I remember distinctly how I made the offer. Do you need support crew for the race. I asked. As long as you don’t need us to run, I said. I’m no runner, certainly not compared to him, and I think I had run a total of 25km in the previous year. The loch brother replied that would be great and I would be fine running since he would be going slowly. I reiterated my thoughts that 25 slow km in a year wasn’t really good prep…
Some time later, the full crew gathered and he explained he did need support running for the final 45 of the 95 miles. But he said he would be slow. The cut off was 35 hours and his ultra run guru friends reckoned he would do around 30 hours. So, slow. Hilly, but slow. That sounded reasonable… I was doing 18.5 miles, the philosopher had 11 miles and J had 16. There were 2 stints each, so time to rest and refuel and we would only be averaging just over 3 miles per hour (5kph).
The training didn’t quite go to plan. J had a foot/ calf problem and the philosopher was deep in prep for his challenge to swim the English Channel three weeks hence. Mine went fine, lots of slow running with some off road. The loch brother’s training went all to plan. He’s one of the most focused and organised people I know. Meticulous in his planning, we had no doubt he would be ready and be clear on what he was going to do at each stage. I did all the crew planning based on anticipated splits for 28 hours and 30 hours completion.
The day dawned, 24th June; right in the middle of the Scottish summer. That meant only 4 hours of darkness. It also meant midges. However, the midges were mitigated by the wind. Being the height of Scottish summer, the temperature peaked at a balmy 12C. There were some prolonged periods of rain (mainly it seems in the bits I ran) and lots of wind. I’m not sure the speeds reached the forecast 50mph, but there were a few sections with gusts almost stopping you in your tracks. At one point the wind felt like it came from all directions at once and the LB hope for a tornado to pick him up and deposit him in Fort William!
S took the first support stint, taking the LB to the start line in Milngavie and meeting him at the first few stages. We met her at 830am in Renfrew to collect some gear and head up to Beinglas Farm for the predicted 11.30am arrival. Our car (a large estate) was crammed full of food, water and lots of changes of clothes and shoes for the four of us.
We got to Beinglas nice and early and parked near the entrance to the field. We packed bags with the instructed food, liquid and a selection of clothing and headed up to the checkpoint. The loch brother came in half an hour ahead of schedule not looking his best. Change of plan with the hydration and clothing he wanted, so J ran back to the car. At this point the LB tells us he’s ditching his heart rate monitor because he can’t keep his HR as low as he wanted, so it’s annoying him. Alarm bells; if he goes too fast now, it could all go wrong later. Still got 55 miles to go. But new clothing on and off he goes, walking slowly to start. We are a bit concerned.
It’s amazing chatting to the other crews, many of whom we see at various points as the day progresses. Tales of the runners with heart bypasses, the old timers who’ve done this many times and those who have travelled from afar. We meet a pal who is support crew for another runner. She was part of our team supporting mutual friends at the Celtman triathlon in 2012 and 2013. We also chat to the walkers who come through on 5, 6 or 7 day trips along the route, bemused to hear that today’s winner finished in a course record under 14 hours. They laugh and celebrate their way though checkpoints to cheers and whistles.
Next stop Auchtertyre where J will start running. The athletes are weighed here, and a slight worry as the LB is borderline light for the medical limit. (I’m just pleased he at least started slightly heavier than me! J and the philosopher have 20kg+ on him). Our job to keep him eating and drinking and carry some of his food and water. By now he’s an hour ahead of schedule but looking chirpy. The next meet point is only a couple of miles away, so after a push to help me get the car out the mud the philosopher and I head off.
Tyndrum. We park up beside a car where the runner is getting some serious first aid to his feet. His crew have the bright idea of cutting up sanitary pads to place under his toes. It takes a while, but he seems otherwise happy and chatty. Then I see our guys approach. J is yelling for me to go and buy ice cream, so I do that as they sort out the next set of water bottles. Then he’s off again leaving J to catch up on the uphill drag. Ultra run plan; walk the ups, run the flats and downs.
The philosopher and I head to Bridge of Orchy where I will take over run duties. We get parked and head into the hotel for some sustenance. The initial expectation was to start from here at 5pm, but now it looks earlier, maybe just after 4pm. But about 340pm J phones. One of the challenges in these parts is the lack of phone signal; no network covers it all. The instruction was to get more Ice cream. They were just on the last descent. The philosopher heads for the ice cream and I get the gear ready for switch over. Then we are off.
I had looked forward to this section; 2.5 miles to a brief catch up at Inveroran forest car park then 8.5 miles across the bleak wilderness of Rannoch Moor to Glencoe. It all went to plan, other than the car missing us at Inveroran. But no real issue as I was carrying enough for the full leg. My directions got the blame… not that nobody else had given a thought to how the day went! It was here I realised just how good the LB is descending. He flew away, and although I was overtaking other runners by some margin, he continued to pull away. Fortunately, he had told me it would happen and that I could catch him on the flat and up hill. A quick stop for a compeed to be applied to a hot spot on his foot and we headed off to the moor. And the wind and rain. We chatted the whole way, running easy then making sure uphills were used to keep the liquid and food intake up. Time even for a photo or two and a video. Beautiful!
