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This is the story of the journey that ended up with me running a 95 mile race in the Scottish Highlands – or – The Amazing Adventures of Baxter-The-Ultra-Dog.
I’m sitting here trying to work out where to start telling this story, and I have to confess I’m still a bit overwhelmed, so I will just start at the start.
For the 2nd year in a row the most amazing Myvanwy Fenton-May had asked me to be on her West Highland Way Race support team. Remembering the madness of last year, I rolled up at Auchtertyre (checkpoint at 51 miles) ready to see her through to the end. Unfortunately, it didn’t all go her way that year, and she had to make the difficult decision to pull out part way. I drove home, feeling despondent, I am wondering to myself “could I do that?”
Entry into the race is a ballot. Oops! My finger slipped! Name is in the hat.
I’d better start preparing, just in case.
Now, bear with me while I jump back in time a bit. In January 2016, my husband, daughter and I gave Baxter (German Shepherd Collie cross, aged 3 (ish)) his forever home. Many of you have met him. We got him from our local Dogs Trust, at West Calder. While we had both had dogs as children, we had never owned one of our own. It was a serious shock to the system! The dog that we took home was nervous, insecure, overweight, jealous, slightly aggressive, and pulled on the lead like a demon! But he absolutely adored me (we call him the Velcro-dog). Since I run, I wanted to see if he could too. Baxter was a natural. We quickly joined our local cani-cross club (Cani Sports Edinburgh), and bought all the kit. I love a bit of cani-cross now and then, it is an exhilarating sport, and such a great way to bond with your dog. Baxter was never going to be the fastest dog in the country, but let him off the lead and up some hills and this pup turns into serious MACHINE! He could run all day (I know – he has done…….)! At some point, Baxter became an ultra-dog. His longest run to date is 32 miles, and we like our runs to be full of mountains. Like I said – MACHINE!!!
I decided that Baxter should come on my WHWR journey with me – 11 months in to my new role as Baxter’s security blanket/soul mate, I was now struggling to imagine running without him…….
Baxter’s first crazy adventure!
Baxter enjoying some run-tourism, at Glenfinnan Viaduct
Myv, Baxter and I piled into the van and headed up to Glenfinnan. Being November in the Highlands, the weather was atrocious at best! It rained continually, but we went out for one of the most incredible 30 mile runs I have ever done. The scenery was everything that you would expect (when we could see it)! And as the rain kept coming down, the streams turned into rivers! At the end of the day poor Baxter had to swim one! I wonder what he thought he was signing up for when he came home with me at the start of the year (he really doesn’t swim…….)?
OMG I actually got into the West Highland Way Race! So I have to train and then run a 95 mile race, with around 15,000 ft of climb, the entire way from Milngavie to Fort William! What was I thinking!!!!!!
Some more crazy adventures happened…
In March I decided that I really had to make sure I was familiar with the whole route that I would be running in June. This meant that I had a gap of 20-ish miles, between Tyndrum and Glen Coe that I had to fill. Enter Baxter! We headed up to Tyndrum and camped for the night. Some complicated car logistics ensued, then Baxter, John E. and Inset out to fill in the missing gap of the West Highland Way.
am very glad I did this. Preparation is everything in a big race, and if you can familiarise yourself with the whole route (or even some of it!) then I think that you should. We were having so much fun that when we got to Glen Coe ski centre we just carried on, and climbed the Devil’s Staircase just so that we could make a snowman at the top (Baxter ate him – no photos)!
Highland Fling 2017: Milngavie to Tyndrum. This was my third time at this race, but since it was the first 53 miles of the West Highland Way, there was pressure on this year to get a PB like never before! Everything went my way on the day, and I finished with a cracking time that I am ecstatic with (10 h 38 min, making me the 28th lady to finish – not bad out of a field of 189 female finishers (679 finishers in total)). Finally, this was the confidence that I needed to carry on and run the whole distance.
This was the month that I decided that in preparation for the big day, it would be a good idea to try and run the whole WHWR distance on consecutive days. It was hot. I over-shot a bit, and actually ended up running 115 miles in 1 week. Baxter did about 70 of these miles (his longest week ever!). We ran up hills, in forests, and on beaches. In fact I can’t really think of anywhere we didn’t run this week! We even managed to find time to stop for ice cream twice!
