When I first started running, even the thought of a marathon – a mere 26.2 miles - was usually met with comments that involved hell and freezing over. Little did I know that several marathons down the line the devil would grab me and drag on a gut-wrenching 43 miles through the Highlands.
Since my pavement-pounding debut many moons ago, many have been impressed with my dedication and devotion to running. More are bewildered as to why I actually enjoy long distance running. But few shared my excitement when I signed up for the Devil o’ The Highlands (DOTH) – a 43-mile hill race along the West Highland Way from Tyndrum to Fort William.
Garry Milne, Race Director came up with the idea whilst running the West Highland Way Race in 1994. I put that down to delirium. Nevertheless I had to agree with him when he said: “the most enjoyable and beautiful part of the route is from the village of Tyndrum all the way up to Fort William”. He toyed with the idea for a few years, until his long-suffering wife bullied him into stop talking and start organising. Enlisting the help of his athletic family, including his Father Stan who was a race director for the West Highland Way Race, they formed The Bigrace Group. Since the event’s maiden voyage in August 2003, it has attracted international athletes keen to take part in one of the world’s most scenic ultra marathons.
Unlike an ordinary ultra, this is advertised as mountain race. Not just 43 miles, but over 6000ft in ascent - in a region known for its unpredictable and severe weather. Because of this, the registration process and race guidelines are very stringent. Applicants are selected on case-by-case basis and must possess the desired level of ability. The race rules are: Runners have 12 hours to finish and must pass through the four manned checkpoints. Each runner must have a back-up team and as it’s a mountain event, the minimum survival equipment – map, compass, waterproofs and foil blanket - must be carried at all times. Participants are allowed companions, but not pacers. The difference being that if you’re chasing a prize then you are not allowed anyone to help you along. And each runner must carry their own pack at all times.
Parking up at the Green Welly Stop just after dawn on June 9, I put my enrolment down to a temporary lapse of sanity rather than an aspirational achievement. I had walked the route and jogged most of sections, so I thought it was a case of stitching some bits together, upping the pace and getting to Fort William within the time limit. Naïve I know. Thankfully my equally unhinged side-kick, Marco, was there to experience the pain too. We’re known by our nearest and dearest as the certifiable fruitloops. I’m not sure whether we’re compatible or just a bad influence on each other.
We met up with my bleary-eyed support teams – more to do with a night at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel’s bar than the god-awful hour - to go over last minute details and hand over my supplies. The weather forecast predicted hot sunshine and 25 degree heat. Given the Scottish highlands’ famed fickle weather, I had packed for every eventuality from a Sahara to Everest adventure.
Last minute hugs and words of encouragement and I lined up with the other 52 runners. My stomach was in knots, my eyes resembled a startled rabbit and my hands were flapping about attempting to elude a midges attack.
Bang on 6am, Garry honked the horn and off we went, trotting up the gentle slope out of the village of Tyndrum on an old military road. The easiest section of the route was made more enjoyable with the fresh morning air and the magical sight of the rising mist. The combination of fear and anticipation meant that no one was in the mood for conversation. The only sound was the scuffling off trail shoes, swishing sound of energy drink in back packs and the odd toot from drivers on the A82.
Jill and Sara looked like they were having the toughest time. Ducking swarms of Scotland’s scourge that filled the air like smog, the tried to look cheery, but I felt their frustration. Jill’s welcoming words were: “next time can you choose a race that’s not in Scotland”. Non-disputable advice which I banked for a future ponder as I stripped off a few layers of clothing, grabbed a bag of jelly babies and headed off for the next stage.
I could still hear the cheers behind me as I stepped on the trail, which immediately started to head steeply towards the first major peak - the Mam Carraigh ridge which stands at 1000ft/308 metres. I didn’t have much of a game plan, but I knew I was going to walk the three peaks. I started to slow down and settle in to a stomp as I continued up through the woods. I was probably going a bit rapid, but I was otherwise in danger of asphyxiation by insects. I ran and stumbled out of woods on to the track which marks the beginning of the rougher country underfoot.
Passing the Inveroran hotel over a few bridges and stiles and it back on the Old Drovers road heading towards Rannoch Moor. Feeling quite self-righteous, I passed the runners who blew up exerting themselves over the previous peaks.
