the faster runners arrive. Fionna Ross, the first lady, arrived in a time of 18.45, the third fastest time ever by a lady. Not far behind was the female winner for the last two years, Rosie Bell, who recorded a PB of 19.02 and the fourth female time ever. It had been a day of incredible performances at the front end of both races. Conditions were good – overcast, not too warm, with a dry course – but there is no doubt Scottish ultra-running performances have moved up a level over the last few years, both on the male and female sides.

I would have liked to have seen every finisher, but also wanted to see how things were going at Kinlochleven, so we headed back down the road. When we arrived I said hello to Dr Chris, Julie and team and remarked that it all seemed very calm, although we all doubted if that would be the case later on! There is decent internet access at Kinlochleven so I was able to get an update of how the race was developing, and we stayed there for an hour or so, seeing various runners come in. Most looked tired at this stage – not surprisingly – but they knew they were in to the final straight, and most left in a positive frame of mind. The only downside was that the midges had made a reappearance, even inside the community centre. We left Kinlochleven and headed up to Lundavra again, where by now the bonfire was going well with quite a few people waiting for their runners to pass through. We stayed there for the best part of an hour then headed back to the Leisure Centre.

Alan and his finishing team had things well under control at the finish, with the finishing runners going through the routine of recording their time with their card, being given a printout of their splits, being weighed, then given some tea and toast. By around 5.30am I could hardly keep my eyes open, so popped in to the van for a quick nap. I woke up just after 7am to the noise of Fiona Rennie approaching her 10th race finish, and I managed to dive out the van, just in time to see her crossing the line in one of the race’s emotional moments. For the next few hours the runners finished in various states, ranging from very tired to absolutely shattered. We grabbed a quick breakfast at Morrisons around 9am, then at 11am I headed down to Nevis Centre to set things up for the prizegiving.

The seats had been laid out in theatre style and it looked fantastic. I was glad I had scripted it all the week before, as I was far too tired to do much thinking at that stage. We started the prizegiving just after 12 noon, and as always it was a very emotional occasion. Paul received a well deserved 5 minute standing ovation for his outstanding run, then every finisher received his or her goblet. There were special presentations for the first 3 men and women, for the five people who had completed 10 races, and for the oldest finisher. Finally we reached Frits, the 157th (and last) finisher, with race winner Paul presenting him with his goblet in another of the race’s emotional moments. I tidied things in to the van, we had a couple of drinks in the Nevis Centre, went for a bit of sleep (although had slightly more than expected as we both slept through the alarm), had a great night out in the pub, had a good catch up with quite a few runners over breakfast the next morning, then travelled back down the road. I returned the van on the Tuesday, tidied a few things up, and that was it. The race was over for another year.

More than one week on, I am delighted with how it all went. I’ve mentioned them a number of times already but the team who helped out in every area were superb, and played a key part in making this race the wonderful event that it is. Ultimately, though, the West Highland Way Race is about the runners. I witnessed some wonderful performances over the weekend, at the front, at the middle and at the back of the field. Paul’s performance was exceptional, but everyone who earned their goblet achieved something special; something that will stay with them forever. It is a privilege for me to be the Race Director of such a fantastic event.

1 comment:

Fiona Rennie said...

It wasn't luck that made it run smoothly, but the effort put in by yourself and the family who are prepared to give up their time for such a special race.
Thank you Ian for the work you do, and not just over the race weekend but all year round.
Fiona xx