Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Supporting two blokes on a wet and windy West Highland Way

I will get round to penning my thoughts (and findings) soon but as the challenge was deeply rooted as a pair I need to wait for Rob to get back to me – which I am assured will be soon.

In the mean time, what follows is our challenge from the perspective of our fantastic support crew. The plan was to meet Paul Houston, a guy I had never met before, at Milngavie train station just after 10am on Friday 25th Nov. Paul would look after us until Rowardennan and then meet up with the support crew, Alan and Alison Kerr from my work, at Bein Glas Farm to hand over to them.

Paul was then going to drive to Tyndrum and run with Rob and I from there as he hadn’t done the Devil section before.

Paul Houston’s words:
Unfortunately, due to logistics, I wasn’t able to join Dale and Rob for their full WHW challenge on foot, but I was able to offer my services as support for the first 53 miles to Tyndrum, and the plan was for me to switch from crew to runner at that point, for the final 42 miles to Fort William.

I met up with the guys at Milngavie train station and after a brief few moments to hand over bags and have a picture taken beside the WHW map, they were off. Literally seconds after they climbed the steps into Milngavie High Street, the heavens opened for the first time and part of me felt a little bit of relief that I could run back to my car, while part of me also wished to be out there cursing the elements.

The first meetup point was Drymen and I arrived there about an hour before the guys were expecting to pass through, so I sat and read a book. I’ve never crewed before and to be honest, I didn’t think it would be for me. I’ve had lots of people support me in previous ultras and I’ve always been grateful that they have given up their free time for what I thought must have been a tedious day on the road.

As it turns out, I loved it! There were long periods of waiting, but it wasn’t boring at all. I had to be alert at all times due to the fact that there was no way to find out the guys’ position. They could have blasted a section and could have been well ahead of schedule. I had to make sure I was prepared and ready to help out whenever they arrived to make the stop as quick as possible.  As soon as they came into view through the rain and grey, the long periods of waiting changed to 2 or 3 minutes of frantic door-opening, unpacking, photo taking, refuelling, restocking, well-wishing and repacking! Then came a short drive up the road to do the same thing all over again.

After Drymen, I drove up to Balmaha. I had decided to run part way up Conic Hill to cheer the guys on and take some good action shots of them descending into the forest and into the car park. I made it onto the hillside 10 minutes before I expected them to get there. 30 minutes passed and still no sign of them. I got a bit worried because I had left my phone in the car, but I was sure I would see them any moment. Then came a full on hail shower. As I wasn’t running, I was soaked through and freezing instantly! Still, for the brief moments that the sun came out, the views were spectacular across Loch Lomond. They guys came into view 10 minutes later. Turns out they had taken a slight detour through Garadhban Forest, hence the late arrival!

From Balmaha, the next stop was Rowardennan and the 26 mile mark. I waited there for about 45 minutes but the view at the side of the loch was spectacular with the mountains in the distance covered in recent snowfall. Here I realised one of the perks of crewing: the chance to experience the spectacular scenery that comes with most ultras, without the pain and discomfort that you usually have to go through to get to those viewpoints!

I was delighted to see the guys still in good spirits at mile 26. Dale had gone through a bad patch but was now over it and was enjoying the run. Rob was talking and acting like he had just been out for a jog, and made the previous marathon distance look pretty effortless.

Then came the long drive right around Loch Lomond to get from Rowardennan to Bein Glas farm for the next support point. Here I met up with Alan and Alison who would go on to crew for the guys throughout the night. In a stroke of pure genius, they had brought along a horsebox to give the guys shelter and provide a perfect space to change and refuel, what a brilliant idea! We chatted for about an hour until the guys arrived at Bein Glas. They took on some hot drinks and headed on their way again. Both guys admitted to having bad patches and concerns about what they were going to face during the night, but both were still in great spirits and looked strong. I didn’t have any concerns whatsoever that they weren’t going to make it to Fort William.

