Saturday, 9 June 2007

Devil o’ the Highlands - My Race July 2007

Speak of the Devil / Better the Devil you know

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.

Stage 1 - Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy 10.75km/6.75miles
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.

Over the first few miles there was a mix of enthusiasm from the over-expending runner who got caught up in the first spurt action to the over-cautious who started to walk at the first sign of a hill.

After a while, the field was split and people started to relax and settle into their stride. I spent the rest of the stage chatting to two other gals. Up and over the rocky track we excitedly gibbered about previous races, running experience and how we ended up there in the first place. It was like a mobile coffee-morning, but it was nice to chat.

As the train line at Bridge of Orchy drew nearer the army of support teams – clad in midge nets – came into sight. The railway underpass, which donates the entrance to the village, was a haven for the highland pests. Shielding my face, I jogged down the minor road, flashed my race number as I passed the checkpoint and crossed the A82 to meet my support team.
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.
Stage 2 - Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse

Bridge of Orchy to Inveroran 4km/2.5miles
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.
Heading over the ridge the morning sunshine was beaming down. Cloudless blue skies allowed for magnificent views over the sparking Loch Tulla and the magnificent Rannoch Moor in the distance. Feeling the burn from the uphill, the downhill offered little relief as the rocky zigzag route down to Inveroran was tough on the ankles and taxing on the brain.

Inveroran to Kingshouse 16.1km/10miles
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.

Rannoch Moor is the most remote, but most splendid part of the race. A magnificent plateau dotted with innumerable lochs, lochans, peat bogs, streams and surrounded by heather-clad country and mountains. To the unaware runner you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re wilting, when in fact there’s a cheeky wee incline most of the way.

Up and out of the moor, the path then swings around the flanks of Meall a' Bhuiridh to reveal the head of Glencoe. Still feeling energised, I bounced the two miles down the hill to the second checkpoint at the White Corries ski lifts.
I desperately searched for my support team, but they were nowhere in sight. Panic set in. Quick call from my mobile and I tracked them down at the Kingshouse Hotel – a short distance across the A82 and along the minor pot-holed road. By this time, the gals had stripped down to their shorts and tees and were topping up there tans. There were amazed and confused when I said that I was “absolutely loving it”. I topped up on fluids, grabbed a cereal bar and headed passed the hotel and campsite and over the bridge. A few sleep stirring campers lifted their heavy heads and waved over, whilst others looked on in shocked.
Stage 3 - Kingshouse to Kinlochleven 14.5km/9miles
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.
Views from the summit were spectacular. I had trained on this section two weeks prior and I was battered with forceful hailstones and snow. Yes, even in May! This time the crystal clear day provided magnificent views of Lairig Gartain that runs through Glen Etive and the mighty Buachailles.
Skipping along, the track meanders its way down for the next six miles. The rocky route and downhill gradient was unforgiving on the quads and my toes ached as my feet pressed forward in my shoes.
Trying to enjoy the sights of the glorious mountain ranges and the glistening eight-mile reservoir, I was cautiously aware of my stepping. One false move and I’d be backside over elbow. En route I passed a few male runners who were really pussyfooting around the rocks.
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.
A quick pip-stop, restocking energy drink, packing some food and slapping on more sunscreen and I was on my way to the finish. Unfortunately it was along the toughest and most draining section. Up until that part I was feeling pretty fresh, but experience had warned me that that was about to be zapped. I accepted that it was going to hurt, but I knew I’d get through it.
Stage 4 - Kinlochleven to Fort William
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.
To keep positive, I knew I was going to finish. And finish in a better time than expected. I had got that far so I was committed to dragging myself to the end. Passing another few male runners, their shocked faces on seeing a girl overtake, continued to provide sweet satisfaction.
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.
Lundavra to Fort William 10.5km/6.5miles
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.

Running into more forest spruce, the track crossed a high stile followed by a steep climb up a hill. A narrow dirt track curves around a hillside before I was faced with the most welcoming sight of the day – the mighty Ben Nevis. The name translates as venomous or malicious mountain. Quite fitting considering its sight would suggest the ending was near, when in fact there was still over five miles to go.

The additional stiles were becoming more difficult to climb as a continued on the roller-coasting path through the pine forest. The new terrain – a lovely blanket of pine needles – and the shade were a pleasant relief. My legs started to rebel as I hit more inclines. My brain couldn’t grasp it. If fort William is at sea level why oh why was I still climbing? Negotiating the last stile with limited grace – much to the amusement of on a few chuckling onlookers - I hit the long winding gravel track. My legs were like jelly, my hands were shaking and I was starting to feel quite emotional. Out of nowhere the photographer appeared again forcing me to smile and reform my running style.

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.

2007 results
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

Fact box.
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 Next race scheduled for August 9, 2008. Entry forms are available online. For information on the full WHW race, Visit

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Excellent read. I cannot wait for your 2008 WHW Race report!