Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Longest Day: My Story of the West Highland Way - Andrew Macmillen

The Longest Day

My story of the West Highland Way Race 21-22 June 2014

Written by: Andrew Macmillen 

The 95 mile (152 kilometre) route of the West Highland Way from the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William.

Many runners of the West Highland Way race have written of their experiences and posted them on the race website. I have devoured them all - the dry technical reports of split times and training schedules and the hilarious tales of hallucinations, vomiting and chaffed genitalia. I had read and re-read them so many times I felt I knew the route backwards before I had even started. And now I add my own to the list. Experienced ultra marathoners seeking nuggets of wisdom might as well stop here. You will learn little about how to run this race; but for friends and family who were kind enough to support me on this adventure whether through encouragement, generous sponsorship or for the merely curious amateur like myself wondering what it was like – here is my story.

My journey to Milngavie started four years ago in 2010, the year I ran my first ultra-marathon after twenty years of running the traditional 26 miles. Since then I have found the sport incredibly fulfilling. There is something so rewarding about pushing yourself towards a physical limit we so rarely can experience in modern life. The sense of achievement is immense, the buzz addictive. I spend so much of my life in offices, hotels, planes and airports that there is something so refreshing about getting out and moving through nature in much the same way as our ancestors once did with nothing more than their own legs.

Around the same time I first heard about the West Highland Way race. An ultra in the mountains of Scotland - this was too good to miss. I love the mountains as my father and grandfather before me. A few years ago I read a letter written by my late grandfather in 1933 as he was courting my future grandmother whom I never met as she died before I was born. It contained the line “I come off a long line of people who lived among the hills and felt the hill winds upon their faces; and when I get away and feel the heather beneath my feet I step into another world.” I could not agree more. I am sure he would have been proud to see his grandson and great grandson following in his footsteps.

That same year my son Dmitri walked the 95 miles from Milngavie to Fort William in four days for charity and so the seed was planted. I tried to apply that year only to discover that there is a limit on numbers and entries had closed the previous November.

But last November, having completed The Wall together with Dmitri, a 69 mile run from Carlisle to Newcastle in June six months after La Misión, a grueling 100 miler in the Argentine Andes, I applied and one night last December could not contain my excitement when I learned that I had been accepted. Dmitri immediately agreed to support me. All we needed now was another crew member with a car and to start training for the first time since running Warsaw and Bucharest marathons a couple of months earlier.

So, around Christmas I started on a six-month training programme, modest perhaps compared with those undertaken by most fellow competitors I had been reading about on the race reports on the WHW website and listening to on John Kynaston’s informative podcasts, but with a busy job managing GSK’s Consumer Healthcare business in Poland and Central & Eastern Europe and a family (and, well, if I’m honest I find the training pretty boring and I need the challenge of an impending ultra to get me out running) it was about all I could manage.

Nevertheless it was probably the most sustained and comprehensive training programme I have done. Starting in late December with just some occasional breaks I have managed to run for an hour or so 3-4 times most weeks, although living in Warsaw where there are no hills has made it difficult to recreate the conditions I would face climbing 14,500 feet, or to put it another way – half way up Everest. Instead I have occasionally worked on a cross-trainer at home and although sustaining a shoulder injury at Christmas which has failed to heal itself and put an end to my pilates, I did manage to get in some proper practice with a 40 mile ultra in the Welsh Black Mountains in March, the Warsaw marathon in April and a 50 mile ultra in the Shropshire hills in May. These were successfully completed and  gave me the confidence that I was in good enough shape despite being horribly aware that this year I will turn 50.

Additionally I had the motivation of running to raise money for Orange United – a partnership between GSK and Save the Children, knowing that the sponsorship I had raised (around ₤8,000 at the start of the race) would be matched by my company. This was one of the things that would keep me going through the psychological lows that most runners experience over such long distances especially when tiredness creeps in and you find yourself up a mountain in the dark wondering how on earth you ended up doing this again when you promised yourself and your wife the last time that this really was the last time.

As I trained, especially in the last few weeks I started to think a lot about what I would write in this race report as a way of visualizing the whole experience from start to completion, a technique I find works in so many areas of life.

I also took inspiration from the race reports of previous years, notably from that of Fiona Rennie who had overcome serious illness and would be lining up on the start line to run her 10th West Highland Way race. I had learned from so many reports that the pain and fatigue are temporary and the sense of achievement will last forever as will the disappointment if you fail to finish. That the race would also start on the longest day of the year - the birthday of someone very special to me – was another sign that all would be well.

During my last training run, I resolved that I would carry these thoughts, my mantras, with me throughout the race. That last run along a rather flat 16 miles on the country roads near my home I found more difficult than I should have, perhaps due to the heat as well as and using a pair of running shoes I had not worn for several weeks which resulted in a couple of blisters I could have done without. Was I really up for this? 95 miles? Everyone else I read about or listened to on the podcasts seemed to be running far further and more frequently in training. I resolved to think as positively as possible. I was going to do this and any doubts seemed to clear from my mind over the next 12 days when I did little but rest which, along with three weeks abstinence from alcohol and two weeks from caffeine, felt rather strange but I tried to get as much sleep as possible, drink plenty of water and kept busy writing race plans, making lists, checking kit, and re-reading previous race reports.