I was very concerned though, about my own ability to make the 42 miles in the conditions that were forecast. The weather improved when we arrived in Tyndrum and the stars were out, but my head told me that it wouldn’t last and compared to the preparation that Dale and Rob had done in the months leading up to the attempt, I was grossly under-prepared for a long run in such extreme conditions and exposed terrain. I decided at Tyndrum that I wouldn’t be running to Fort William. I still regret the decision but I know that it was the right one to make (especially after hearing about the 15 hour ordeal from Tyndrum!).

Alan and Alison gave me updates through the night and I was delighted when I got the text saying that they had arrived just after 1pm. To run the WHW in 27 hours is an achievement in itself, but in those conditions, what Dale and Rob achieved is remarkable and they showed unbelievable determination and guts to keep going. It was an absolute privilege to help them and to feel like I’ve played a (very) small part in their successful run. Well done guys!

Alan and Alison Kerr’s words:
My name is Alan Kerr and my wife is Alison. We helped Dale and Rob with support during their WHW Challenge. This is us at the West Highland Way marker post outside the Mini Mart at Tyndrum while waiting on the guys arriving.

Once the challenge was over and we were chatting on the way home, Dale asked if we had any thoughts or comments on our experiences and if we enjoyed ourselves. Alison and I have had time to reflect and discuss our time and have noted a few of our thoughts. (Alison’s pre-challenge thoughts were “they must want their heeds looked at” and “would we survive a night on Rannoch Moor” with The Hound of the Baskervilles in her thoughts, what if I get taken when I’m out having a pee : -)

When Dale first asked me if I would mind helping out with support for him and Rob I was like “yes no bother, I’ll soon do that” and my initial reaction though was to enlist the help of my wife Alison. Alison provided support for me when I done the Caledonian Challenge so knew the score.

I can tell you I would probably have struggled without Alison’s help as my nature is to do a quick assessment of what needs done and when, then leave it to the last minute anyway! Alison is a complete opposite and dot’s every ‘I‘ and crosses every ‘T’ a dozen times over. This has been handy as the past few weeks I have been busy with one thing and another and with me temporarily distracted (or as Alison would argue I was too busy surfing tractors for sale on ebay!), Alison has sorted lots of things I should have been dealing with. Support on this scale should not be taken lightly as it could affect the athlete’s outcome so the team needs to be switched on and organised.

The plans were that Paul would do the first two stops at Drymen and Rowardennan and we would take over from Beinglas Farm on Friday at 18.00ish going on to Tyndrum, Bridge of Orchy, Kinghouse Hotel, Kinlochleven and finish at Fort William at about 08.00ish on Saturday.

Dale and Rob had all the hard work with personal training regimes etc that have been months in the planning and in comparison we have had very little to prepare. I had it all planned in my head, the perfect benign weather conditions and with a car trailer to transport the gear, a pop up gazebo to provide shelter for Rob and Dale this was all going to be a breeze!!

It was a compliment to have been asked to help provide the support and I am glad to have done it, these are the life experiences you tend to enjoy without realising it (if you know what I mean). We were in no illusions however, it would still be hard work and we had an important part to play if the day was to run smoothly.

Anyway going back a week a wee bit of panic started to creep in when it became obvious that for large spells the weather was looking like it could be wet and windy so the Gazebo was definitely a non-starter unless we fancied a spot of Para Gliding over Glencoe anyway!!. We knew we were in for some periods of bad weather but as the forecast was changing and it wasn’t clear to what extent this would be. The basic tasks we needed to provide like providing a comfortable yet quick stop, providing hot water and also keeping everything dry while still accessible to the guys was now a real concern.

We needed to find a solution and quickly. After some deliberation Alison suggested we use our Horse trailer, the trailer is in a very clean condition and it was the perfect solution, we could boil water inside it, it would offer shelter for the boy’s and all their equipment and it was tough and rugged so they didn’t need to worry about being wet and dirty while having plenty of clear space to rumble about in.