Then I had three weeks to put my feet up, rest and prepare! Poor Baxter came down with the worst case of “Taperitis*” I’ve ever experienced!
* Taperitis is an under-researched condition affecting mostly ultra athletes (and their dogs). It is a very serious condition affecting the sufferer’s family as much as the athlete. Symptoms are wide ranging and can vary from niggles, weight gain, and obsessive housework to wild mood swings. There is no known cure.
Friday June 23rd 2017 – Race day minus 1
As the race started at 1 am on Saturday morning in Milngavie, my plan was simple. On Friday I would get up, go to work, come home in the afternoon for a nice sleep, then get a lift with Elly and Phil across to the start in the evening. Unfortunately when you have dogs this isn’t so easy. So despite my best intentions, when I got to the start line I had already been awake for about 20 h. This was going to be a long weekend…….
Saturday June 24th 2017 – Race day!
Register, and wait. Very nervous now…… Have I trained enough? Have I eaten enough? Have I packed enough?
Finally, we had our race briefing, and we were off into the dark. What happened over the next 26 hours was surreal, exciting, excruciating (at times), monstrous (especially the weather in the second half) and totally bonkers!
This race would not have happened without the incredible efforts of my support team, Andrew Simpson, David Hope and Danny Kershaw. Superstars!! I can’t thank them enough! They probably rmember this day very differently to me! (Hopefully they never write a race report………)
According to the race rules, each runner had to be supported by a team, who had to meet their runner at the checkpoints, and be responsible for their runner’s safety, make sure they were weighed in, as well as making sure that they ate and drank enough.
For those of us not in contention to win anything, there was also the option to have someone in your support team run with you in the second half. I opted to have their company for the last 35 miles. They each did about 1/3 each. I am very glad of this decision. The weather was deteriorating already, and I had been awake and on the go for more hours than I could remember! The rain was horizontal by this point, and the gusts were over 70 mph. I was struggling to stay on my feet, and pretty miserable, but determined to finish. The last 20 miles includes two of the biggest climbs of the route, the “Devil’s Staircase” up out of Glen Coe, and then the climb out of Kinlochleven.
I won’t lie, the last few miles were some of the most unpleasant of my life. It was dark (again). I was exhausted, I couldn’t keep warm, and I couldn’t eat enough. But somehow (largely due to the phenomenal efforts of my brilliant support team – without whom I would probably have given up, or curled up at the side of the trail) I made it to Fort William. I had just completed the West Highland Way Race in 26h, 5 min and 10 secs. It was 3 am, and I had now been awake for 46h. Carried / hobbled to my hotel, shower, 4h of broken sleep (hurting too much), then I was shouted out of bed. Apparently, Anderw and David wanted to me to be up in time so that they could catch the end of breakfast in the hotel, and then John should be finishing soon after (the cut-off time for completion was 35h). Too tired to object.
I was the 91st finisher this year, and the 15th lady. In total, there were 159 finishers, ranging from 13h 41 min (new course record – incredible!) to 34h 40 min (the cut off time was 35h). There were also 51 runners who did not finish, and over 7 billion people that did not start!
The rest of this day is a blur, but at some point in the evening, they finally got me home. Time for a nice long cuddle on the sofa with my awesome Ultra-Dog, Baxter. The poor pup had missed all the excitement because he doesn’t deal with the excitement of races very well.
Did I enjoy it? I’m not sure….. But I am so proud of myself for what I achieved, and also super chuffed at the journey Baxter has come on to get us to this point. I used the opportunity to raise money for Dogs Trust, to help all the other potential Ultra-Dogs out there find their forever-training buddies. I was really pleased to try to make a difference for more than just my own pup. And I learnt a lot…… Would I do it again? Probably, yes, because the adventure to get to that day, with running escapades all across Scotland with my best buddy Baxter, was fantastic. And how can I try to top that? Maybe by adding another Trainee-Ultra-Dog to the pack…