Then finally the day came. On Thursday 19th June I took the early morning LOT flight from Warsaw to Heathrow, meeting up with Dmitri before flying up to Glasgow where a talkative taxi driver got us to the Premier Inn Bearsden about a mile from the start. We spent the rest of the day relaxing, thoroughly enjoying England’s humiliation at the hands of Uruguay in the World Cup, and eating pasta before an early night.

Waking at 7.30 a.m. on Friday we had a breakfast of fruit, porridge and toast and then it was off to Milngavie to shop  for vaseline, plasters, insect repellant and a map of the route. It was hard to imagine that in a few hours this sleepy suburb would witness the surreal scenes that would illuminate its main street.  

The West Highland Way begins in the heart of Milngavie, marked by a stone obelisk while the race begins a few hundred metres earlier in the railway station car park in front of this unassuming underpass. 

Next was a trip to the nearby Tesco supermarket to load up on what I thought would need - sixteen bottles of Lucozade Sport, water, cereal bars, rice pudding, bananas, dried fruit, cakes, chocolate, malt loaf and wine gums among other items - checking the back of every item to select only things with the maximum amount of carbohydrate per 100g.

Dmitri went off to meet a friend in Glasgow so after stuffing myself with more food for lunch I went to bed to try to get some sleep but could not stop thinking about the race and lay with my eyes closed trying to visualize how the next couple of days would be. Later we watched Costa Rica secure England’s World Cup exit by defeating Italy and then met up with my friend from university Ian Brookes who lives in Dunblane and who had kindly volunteered to join this small crew as driver and all round very organized and trustworthy person.    

I put away more pasta and toffee pudding for dinner as the three of us went through the race plan I had drawn up. The plan described estimated times for each section, times for breaks of 10 minutes at each checkpoint with an estimated finish time of 32 hours giving me three hours to play with before the 35 hour cut-off that was the limit for the race although cut-off times at each check-point meant that I would have to keep up a decent pace throughout or face the risk of disqualification.
After dinner we headed to Milngavie and registered early, being weighed (73kg in my kit) before Ian dropped Dmitri and I back in the hotel for a few hours rest. We caught then end of France v Switzerland and Dmitri took this photo in my rather fetching outfit – black lycra and a dayglo Orange United vest.

I tried to sleep but it was impossible. For two whole hours I lay awake as excited as a child before Christmas before getting up at midnight. I walked to Milngavie station car park eating a banana and a cereal bar, aware that I would need all the energy I could muster for the hours ahead and talked myself through the mantras I would recite to myself throughout the race – a technique I had used during the 62 and a half hours it had taken me to complete La Misión in Argentina 18 months before [read about my experience here].
The car park was already full of runners and their crews, many of whom seemed to have camper vans with all mod cons while my team boasted a modest hatchback albeit with the luxury of a folding chair that Ian had promised to bring. All manner of fancy GPS devices were checked and shown off while I checked the time on my ordinary wrist watch and looked at the folded map one last time. At 12.30 a.m. Ian Beattie, race director, gave a short briefing and then at precisely 1.00 a.m. we were off.
193 runners switched on head torches and trotted off through the underpass and along the main street of the town greeted by enthusiastic crowds. At one o’clock in the morning! Resolving to not get carried away with the euphoria I settled for a steady pace towards the back of the field as the path left the town and entered Mugdock Wood. Then suddenly the group slowed. A runner had fallen but many people had stopped to help her and I hope she was alright. 
Fairly quickly though the group began to spread out as we got out into open country and passed small lochs and fields. I could see head torches creating little pools of light bouncing along both ahead and behind me. It felt magical and exhilarating feeling the cool night air and enjoying the wondrous stimulation of the senses. I stopped to take a photo of the first signs of dawn although in Scotland on this the shortest day of the year it never really gets completely dark. Shortly afterwards we crossed a road where a group of supporters cheered us while blasting out The Proclaimers from the stereo! This is Scotland I smiled to myself. I was running the WHW and was really enjoying this.
A few miles further on and I passed the lights of the Glengoyne distillery we had visited on holiday last summer and then the Beech Tree Inn, a pub with cheering supporters – at 2.30 in the morning!
At this point I caught up with a small group of 5 or 6 runners headed by Fiona Rennie. Tucking in behind such a famous runner and inspiring person made the next few miles pass quickly and easily as the WHW moves for a while onto roads through tiny sleeping villages before I reached Drymen at 3.25 a.m. I had now completed the first 12 miles, just 10 minutes behind schedule.
1.45 a.m. and already the first signs of dawn in the sky behind the distinctive outline of Dumgoyne in the Campsie Fells