With everything in place we set of from home at midday on Friday so we could travel up in day light. Beinglas Farm was our destination and Alison had phoned ahead so the owner knew we were coming. We arrived at the Drovers Inn at about 4.30 and waited on Paul before making our way up to Beinglas Farm, the night was clear with very little wind and the stars were starting to come out. This looked perfect and all we needed to do now was wait on the runners to appear. We weren’t sure when that would be, all we knew was that because of an additional unplanned detour through the woods earlier in the day that they were now running about 45minutes behind their planned schedule. When they did arrive they took us slightly by surprise.

Everything was sorted in the horse box, camping chairs ready, all Dale and Robs provisions to hand and water freshly boiled ready for their arrival. It was just as well as they appeared from the darkness without any warning at about 6.40 p.m.  They were both in good spirits and quite fresh considering how far they had already ran.  Warm coffee and a few wee snacks later and they were off again into the darkness at 7.05 p.m.  The stars didn’t last long though and the rain started around then, just as the forecast had predicted.

We set off to Tyndrum to wait on them. We parked at the Green Welly Shop as planned but then decided to move along to the car park outside the shut mini-marked as the WHW passed right past. As I boiled the water and prepared the box for their arrival and Paul and Alison went a quick wander down to the village to try and find some hot food. At this point we were already being hit with heavy showers and wind was starting to get up with some sleet thrown in for good measure. The original plan was for Paul to join them at Tyndrum for the second half of the run but as he hadn’t done any training in these sort of conditions, he started to rethink what was ahead of him and he was probably wise to decide this night wasn’t the night to make his debut running in the dark in this kind of weather.  Alison said she realised he had made his mind up when he tucked into a portion of chips from the local pub and was toying with the idea of a pint to wash them down.

The guy’s arrived at approx 10.15 p.m. and despite the changing weather were still in good spirits. With a 30minute stop to change and re-fuel they again went on their way into the darkness.

By now we were into a nice routine, after Dale and Rob left we quickly moved on to the next stop, which was Bridge of Orchy. As soon as we arrived we got on with the preparations for their arrival. This involved a quick sort out of the Horse Box, boiling water and filling the flask and generally preparing the hot drinks for the guy’s arriving. We were joined at the Bridge of Orchy for a short time by some of the locals from the hotel bar who briskly followed Alison back out when she went in to check which direction the WHW passed through.  They braved the weather stayed outside to keep us company……for as long as it took to smoke a cigarette anyway : -) By now the weather was really bad, heavy rain and strong winds were constant with no respite, with the preparations done we wrapped up against the cold and our thoughts were with the guys out on the hills.

The guy’s came in at about 12.20 a.m. and despite the terrible weather conditions were still in a reasonable moral. Most of our work was in the preparation so during the stops didn’t we have much to do. As the guys were experienced at this sort of thing, they were pretty much self-sufficient and once Alison had added the water to the prepared coffee and soup our jobs were done apart from trying to keep some positive conversation going. Not easy and if you have ever tried to make small talk in this situation before you’d know what I mean. Alison’s jokes about axe murderers and psychopaths were probably wasted as I don’t think anyone was in the mood for humour : -)

Below shows the guy’s taking on some food in the shelter of the horse trailer at the Bridge of Orchy Stop.

After Bridge of Orchy, we moved on to the car park at Kinghouse Hotel. The weather was terrible (that is a sever understatement!), rain was torrential with gale force winds. Rannoch Moor offers no protection and it felt like the car was going to take off with the constant battering from the wind. By now things were getting serious and as the wind driven torrential rain was bound to mean that visibility was very low we were starting to worry about the guy’s out on the Moor. We boiled the water, made our preparations and headed into the Jeep to attempt to catch some sleep. No surprise though that with a mix of noise from the weather and our thoughts of the guys suffering out on the Moor didn’t manage to get any sleep whatsoever. The guy’s arrived at about 04.20am and to be honest we were glad to see them both safe and sound. Neither Alison nor I would have blamed either of them if they decided to call it a day but weren’t surprised that this was not even mentioned and I am pretty sure it wouldn’t even have been considered. And the fact that Alison had to keep Rob awake by keeping talking to him as he nearly slipped into his coffee twice didn’t help our worries.

