With West Highland Way Race entries opening this week we look back at the 2017 race from one of our long-term supporters, Matt Perkins', perspective. Matt has developed into a veritable machine, running 35+ marathons or ultras, winning a couple of them, since moving to the USA at the start of 2014. Check out his blog here.
Having first talked about entering the West Highland Way Race, almost exactly a year ago it was an amazing feeling to be standing on the start line. I felt well prepared and just hoped my foot would hold out. To ensure I didn’t start to quick I lined up near the back of the field. The horn goes off at 1am and we all run through the tunnel, I’m so busy looking for my support team I almost trip up the steps, despite the pre-race warning!
It felt good to be running, and there was an amazing atmosphere. I could feel my foot / heel as a dull ache but it wasn’t affecting my stride. It took a while for heart rate to settle down, partly as per normal and partly adrenaline from the race. I kept monitoring it and slowing down, running was feeling easy and I was ignoring the faster runners around me, focusing on keeping my HR at manageable level. I’d set my watch up to only display HR and time (for nutrition) on the display, no pace or distance, but my watch beeped every mile.
I was feeling good going through Drymen at 13 miles in 2:00. The climb from there to Conic Hill was a mixture of running and fast walking and the long climb up to the summit spiked my HR into 140s. I could have slowed but was feeling ok so kept going. I ran the long steep downhill into Balmaha car park, excited to be almost at the first checkpoint, and passed several walking it. Maybe I should have done that to save my quads as they started to complain along the rocks of Loch Lomond at mile 35.
I clocked in at the entrance to Balmaha car park in 3:22 for the first 20 miles, well up on my predicted pace but feeling good. This is the most runnable section of the route so it was good to have time in the bank for later.
I ended up running a lap of the car park looking for my support team (no phone signal so calling wasn’t working). I’d almost decided to give up when I spotted the Landrover and go round the back to find them setting up table. (Lesson – put table at front of car so it’s more visible – maybe put flag up to be more noticeable).
I changed bottles but had only drunk half my bladder so kept that for the leg to Rowardennan. I topped up on snacks and took a PB&J sandwich to eat on the move. I had seen rain clouds over Loch Lomond from Conic Hill so picked up my OMM Kamleika Smock to carry in my pack just in case.
The section to Rowardennan is undulating, and after the excitement of the checkpoint, my heart rate was back up to around 140 on this section though I was still feeling good. I managed to get it down to 130 but struggle to get it back to 120, eventually bringing my focus back and started walking hills to let it drop.
I arrived at Rowardennan in 4:56 feeling good, with more than a marathon complete (27 miles), and the wind was keeping the midges down! I ate porridge standing up and drank a coffee. I replaced the one empty tailwind and switch bladders as it’s then 13 miles until the next crew meet at Beinglas Farm (40 miles). I grabbed a handful of jelly babies to eat on the go and set off.
I was feeling good along loch Lomond. I could still feel my foot / heel but it wasn’t getting any worse. All the training along the Potomac Heritage Trail in DC is paying off. Scrambling up and down the rocks and shorts spells of walking and running was a nice opportunity to use different muscles. I continued the eating and drinking strategy and arrived at Inversnaid (34 miles) in 6:36 feeling strong. I stopped for my drop bag, an ambrosia rice pudding which I ate there, a refill of my Tailwind bottles and a coconut water to drink on the next section (more scrambling along rocks).
I enjoyed the section after the rocks where there is some good running mixed with short hills, arriving into Beinglas Farm in 8:11 for 40 miles. I’m still feeling good and know the time means I’m making good pace just running on heart rate and may even beat my Highland Fling time of 10:59:00 to cover the 53 miles from Milngavie to Tyndrum. My support crew are waiting just before the timing mat so I switch bottles and bladder, grab some snacks, then clock in. I decided against changing shoes as I was going ok and felt I could hold out until Tyndrum for a proper stop where the wider support team should be meeting me. I ate the PB&J sandwich I’d had in my drop bag at Inversnaid, impressed with how my body was still able to eat solid food and enjoying the mix of options that I had. I was feeling my foot a bit more now but not too bad and I was still running well.