It was practically daylight so I turned off my head torch and by now fully awake I started to munch on another cereal bar as the path continued into Garadhban Forest. This was the only part of the route that I had any familiarity with having gone out for a run one morning and by chance finding myself on the WHW while staying last summer with Dawn, a friend from Drymen who used to live near us in Warsaw. Little did I know then that a year later I would be running the whole WHW and Dawn would be meeting me at Rowardennan later.
I chatted for a while with David Etchells through the cut-down forest and then on the descent down the hill overtook a runner who shortly afterwards let out a cry as she tripped and literally bit the dust. I went back to check if she was alright but she was made of tough stuff. I realized how carefully I was going to have to concentrate. Having had no sleep and with the path covered with stones it would be easy to lose concentration for a second, trip and then be out of the race injured.
After crossing the burn I started to climb Conic Hill which was not too much of a climb but afforded a wonderful view of the surrounding hills.
Climbing Conic Hill looking back at the spreading dawn and the runners coming up the trail behind me. 
But just a little further on the sight ahead of me was even more spectacular.

The first glimpse of Loch Lomond and its islands as I near the top of Conic Hill around 4.45 a.m. 
 This view did not last long as almost immediately began a 1000 foot descent and I had to watch my footing as the trail plunged into the forest and at 19 miles the first checkpoint at Balmaha which I now know I reached in 4 hours 11 minutes, comfortably ahead of the 5 hour cut-off and was in 177th place of the 193 starters. Sadly at this point 4 runners pulled out, something that would be a feature at each and every checkpoint.

This was the first time I had arranged to meet Ian and Dmitri and I was relieved to see that they had not slept in and were waiting to greet me as were the midges which swarmed around the car park. I changed my running shoes, foot bandages and socks which were beginning to rub a little, ate a couple of Mr Kipling’s exceeding good country slices, took on some more Lucozade and headed off along the path towards Rowardennan some 7.7 miles further on. This deceptive section appeared on the map to be pretty flat along the lochside but the path kept deviating from the road, taking me up little hills and sometimes crossing shingle beaches which was tougher going but I arrived at Rowardennan to find another midge-infested car park in 6 hours 30 minutes just 20 minutes behind schedule (I had dropped 5 places to 182). Dawn’s hot strong coffee was a welcome boost after several bottle of Lucozade Sport and was the first caffeine in two weeks (a period of temporary abstinence I had copied from Fiona Rennie). I was really pleased to see Dawn. She had got up early and driven out to Rowardennen just to see me. We had a quick blether at a picnic table but ten minutes later I was back on my feet and heading off to continue along the undulating forest path which climbs away from the loch. The field was by now very strung out but I was pleased to pass a couple of runners on this section.

At Inversnaid (33.9 miles) I was ready for a sit down at the check-point manned by the Trossachs Mountain Rescue which had kindly provided not only a chair but also a fan to blow away the pesky midges. I collected the drop bag I had prepared and tucked into a tasty rice pudding. Several runners passed me at this point including Fiona Rennie, David Etchells and Robin Wombill so I felt guilty and headed off in pursuit but they were soon out of sight.
I had read on previous race reports that the next section was “technical” but still was not prepared for quite how difficult were the rocks and tree roots and ups and downs on this section which made it impossible to run without risking life and limb which I was not going to start doing. I was taking it slowly, but maybe too slowly and was passed by Scott and Lisa Talling who seemed to skip along far faster than I was.
The time passed slowly. The loch seemed never ending. I glimpsed a view of Island I Vow but it never seemed to pass but then came Doune Bothy and Ardleish and I was at the end of the loch. I knew the checkpoint was not far now and as I made my way up the hill stumbled upon Dario’s post which I had read so much about and remembered from the photograph on the website. The post reeked of whisky, a traditional tribute that runners on the WHW race bring with them to pour over the post in memory of the man who organised the race for a decade before his untimely death. Just one of so many little features of this race that make it so unique.

At the top of a short climb at the end of almost 20 miles running along the loch there is a post dedicated to Dario Melaragni, former director of the West Highland Way race.

Pressing on I caught up with Robin Wombill whom I followed through the trees to reach Beinglas Farm almost an hour and a half behind schedule having underestimated how slow my progress would be from Inversnaid. As it turns out I was still in 182nd place with only 5 runners behind me. 11 hours 20 minutes had elapsed. By now I was only 40 minutes ahead of the cut-off and was beginning to get a little worried about this, but I needed to take a slightly longer break as this had been a tough section and after almost 42 miles and with the temperature rising I was beginning to feel quite tired. It was quite tough to get going again but I needed to press on knowing I had to make the cut-off at Auchtertyre about 9.5 miles further on.

The path climbed gently out of Beinglas Farm following the River Falloch but before long there was another obstacle to be overcome - cows!