A pleasant 2.7 miles along the Way, with a few skips over streams and jumps over stiles and I was at the foot of the dreaded Devil’s Staircase - the highest point at 1798ft/549m. Aptly the race was named after this hill, because of its energy draining ability. By no means a mountain, but not an ascent I wanted to waste energy by running up. I decided to walk/stomp up, as I knew I’d be faster. Strangely, I was actually looking forward to the rest. I passed a few runners on the way up. The simultaneous rolling of our eyes was the unspoken language that screamed we should be doing something else on a sunny Saturday morning. Why can’t I be like a normal girl and go shopping? To add another cruel twist a photographer was heading towards me as I pulled my dead legs up. Snapping away I asked him if hair was OK. Thankfully he humoured me. Nearing the summit, I passed and chatted to some Dutch tourists, who shouted behind me “You must come to Holland to run marathon. It is very flat. Not like this crazy country”. Thoughts of how Dutch people trained for the WHW kept my frazzled brain occupied for a while.
Nearing Kinlochleven the track continued to drop and my toes continued to scream as the pipes of a town’s aluminium smelter came in to view. My tired legs were suffering from the concrete pounding as I turned towards the next checkpoint. Again, I frantically searched for my support team. I was starting to question my choice, when my half-naked soon-to-be Brother-in-law Paul hurled himself across the street and said: “The girls are parked at the end. I can’t run with you and I don’t want to panic you, but you’re third lady”. What? Me? I’ve never been known for my speed, but One-pace Debs was on for a place. I suddenly felt lighter and more energised. Springing away, I figured Paul was having a rare wee day of sun-basking, but I later discovered that Marco had swiped his t-shirt at the last checkpoint.
Kinlochleven to Lundavra 12km/7.5miles
Leaving the town, my jovial stride proved short-lived as I turned up the steep track towards Lairig-Mor (330m/1100ft.). Climbing up and up through birch and mountain ash, the sun was out in full-force. My skin felt like it was melting. Drips of sweat – which were running faster than I was - were stinging my eyes and blurring my vision.
After a staggered ascent I finally reached the Lairig-Mor track. From there on in it was an isolated jog through a long empty valley. The undulating track was very tough on heavy legs. Every incline felt like a mountain. My energy levels were depleting, so I frantically stuffed jelly babies in my mouth. My thighs were searing with and the rough terrain was making my feet slip and ankles roll. I knew I was in danger of losing a nail or two, but hey ho, toenails are so over-rated.
After a series of mental peaks and troughs, I eventually reached the track which drops down towards woodlands. The change of scenery and terrain was a welcome sight.
The walkers were out in force – although there seemed to be more sitting enjoying the sunshine than walking. It was great to see some smiley faces and hear some cheers of support. Meeting other people en route forced me to be positive and pull myself together. I couldn’t show weakness after all.
I continued on my scuffle down towards the Braveheart Forestry Carpark on to the main road, for the last stretch. I desperately willed the 30mph sign to appear, as I knew the town of Fort William would be round the corner.
And there it was. My oasis. I used up the last ounce of energy to step over the finishing line. After running for 8 hours and 49 minutes my legs buckled like I’d just jumped off a bar stool after drinking 10 shots. My waistline had shrunk, my hair looked like something the cat coughed up and my skin was so salty, you could shake me on a bag of chips. I finished third female and joint 20th overall. I would have cried with joy, but it would have probably used up the last drop of liquid I had in my body.
After the initial jovial celebrations, my support team had to grab me as I stumbled back on to the main road. The only cure, of course, was to slump on the grass and watch the pain of the other runners coming in.
So, will I be there next year? Count me in. Will I be attempting the full 95-mile journey in a one-er? Of course. Just as soon as hell freezes over.
John Kennedy 06:31:18
Philip Atherton 06:51:38
Duncan Gilmour 06:54:12
Marco Consani 07:03:23
Helen Johnson 07:07:53
Devil o’ the Highlands is organised by the Big Race Group. The event is non-profit making race, sponsored by the Green Welly Stop, Del Monte and Arnold Clark. For further information, visit www http://www.devilothehighlandsfootrace.co.uk/. Next race scheduled for August 9, 2008. Entry forms are available online. For information on the full WHW race, Visit http://www.westhighlandwayrace.org/