The rain started at about mile 45, so I donned my waterproof jacket. When I was nearing the tunnel under the road I tripped on a rock and over stride to stop myself falling. I felt a sharp pain in the arch of my right foot. I hobble a few steps and it’s very painful. I lose my focus and start to think my race is over (the only time I did). I walked a bit and repeated my mantra of focus and breathing. I walked through the tunnel and up the steps, and my foot was still sore, which was very frustrating. I stopped at a burn and washed my face which helped me refocus. I decided to try running and found I could though my gait was affected. I reminded myself that pain was likely to come at some point so try and embrace it. The positives were that I was still moving forward even if it was painful. I found that I could run fairly well if I kept the weight off the inside of my foot for a bit. Focusing outside the body helped here, looking at the scenery and reminding myself how lucky I was to be running there. I made it along track to the top of Crianlarich with a mixture of running and walking. Taking off my long sleeve t-shirt at edge of forest but keeping my waterproof on. I was averaging a pretty good pace with my heart rate still around 120.
My altered gait meant I started to feel my left quad on the rollercoaster hills in the forest above Crianlarich. My focus now was on short term goals – getting to Auchertyre and then on to Tyndrum to meet full support team.
I arrived at Auchtertyre checkpoint in 10:17 for 50 miles. I weighed in at the low end of the weight limit, but the medical team not concerned. The support team advise me to drink a bit more on next section. (thinking back I think my fluid intake was ok and part of weight loss was not having tracksuit bottoms and a warm top on, and I’d swapped a long-sleeved tech top for light weight waterproof) I ate a banana and grabbed a bag of assorted sweets to push on the 3 miles to other side of Tyndrum. Before I left I order chips and a cup of tea to be ready when I got there. I was running ok on this section but there was pain with every step. I went past the Highland Fling finish (53 miles) in 10:50, knocking 10 minutes of my previous Fling Time, and feeling good apart from the injury in my foot.
I arrived at Tyndrum in 10:55 having run over 53 miles. This was a big boost as it meant there were 42 miles to go and 24 hours to do it in meaning a walk would get me to the finish if need be. My mantra now was that every bit of running just gets me there quicker. I sat down, for the first time since the start and changed into my Hoka Challengers. I ate some chips and drank some tea which goes down well. The support team replace my Tailwind and top up my bladder for the next section. It was great to be surrounded by supporters which is a real boost but Garry warned me that it can make the next section feel even more lonely so I drag myself away after about 10 minutes, before I get too comfy.
I hit another low point on this section, running into a headwind and feeling pain in my foot more now in the Hokas (the extra cushioning isn’t helping). And the section seems to go on forever. I was met by Kate, Sarah and Bertie just before Bridge of Orchy station. It was a massive boost to see them as I was feeling very tired and emotional. Kate said later that when she saw me at that point she though I wouldn’t finish! I run with Kate into the checkpoint and clock in at Bridge of Orchy in 12:33 for 60 miles.
I snack on a couple of biscuits and Kate offered to come with me on the next leg over Jelly Baby Hill to Inveroran. I was so pleased that she wanted to and it made me feel more positive. We arranged to meet the support team at the Inveroran hotel to stock up for section across Rannoch moor. Kate had been speaking to another support team about my foot pain and they’d said I should take paracetmol which is allowed under race rules. I asked my support team to see if they could find some (in the middle of Rannoch Moor!!!!) by the time I met them at Inveroran.
I walked up Jelly Baby Hill, running any flat bits. Kate was enjoying it and it was nice to run with someone else having run on my own ever since Conic Hill. It was amazing to reach Jelly Baby Hill having heard so much about it, and knowing that I had run 100k for the first time in my life. Running with Kate meant so much, sharing the experience with her after all the support she had provided through the 6 months of training. I was feeling much better when we got down to Inveroran so I ran around to forest lodge car park with Kate and met the support team there.