A whole herd was happily grazing right in the middle of the path and seemed in no hurry to get out of my way but I slowly walked through them and continued again before crossing the road to the other side of the valley and entering the Ewich forest above Crianlarich. where I had to answer the call of nature and left a generous donation in the woods.

This was a tough section with lots of climbs and it was now getting quite hot so I was pleased to begin the final descent and come into Auchtertyre Farm. The section from Beinglas Farm had taken about half an hour longer than planned but I arrived in 14 hours 39 minutes, 51 minutes inside the cut-off and was feeling good as I ran into the check-point, at just under 51 miles. I was now over half way, the equivalent of almost two marathons. I had made up 5 places and was looking forward to probably the flattest part of the course since leaving Drymen, the 9.3 miles to Bridge of Orchy.

After an easy flat section of around 2.5 miles appeared the village of Tyndrum where according to our plan Ian and Dmitri were kind enough to meet me again with a cup of tea from the café which I sipped on the steady gentle climb as the valley opened up to reveal the path of the old military road as it heads towards the cone-shaped Beinn Dorain with the track criss-crossing the West Highland Railway which runs from Glasgow to Mallaig, often regarded as one of the most scenic in the world.

Still an hour and a half behind schedule on reaching Bridge of Orchy in 17.53 I had made up another 3 places but was just 37 minutes ahead of the cut-off. I still harboured slight fears of being disqualified so again could only rest for about 10 minutes as Dmitri prepared to join me on what I knew would be a tough 11 miles to Glencoe. One feature of the race is that you are allowed a support runner after Auchtertyre as long as you are no less than four hours behind the leader. Well, the leader had just finished by the time I had reached Auchtertyre with Paul Giblin shattering his own course record. So, with Dmitri as company and with my feet in good shape, I was feeling very fit and very confident that I would make it having reached the psychologically important milestone of 60 miles.
Climbing out of the forest and onto open moorland where the views soon opened up we came across the Scottish saltire flying on the top of a hill. I knew that this would be Murdo, one of the legendary figures of the race that I had read about countless times and Murdo meant jelly babies! Every year this man stands all day on top of a hill dispensing the little gelatin figures and I was amazed that he had waited for us back markers for there were only 3 or 4 behind me at this stage.

A little further and from the top of the hill we had a splendid view over Loch Tulla and towards the Inveroran Hotel. We descended quickly to the hotel, passing a campsite and crossing Victoria Bridge.

We jogged along the road, enjoying the relatively rare flat tarmac section before the road started to climb again and become a track. About here I stopped suddenly feeling really tired. It was now around 9 p.m. and I had been on the move for 20 hours and awake for over 37. I just wanted to lie down for a bit.

Dmitri encouraged me and rightly did not allow me to rest for long and soon I was up and plodding across the wilderness of Rannoch Moor, the highest moor in Britain, and more bleak and empty a place you will struggle to find.
This section seemed to go on forever and it was all uphill! Two runners passed us on this long stretch but eventually we reached the top of the final hill and the descent began with a view of the most iconic of all Scottish mountains - Buachaille Etive Mor - and the entrance to Glencoe. As darkness began to fall we reached the checkpoint at the Glencoe ski centre just after 11 p.m. in 22.07, two hours behind the plan but 53 minutes ahead of the cut-off. Now at 71 miles down, further than I had ever run in one day, beating last year’s 69 miles on The Wall. Just 24 to go! I was steady in 172nd place. Sadly this was the point at which most withdrawals took place, mainly of runners ahead of me who had had enough or were struggling with injuries. I felt fine. Tired but no more than that.

Still feeling good and revived with the still warm coffee Ian had kindly brought from home early that morning we soon set off for the next and possibly most challenging section over the ominously named Devil’s Staircase.

Crossing the main A82 road we reached the Kingshouse Hotel and soon after passed a couple of runners who were going even slower than we were and were clearly in difficulties. It was sad to see Robin who was hobbling and did not look like he was going to make it. By the time we reached the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase I was quite exhausted and beginning to feel a bit low. I was entering my second night on the go so negotiated with Dmitri a 5 minute rest when I would try to sleep. I lay down on the ground and must have managed two minutes before he woke me and we started the climb.
One or two lights were ahead of us working their way up the 1000 foot climb which we took slowly as the path zig-zagged up the mountain. I was also conscious of a light behind us. We stopped a couple of times but Dmitri kept trying to convince me we were not so far from the top and soon after we did reach the summit the light behind caught up with us. This was not in fact another competitor but Rhona and Ali  – two of the sweepers who follow the last runner. They told us that the runners we had passed about an hour earlier had pulled out at the bottom of the Devil’s staircase which meant that I was officially last in the race at this point.

We chatted and I was relieved that they had no concerns about my state of mind or body with Rhona on her blog describing me as a “very lucid and capable runner  who was moving well and was mentally fine.” Thanks Rhona!

Rhona and Ali then followed us down the long descent of 1,500 feet into Kinlochleven along a track which twisted and turned and never seemed to arrive but eventually we reached the check-point at the community centre at 4.20 a.m. just 40 minutes ahead of the cut-off.