They had about a 30min stop and left to conquer the Devils Staircase and to be honest we weren’t far behind them. The edge of Rannoch Moor on an exceptionally dark night with this stormy weather is not the most pleasant place to be. Alison was not alone in being glad to be on our way with Kinlochleven our next stop. Below is the guy’s leaving Kingshouse Hotel.

We arrived at Kinlochleven at about 5.35 a.m. and yes the weather was still terrible and it was as black dark. As normal we boiled the water, filled the flasks, prepared the Horse Box and waited on the guys. By now we were getting good at predicting arrival times but with the conditions being as they were we found it impossible to get any meaningful rest especially with our thoughts being drawn to the guys and their battles against the weather and also their own different stages of physical tiredness. Just as it began to get light, the guys arrived at about 08.10 a.m and to be honest had perked up from the last time we had seen them. This was nice for us to see but bearing in mind they had already covered approx 85 miles the remaining 12 or so miles must have seemed like a marathon. They left at about 08.30am with the weather still relentlessly throwing everything it could at these guys.

After they left we quickly moved on to Fort William where a nice hot tasty MacMuffin was waiting with our names on it. It was the first time I have tasted one and to be honest we have fond thoughts of sitting in Mac Donald’s watching the wind driving the rain onto the windows with the streets beyond deserted, that is apart from the odd hard-core individuals out for a stroll. Personally I could have stayed there all day but we decided we’d better find a nice spot in the Lochaber Sports Centre close to the end of the WHW to park up. This time apparently I managed to get some sleep, which for some reason Alison decided to record on her i-pod.

At 1.17pm on Saturday 26th Nov Dale and Rob appeared round the corner soaked through and their epic challenge not only against the rugged terrain but also all the worst weather imaginable was now over.  The wind and rain was still relentless and after a dry off and change loaded up and made our way home.

Below is Dale and Rob just finishing the challenge.

There will probably be plenty of people who either have covered the WHW from start to finish in one visit or know someone who has done so but doubt very much if there will be many who have witnessed the same journey in such extreme conditions. I cannot over state the terrible weather conditions thrown at these guy’s from 7.00pm ish on Friday till they finished on Saturday at 1.17pm they were exposed to the most horrendous weather. As if covering 97ish miles in 27 hours in near storm condition was not enough, we ended by travelling down the road so Rob could make the 18.30pm train at Lockerbie to Preston so Rob could get home! Hats off to these guys nothing seems to faze them and they will be proud of what they achieved. I know both Alison and myself are proud to have been part of something that I would assume will not be repeated for quite some time and have gathered some memories that few other people will have (and I don’t just mean Alison having to watch Dale with his hand down his pants at every stop).

My words:
the pants down was for vaseline application ;-) 

A huge vote of thanks is due to anyone who gives up there time to do this for other people. I myself am looking forward to doing the same for friends and anyone else in the ultra circuit who may ask - once I have the time i.e. after my degree is squared.

So once again, thanks to Paul, Alan and Alison.


  1. What a superb report. Really interesting to read about your epic journey from the support perspective. Thanks for sharing.

    The horse box was a great idea. It could catch on!

    Well done again to runners and support teams.

  2. Smart move with the horse-box. When I did my winter run being able to get out of the wind & rain to get changed (we used a big van) was a huge help and I'm sure it was greatly appreciated.

  3. what a great idea with horsebox, was watching Pauls updates avidly. Well done both of you :)

  4. Calling Debbie Cox! Horse box hire opportunity in June! Tell your friends. (Just keep it from the committee!)
    Great report. Look forward to the runners report.