Unbelievably they had managed to find paracetamol from somewhere so I took a couple (which helped psychologically though I’m not sure they did much for the pain!). The support team loaded me up with a fresh bladder, tailwind and snacks and I set off across the moor, taking my ipod as a distraction. Pete had changed ready to run but I decided not to use him yet as I was feeling much better after the run with Kate and didn’t want a fresh support runner pushing me too hard too soon. Powered by Giraffe Tongue Orchestra and Daft Punk this section was ok, just gritting it out and repeating the mantra about embracing pain. I was also thinking about raising money for The Christie Hospital cancer charity and the pain my sister in law went through, that wasn’t of her choosing.
There was mixed weather over this section. Gusts of wind almost blowing me over, some rain and some sun. It was warm in the sun and cold in the wind but averaging out ok. The OMM smock was amazing. I ate a bit less over this section as my tummy was starting to feel a bit funny.
This was another section that goes on and on, but I eventually came into Glencoe (70 miles) in 15:13. I leant on the car to eat a dehydrated soup which was my only food fail (I had planned to make my own but ran out of time so bought a packet). The salty liquid helped though. My garmin battery was finally getting low after almost 16 hours of running so I swapped to the Epson.
Glencoe was a big mental milestone as I was into the last 26 miles and an area I knew well. I decided to travel light to the foot of devils staircase, with the support crew also pulling into the Kingshouse to check up on me. I would have taken Kate with me again, as well as Pete, but the weather was horrendous and she’d only just warmed up from running over Jelly Baby Hill. We set off with Pete shielding me from the wind where he could. I was feeling much better now and accepting that I was still making great time with a mixture of running and fast walking. My heart rate was still around 120, but started to feel a bit nauseous on this section. I was still making good progress but didn’t eat anything and only drank a little from the bladder.
We met Garry at foot of Devils Staircase, an hour after leaving Glencoe, the wider support team had gone on to Kinlochleven for dinner. I put on my Gore Windstopper as a warm under my waterproof. I also switched from a cap to a beanie hat, put on Montane waterproof trousers and gloves.
I took a bag of mixed sweets for the climb up the devils staircase. The walk up felt good and my heel felt ok on the climb so we made good time despite the wind and rain. The walk up the devils staircase also gave my stomach a chance to settle and on the on run down into Kinlochleven I was managing a good mixture of running and walking, despite the pain in my quad and heel and feeling more positive, especially when I realized I’d be in Kinlochleven in time for the fish and chip shop!
It was amazing to run into Kinlochleven past well known land marks and I drank a coconut water on the way into the community centre, clocking in at Kinlochleven check point (Mile 80) in 18:19.
My weight was back up and about the same as my starting weight and I later found out Garry was worried I was over hydrated but I’d been peeing regularly over the last few hours and continued to do so. As a result, Garry only gave me two tailwind and the small amount left in the bladder for the next leg to Lundavra (9 miles).
I sat down (for the second time since the start) to eat chips and drank a cup of tea. I changed my shoes, putting on my waterproof lone peaks for the next section as the trails had been like streams on the run down into Kinlochleven. Dry socks and shoes were nice. I also switched my windstopper for a warm long sleeved top as it had got a bit damp. I picked up my head torch and mitts (in place of damp gloves). This was the longest stop during the race, about 30 minutes in total. I felt tired, stiff and cold when I left but better for the longer stop and solid food. Leaving at 19:50 (actual clock time) gave me 5 hours to cover 15 miles to finish in under 24 so I was feeling positive.
I ran (more of a shuffle) through the village then walked all the way up the climb to the Mamore Road. I was moving well on the uphills as it was less painful on my foot so was actually a bit disappointed to reach the Mamore Road and get back into the mixture of fast walking and shuffle running with the aim of getting to Lundavra in daylight. My foot was very sore now so it was a case of gritting my teeth and digging in. My focus was on ticking off a mile at a time and trying to run as much as I could, not thinking about how many hours there were to go. I was trying to accept the pain as being part of the race and experience rather than fighting it. I was very glad of the waterproof footwear on this section. Pete was doing less well in his hokas (the same model I’d been wearing).