I must say that by now I was pretty tired. 81 miles in 27 hours 20 minutes. Almost 2 hours behind schedule, but the worst was over. I can vaguely remember being weighed but with no problems. The doctor was attending various runners in need of medical attention who I guess had decided to quit. I saw several others sleeping on mattresses which looked so inviting. I was told that I could rest but only until 5 a.m. when they would close the checkpoint.  

Dmitri and I both lay down but I could not sleep with so many thoughts racing through my head. I started to think how inviting it would be to stay here and call it a day. 81 miles isn’t bad after all. My body was telling me it had had enough and I was not in much state to argue. I must have fallen asleep for a few minutes though but at 4.40 the lights went on and I was roused from the briefest of slumbers. I woke Dmitri who was fast asleep and looked like he had no idea what was going on. He is a student after all and not used to early rising! I told him I would be fine on my own and left Ian to look after him and get him some sleep in the car. From somewhere I seemed to get a sudden burst of energy and by just before 5.00 a.m. I was out onto the empty streets of Kinlochleven feeling like I was the only person awake in Scotland. I quickly found the innocent sounding sign reading 'Public Footpath to Fort William via the Lairig'. The path climbs up through attractive birch woodland but seemed incredibly steep and was very hard going. I was worried I was somehow on the wrong path but soon found the track – part of the old military road – and looked back at the superb view of the town and Loch Leven. Just 14 miles to go and there was no way I was not going to make it. I kept doing the calculations in my head – 81 miles done in 28 hours. Average of 2.9 per hour. 14 to go with 7 hours left = average of 2 miles an hour. Nothing to panic about but I kept myself alert constantly checking the map and calculating my location from the terrain around me and recalculating the time I had left.
I was sure I was still last in the race as none of the bodies lying in the community centre looked like they were in a fit state to continue – although I was wrong and one person left after me – Frits van der Lubben – who would eventually receive a hero’s reception at the prize giving for coming in last.
The road ahead looked bleak and miserable. The clouds were gathering and I knew the forecast was for some rain but I plodded on and to my surprise turned a corner to see a fluorescent jacket some way ahead. Probably a walker out early I thought but maybe a competitor. I definitely did not want to be last so quickened my pace and soon caught up with Scott Talling who had passed me about 50 miles before. He was feeling sick and was worried about not making it but I tried to offer him some encouragement. I caught up with Lisa shortly afterwards so had now overtaken two people since Kinlochleven. I was on a roll! 

Soon after I reached a vehicle surrounded by Scottish flags where a kind man from the Mountain Rescue offered me some Irn Bru. This was lovely but I really did not feel like eating or drinking anything let alone this fizzy bright chemical orange liquid, Scotland’s other national drink made famously from girders, and carried on. I had eaten nothing but a couple of wine gums since Glencoe but just didn’t feel like anything even though it was by now around 7.00 a.m. and time for breakfast for normal folk.

The track continued, passing a few old ruined buildings and then to my surprise I saw Ian coming towards me. He had come out to meet me and we walked together for a mile or so until reaching Lundavra where not only Dmitri was waiting refreshed after a couple of hours sleep in the car but also John Kynaston manning the final check-point just 7 miles from Fort William. With still around 4 hours to reach the end I could afford to stop and enjoyed another rice pudding as Lisa and Scott passed me.
After Lundavra Dmitri and I took it slowly through the ups and downs with him assuring me that we were nearly there. I overtook Scott once more who seemed much happier and soon we got to the fire road looping through the trees with great views of Ben Nevis across the glen that took us down to the main road and the last 2 miles into Fort William. 

The official finish of the West Highland Way but the race ends a couple of hundred metres further on.

Ian met us on the road and took a photo of me by the sign marking the official end of the WHW after which I made my dramatic sprint finish into the Lochaber leisure centre and the end of the race. I had done it. 33 hours, 54 minutes and 21 seconds after leaving Milngavie I had covered the 95 miles, not too far off my target of 32 hours and with more than an hour to spare before the dreaded cut-off. I finished 155th of 193 starters. There had been just 36 withdrawals with 157 finishers.

I am now one of just 895 people who have completed the race in its 30 year history and am now a proud member of the WHW family.

All of a sudden it was over. I was weighed and appeared to have lost 3kg and was asked to have a word with the doctor but she could see that I was perfectly fine and suggested I have something to eat. That I was weighed without my rucksack probably accounted for most of the weight loss although I had eaten far less than planned.  

There were only two more runners still to come in so with nothing worse than swollen feet and a desperate need for a beer we headed off to take our seats at the prize giving.

A very proud moment – shaking the hand of race director Ian Beattie, chairman of Scottish Athletics, at the finish. 

The award ceremony was a very special occasion. I thought I would fall asleep waiting for 154 runners to receive their prizes before it was my turn but I was wide awake and enjoyed how each and every finisher was warmly applauded in turn. Unlike many of the others hobbling to receive their crystal goblets I was able to bounce down the steps and receive my prize from John Kynaston.