Amazingly soon we saw the sign for the Glencoe checkpoint. I phoned J, who was gobsmacked. He wasn’t expecting us so soon! The expected 3 hour 15 minute leg had taken half an hour less. We were like drowned rats, so time to get the LB checked in then into the car for soup and a full change of clothes. Then he and the philosopher headed off for their 4 miles to the start of the Devil’s Staircase.
We parked up behind a car with a runner J had seen on his last stint. He was going well and on his second catnap of the race (and still finished in about 22 hours!) It wasn’t the most unusual strategy we saw; one guy had a bottle of cider at a rest stop. Others had support teams in camper vans with kettles and pots and all home comforts. The benefit for J on this next leg was that we were by now more than 2 hours ahead of plan, so he probably wouldn’t be running in the dark. 6.5 miles which on the 30 hour plan was estimated to take 3 hours; it ended up taking less than 2. They marched up with J leading the way. Near the top there may have been the first hallucination… the LB was sure he could see an igloo but it was just a rock. The philosopher and I were in the car oblivious to what was going on and catching up on texts at last while expecting a call from J as they got to Kinlochleven.
Suddenly I get a text; our runner was in! I shot into the community centre with his weighing card to find a couple of people concerned about his appearance. A blister was forming too, so he wanted dry socks. No sign of J, which was a worry. But he had been left for dead on the downhill. Ultra run guru said he also gets left for dead, despite being overall faster, so no disgrace. I met J in the car park and we got the gear together for the refuelling.
I got my instructions from the guru. Keep him walking uphill and running the rest and he will have a great finish time. I think the LB could now see the end was in sight. This 7.5 mile stretch then a final 7. He was off like an Exocet missile. We marched up the steep climb, overtaking three groups on the way. By this time it was dark and we had the headtorches on. The rain earlier had left the path flooded in places and we waded through streams. Then it flattened out and he was off. And he didn’t stop running when we hit the up slopes. I hate to admit it, but I was struggling to keep up. I’d had 4 hours rather than 5 between sets and those sets were going to be much quicker than expected and trained for. The estimate for this leg had been 3 hours 15; in the end we did it in 1 hour 55. I think we overtook 6 or 7 runners and it was interesting and challenging in the dark out on a hillside running over rocks and stones and through streams. But at last, I could see light ahead and started to see my runner too. I don’t know if or how much I held him up, but we were back together by the time we reached the checkpoint with the welcoming blaze. Seemingly the car had just got there 5-10 minutes ahead; I dread to think if they had missed us! I wasn’t ready for another 7 miles. Later I discovered, that although he finished in 82nd place he was the 37th fastest on this leg. I feel less bad…
So into the philosopher’s care and we said we would see them near the finish. Initial estimate for this leg 2.5 hours, ultra guru reckoned 1.5 was possible so we headed to the leisure centre, parked up and J tried for some shut eye. We alerted his family an hour before anticipated arrival and headed out with 15 minutes to go. A few more runners were coming in, so we cheered and clapped. One said “don’t cheer me, my runner has dropped me and is well ahead”. Reassuring; not just us then!
It turned out they took 2 hours and were walking reasonably slowly by the time we saw them. Downhills had again been brutal! Although at least the LB was standing unassisted. One girl was pretty much being held up and pushed along by her team. A couple of photos at the sign marking the original end and just round the corner from the finish we coaxed him back into a run.
What an experience as the four of us ran into the car park to cheers and claps from the ultra guru and his wife then the others at the line. We left the LB to run down the finish to where his wife, daughter and support crew number 1 waited. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say it’s an awesome achievement. 95 miles in 25 hours and 12 minutes on first attempt. 82nd of about 160 finishers plus nearly 50 who had to pull out during the race.
The hardest thing about supporting is meant to be your athlete’s moods… none of that for us. No drama, no temper, no threats of quitting. He even ate and drank (almost) as instructed. Not that I would have expected drama from him.
The added bonus of his quick completion was we managed to drive home and be in bed almost 2 hours before we expected to finish. A challenging drive dodging deer, fighting fatigue but good to get to your own bed. Sweaty, stinky, with a car that looks like a fitness clothing shop and sweetie shop has exploded in it.
What did I learn from our adventure?
- Ultra runners are amazing.
- 95 miles is a mental distance to run! (Driving home afterwards made the scope feel extremely real)
- Support runners should be better runners than me! Or at least better matched to their athlete.
- It was an honour, a privilege and a source of much happiness to be able to help our guy over the line.
- Man can survive on tailwind, chocolate custard, ice cream and jelly babies for 25 hours. Health freak…
- It’s not for me (although I knew that already!). But my longest running day ever, so ticks an achievement box.
- If either J or I had the urge, we could do a marathon; albeit not quickly
- It is possible for the philosopher to be quiet. He will eventually fall asleep and much to my surprise he doesn’t talk in his sleep!