I managed the 9 miles to Lundavra in 2 hours, still mananging to keep my HR at around 120 with my shuffle running, arriving at Lundavra time check (89 miles) in 20:55. It was an amazing feeling to get there and know there was less than a 10k to go. My speed meant I missed the music and bonfire though!
After leaving Kinlochleven I was pretty certain I would finish barring something unforeseen so the motivation now was to get there as quickly as possible. The marshalls at Lundavra were just getting the fire going when we arrived and there were only a couple of people there (and not our support team). The marshalls kindly topped up our bottles with water and gave us a jammie dodger each, and we pushed on leaving a message to pass on to the support team (who arrived 10 minutes after us having been delayed having something to eat in Kinlochleven).
I was still picking through bags of sweets so taking on calories which were going down well and moving ok (relatively speaking), managing around 4 miles an hour on the flats and downhills through walking and shuffle running, and fast walking the hills. The head torches came out on the single track above Glen Nevis as it was starting to get dark. We accelerated when we got to the fire road and moved at a good pace on the first mile or two of downhill but with about two miles to go I was back to shuffle running. Pete called ahead as soon as he got phone reception and found that the supporters had made it to the Braveheart car park, which spurred me on. I ran past them and had them shouting encouragement from the car window on the road into Fort William which seemed a lot longer and hillier than I remembered! My pace was slow until the first roundabout in Fort William when I realized there was a runners head torch behind me so I managed to pick up the pace and run the last quarter of a mile.
It was an amazing feeling turning the corner onto the Leisure Centre car park and seeing the finish banner and hearing the cheers of my support team. I crossed the line and clocked in at 22:39:08 smashing my goal time despite running 50 miles with a very sore foot and feeling like I was going slowly.
After hugs all round, I weighed in, which was fine, down a little bit on my start weight, and had some toast (the best ever) and a cup of tea whilst talking with the support team. Given what I had just put my body through, I felt surprisingly fine (though the photos don’t suggest it!). I walked a couple of laps of the car park eating crisps as I was craving saltiness (probably a result of the 4 hours of running fueled by sweets).
Everyone was exhausted and our accommodation was in Kinlochleven (all that was available providing pet friendly accommodation with family rooms when I looked after race entries were announced). Kate went in with Garry to try and keep him awake on the drive round.
At the hotel we unloaded and went up to room. I had a shower and cup of tea, and snacked on race food (amazingly I still fancied it), then lay down in bed in compression leggings and compression socks. My legs were throbbing (probably because that was the first time they’d but rested in over 24 hours) and I Couldn’t get comfy and felt a little bit nauseous. Sat up and drank tea then lay down again and managed to sleep.
I couldn’t walk on my foot when I first got up but by trial and error found that walking on tip toes was ok, and putting weight on outside of foot worked too. Apart from my foot and feeling tired, I felt surprisingly ok.
The presentation was an amazing experience and I managed to walk up to collect my goblet, we then went with all the supporters to the Clachaig in Glencoe for lunch before relaxing in a cottage at Invercoe campsite in Glencoe for a couple of days. It was lovely to spend time up there after the race. It all felt very surreal as it hadn’t sunk in that I’d done it and I felt overwhelmed by all the lovely messages of support that had been coming in over social media while I had been running. I went to bed about midnight on Sunday but was up at 5 feeling wide awake and hungry. My sleep was back to normal on Monday and I managed a walk round the Lochan, but it took most of the week until I didn’t want to eat everything in sight!
- All the training miles meant I was in a great state physically.
- The mental training was what got me through – accepting the pain and having mantras to bring my focus back to the moment.
- Test kit well on longer runs and change things that don’t work.
- Nutrition training is important. I had a well tested nutrition strategy and a good mix of food options. Having practiced on solid food for so long I was able to eat for the whole race.
- Homemade soup/broth is better than stuff from a packet!
- Despite feeling like I was making slow progress over the second half, I still completed it quicker than I’d predicted. You don’t have to be running to be moving at a good pace for a long ultra.
- Running on heart rate works! Pace will follow.
- Book accommodation in Fort William! Even 30 minutes is a long drive after everyone has been up all day.