Too early to check in at our B&B we had a cup of tea and a toastie before taking a shower and collapsing in bed for a four hour sleep after 55 hours with hardly a wink of sleep – the longest I have ever been awake. That evening we celebrated with a few beers and dinner before I fell asleep watching Portugal v USA and the next day took the West Highland Railway back to Glasgow (well, until the overhead wires came down and we had to get off at Dumbarton) and then a plane back to London and off to work.

For a couple of weeks I barely thought about the race, glad that I had done it but also relieved that six months of preparation was over. I ate and drank what I like and enjoyed a week’s holiday with the family after my second son Daniel’s graduation. But now, three weeks on, I find myself terribly nostalgic. As I write this I keep thinking how three weeks ago I was lining up at Milngavie and who’s to say I won’t be back again next year!

Finally I would like to record my immense thanks to Ian Beattie and his whole team of people who volunteered to make this event so special for me and also to Ian and Dmitri, without whom I would not be able to have done it. The West Highland Way race is without doubt a very special event. I can highly recommend it.

Two minutes after finishing

My wonderful support crew – Ian and Dmitri

Father and son

Sunday, 6 January 2013

La Misión

After many years of running marathons and more recently ultra-marathons this year I finally decided to go for my ultimate challenge - to complete the La Misión, the toughest ultra-marathon in South America. To give me an extra incentive I decided to also compete with the idea of raising money for three charities - Promujer in Argentina, the Laski educational centre for the blind and the Warsaw Childrens' Hospital in Poland .  
By way of preparation this year I ran three ultra-marathons - 80km in the Welsh hills in March, 84km in the mountains of Austria in July and 56km in Northern England in October six days after doing the Warsaw marathon. Generally though since the summer I trained by running 10-15km in the woods near my home three or four times a week, working out on an alpine step machine at home and taking up pilates.
But La Misión would be quite different - a 160 kilometres race in the mountains and forests of the Argentine Andes with 8000 metres of climbing, carrying a rucksack with all I would need for three days in the open. 


Tuesday 11th December

After 4 flights from Warsaw-London-Sao Paulo-Buenos Aires-Bariloche and a bus ride I arrived on Tuesday afternoon in the small tourist town of Villa La Angostura nestled between the lakes and mountains of the Argentine Andes and home of this year's La Misión.

After checking in and getting my race number 249 I found I was the furthest travelled of the 377 competitors. Proudly representing Poland I was among a handful of Europeans from France and Spain. There were also competitors from the US and Mexico but the rest all were from South America especially Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela.

I then bought my supplies of biscuits, bananas, chocolate, sweets, water and batteries to keep me going through the race. In the evening there was a technical talk to give us all the instructions and then, under a steady rain, I made my way back to my hostel and a big plate of pasta and an early night.
Wednesday 12th December

Overnight the rain became heavier and continued until 5 am but I had a fairly good sleep. I awoke to see fresh snow on the tops of the mountains. It was wet and windy. I had breakfast and spent the morning repacking my rucksack which weighed somewhere around 12kg and studying the route before the race start at 12.00.

Under cloudy skies the 377 competitors lined up at midday. I deliberately chose to start near the back hoping for a psychological boost by later overtaking others rather than being overtaken. We were paraded for the first few hundred metres through the main street of Villa La Angustura to the cheers of the locals before heading out of the town and up a track leading to the forests and the start of a long climb of almost 1000 metres to the first checkpoint at 8 km.

The going was slow at the start. Apart from the cohort of early leaders who sprinted off ahead the narrow uphill trail meant that the rest of the competitors were strung out in a long line with overtaking difficult. As we climbed the weather worsened. The wind got up and it began to hail. Emerging from the tree cover at around 1400m I saw that the mountain top was covered in around 30 cm of volcanic ash from the eruption in June 2011 of the nearby Puyehue volcano that had resulted in the closure of Buenos Aires airport and ironically interfered with my familiarisation trip to Poland. 

The ash was thick and damp like wet sand and made the ascent harder-going than on the rocky path I had expected. The wind blew it around stinging our faces but the view was so spectacular that I removed a glove to take a picture only for the wind to whip it away. No glove and still 154km to go! 

I struggled on, picking off a few of the others on my way through the snow and rocks to the summit at Cerro Bayo (1763m) before running down the winding descent past the ski slopes to the bottom of the valley 700m below. 15km gone so I stopped for a quick snack before heading along 9km of gently rising track which involved multiple river crossings of freezing water so cold my feet were soon numb. Nearing the end of the valley the gradient increased. Another quick stop at 6pm for a bite before climbing out of the trees to reach the pass between two mountains at 24km before a welcome downhill section of 7km all the way to a river intersection at Horqueta del Cataratas.   

From there we headed south along another long valley to the 44km mark which I reached around 11.30 pm. At a checkpoint located in a rough wooden pen for animals there was a fire and around a dozen runners had already decided to camp for the night rather than continue in the dark and cold. I was tired but feeling good and wanted to get to the next checkpoint at 58km before stopping but we had to wait to climb in groups of four as conditions were becoming difficult due to the wind and the fog affecting the top of the mountains. I waited an hour for a group to form while I changed out of my damp socks, put on all my clothes, rested and ate.
At 12.30 a.m. four of us started the 800m climb to reach Co O'Connor in silence, panting from the exertion of the steep path. As we left the tree cover two pulled away from me as I in turn pulled away from the other and soon found myself alone. It was very cold. The freezing wind penetrated my five layers of clothing but the display of stars in the night sky was incredible. I reached the first summit at 1822m around 3 a.m. from where the path continued for 4km along a ridge including three more summits. At the top the wind was hurricane force knocking me sideways as I struggled to pick my way through the rocks and snow. Progress was very slow but worse was to come as the mist swirling around the mountains became thicker and after about an hour became so dense that I lost sight of the markers indicating the path. After a while I saw a light a little way further on and headed in that direction finding that it belonged to the headlamp of a Brazilian who was also lost. It was freezing cold. I was exhausted. It was 4 a.m. on top of an 1800m mountain. I could see the lights of the houses 1000m below in Bahia Manzano where the checkpoint was but they were some 6km away and we had lost the path that would lead us down. I decided to head down and try to find my own way and encouraged  the Brazilian to join me but he decided to stay and wait for the fog to lift.

It was hard going down the rocky mountainside strewn with thick volcanic ash but slowly I descended until reaching the trees which meant I was around 1400m and nearly halfway down. A few minutes further on I slipped and fell several metres down the slope, trying to break my fall with the nordic walking sticks I was using to keep balance. Deciding that fatigue was a contributing factor and that sleep would be a good idea. I pulled on my rainproof trousers for extra warmth and simply lay down on the only piece of flat ground I could find without bothering to put up my tent.

Thursday 13th December

After a short sleep of some 40 minutes I was awoken by the daylight and the cold. It was 6 a.m. Struggling to my feet I found one of my sticks a few yards away. Trying to break my fall the lower part I had stuck into the ground was now bent out of shape but it was still better than nothing. I continued my slow descent sliding down into what was becoming a steep-sided valley until I reached a small rocky stream. I calculated that following this stream would lead me down to the lake from where it would be easy to find the checkpoint. There was no path and the sides of the ravine were so steep that I had no option but to walk down the stream, on rocks where possible but more often than not through the icy water while climbing over the trees that had fallen down into the stream.

Suddenly I came to an abrupt halt. Ahead of me the water disappeared from view with the tell-tale sound of a waterfall. I crept as close as I dared and saw a drop of some 15 metres. It was impossible to continue downwards so I had to find a way to climb up the sides of the ravine. The sides were extremely steep. I was tired, carrying a heavy rucksack and many of the branches I tried to pull myself up with were rotten but eventually I made it up the muddy 10 metre climb and worked my way down again to where the stream had resumed its normal course. At one point I slipped and fell several metres down into the water, bruising myself on the rocks, but fortunately no worse than that. Another waterfall appeared, then another and another, each time the climb out was tougher but after four hours struggling to get out of the ravine, the terrain began to flatten out. I had made it. I trudged the remaining couple of kilometres, reaching the checkpoint at 58km after just over 23 hours since the start.

I was positioned around 260 at this point having made up some time by not spending the night at the campfire but lost time since losing the trial. I was exhausted but with still over 100kms to go before the cut-off on Saturday afternoon I could not afford to rest for long. A change of socks and the bandages to protect my feet, two cups of tea and a dodgy burger and I was back on the road for a flat 8kms along the lake to the next checkpoint.

It was a hot day, very different from the day before and after 2kms I realised quite how tired I was as I was feeling a little light-headed and starting to wander slightly as I walked. Although I was worried about losing more time and wanting to get as far as I could before nightfall and have a proper sleep under canvas I could not resist the temptation of a little siesta so lay down  in the sun and slept for an hour. Mildly refreshed I picked myself up and was encouraged as I passed several others before reaching 66 km and turning into the next valley. For the next six hours I followed the path, stopping every hour for a drink, filling my water bottles in the streams and eating sweets to keep my sugar levels up.

The path wound up and down along the valley through a rich deciduous forest before emerging again in a field of volcanic ash. After crossing this desolate landscape at around 7 pm in a small group there followed a very steep descent, another valley and another climb onto an exposed ridge where the wind tore at us ferociously. It was now dark. I lost the buckle on my helmet and so had to hold onto the strap with my teeth while struggling up the climb just as the batteries on my headlamp died, but fortunately there was enough light from the three people in front of me to allow me to make my way down a further 2 km, just far enough to reach the shelter of the trees and the first flat spot I could find. It was just after 10 pm and I was at 86 km. Too tired to bother with putting up my tent I put part of it on the ground, crawled into my sleeping bag and put the other part on top and went to sleep. Half an hour later I felt the first drops of rain which fell intermittently through the night.

Friday 14th December

After a fitful night interrupted by the showers I awoke at 6.00 am cold and shivering. The piece of the tent I had laid over me had blown off in the night and my sleeping bag and I were wet. My rucksack and the spare clothes and socks inside were soaked. Cold as it was inside my sleeping bag I knew it was warmer than outside and it took me a few minutes to convince myself that getting up was a good idea. With shaking hands it was hard to bandage my feet and put back on my wet socks and running shoes. I had made little progress the previous day - a little over 30kms. There was still over 70 km to go so i had better get started. I took an ibuprofen (Ibuevanol of course!) in what I knew was a futile attempt to ease the pains in my legs and struggled to stuff my wet tent and sleeping bag into my rucksack. I had one cheese sandwich left and chewed it piece by piece as I started out at 6.30.
The first 13 km were fairly flat and I was able to jog along at a good pace although slowed by multiple river crossings that chilled my feet. I passed a few others and began to cheer up as the weather reluctantly improved. After a crossing of the thigh-deep Rio Minero at 101km I started the 700m climb of La Piedrita, a very steep mountain which took 2.5 hours as part of a small group of 4 I had joined. I pulled away during the descent, picking up speed on the 1000m down to the village of Villa Traful and the checkpoint in a church hall.

The sight was more akin to a field hospital in the First World War. Bodies were lying all over the floor on mattresses, sleeping or resting, some revealing blisters and other injuries. Many had defeat written on their faces, knowing that this was as far as they were going to be able to go. Others just needed to rest and recover strength for the last push - just under 50kms to go. The only food on offer was another burger so I braved one, washed down with two cups of tea and loaded up on sweets and energy bars left by those who had abandoned the race. After an hour's break I needed to get going if I was to reach the finish before morning. I did not want to repeat my experience of being out of the mountains at night. It was now 2.30 in the afternoon.

The next stage was 9kms along the shores of Lago Traful which brought back happy memories of a holiday there ten years previously. I continued to pick off other competitors, slowly moving up through the field as the path then moved inland again, up through valleys and forests, again crossing multiple streams but by now I was on a roll, knowing that I was going to make it and finish sometime in the early hours, well before the cut-off time of 76 hours. Every step brought me closer as 120kms became 130 and then 140. By nightfall at 9.30 pm I had reached Col tres Nacientes with less than 20kms to go.

There followed the hardest part of all - a terrible 300m climb up a very steep path through deep volcanic ash covering the rocks that made it difficult to gain a foothold. The wind howled around the exposed mountain face. Every step was an effort as aching limbs fought the wind and gravity trying to pull me down. It was dark by now and I could see the lanterns of those climbing behind me who all seemed to be finding it easier. The path got even steeper. To reach the very top we had to haul ourselves up pulling on a rope. When I reached the checkpoint at the top I was relieved that what I hoped was the worst was now over.

Again the path took us along a narrow ridge climbing to two further peaks. Far away I could see the warm lights of Villa La Angostura waiting for me but there were 15kms to go and I was again on top of a mountain in the cold and dark with the mist closing in. I tried to keep up with the others that had passed me on the climb but then I fell awkwardly and landed against a rock. For a moment I thought I had injured myself but it was just a bruise but I lost time and soon again found myself struggling to see the markers in the mist. I was lost again.

Disheartening though this was I was determined not to repeat the experience of two nights previously. I retraced my steps and after peering through the mist for a few moments saw a faint light of the fluorescent marker down to the left. This meant I had reached the last summit at 1780m and could start the descent to the finish. Gingerly making my way down through the thick volcanic ash, my gloveless hand and feet frozen, my legs aching and my eyes straining for each marker I slowly reached the treeline where I found a group of four competitors recovering from the descent.
We set off together through the undulating forest along a trail that seemed to go up then down then left then right but never closer to the end. By now it was early on Saturday morning. I was exhausted and every step hurt. I was dreaming of nothing more than a hot shower and a warm bed and the miniature bottle of red wine saved from the British Airways flight to Sao Paulo waiting in my suitcase back at the hostel. We lost the trail and then refound it. Two of the group fell back but accompanied by a Venezuelan and a Brazilian I managed to keep on plodding the last few kilometres to reach the town a few minutes before 3 a.m. and the finish where we were given a hero's welcome, a medal and a very welcome hot cup of tea.

Mision accomplished in 62 hours 32 minutes. I came 186th out of 377 starters of which only 260 actually managed to complete La Misión.

At the end I had blisters and cuts on legs and ankles, loss of feeling in the ends of fingers and toes, chaffed shoulders, bruises on thighs, lost toenails and a sprained wrist. These will heal in time but my memories will last a lifetime. As well as that I will have raised around £15,000 for the three charities.

Please take a look at this video for some beautiful images of La Misión: