Thursday, 1 December 2011

Rob Kennedy's West Highland Way experience

There are some, unlike me, who are talented enough to pen a very entertaining read. Subversive runner and the Beruit taxi are two that spring to mind. How ironic they are both ex service men (I think). What follows is my mate, Rob's account of how he got on when we did the WHW recently. I have chosen not to interupt it with text of my own or with any photos as I feel both would do the narrative no justice.

The start to this epic was rather less nervy than anticipated.  As me and Dale met on the Glasgow bound train (from where we would make our way to meet Paul at Milngavie) we talked over the final details, general feelings, and of the less than inspiring predictions of our pending failure from one particular individual on the otherwise hugely supportive WHW Race forum.

We pulled into Milngavie and were greeted by Paul who would be kindly providing vehicle support upto Tyndrum.  There was a brief exchange of chit chat before we loaded our kit bags into the car, tended to the sensitive areas and then headed to the start of the way where a local cabby was more than happy to take a photo for the archives.  Would this photo be a future reminder of a doomed attempt, or would it mark a much more significant progression in our ultra running experience?  The answer lay on the way.

With little in the way of ceremony, myself and Dale shook hands, padded up the steps of the subway, through the high street and off toward Drymen, for what promised to be an experience to remember. 

Any feelings upto this point had been relatively suppressed.  My rapid enlistment into supporting Dale through this challenge, meant that any available time had involved putting myself through a crash course training programme.  There had been little time to reflect on what may lie ahead as my efforts were largely focussed on commitments at work, and also with the annoying task of ridding myself of a very unwelcome chest infection, which wiped out all of my training two weeks prior to the big day.  Not a textbook approach to taking on the WHW but nonetheless I was determined to see this through with Dale, and a stubborn denial of the reality of my preparation also meant that I had done little in the way of mental focussing on the weight of the challenge.

Our time upto Drymen was largely uneventful.  Conversation flowed, and the largely mundane road sections leading upto this point passed by without our spirits dropping.  Certainly I felt as if I hadn't even warmed up yet, and was waiting to get into my stride.  A quick check with Dale clarified that he was in a similar situation also.  It was around this time, just before meeting Paul by the road that I sensed a slight conflict going on in Dale's head.  Certainly he was moving good.  If I'm honest I felt, for what lay ahead we may have been moving ever so slightly too quick.  I couldn't say I was acutely aware that something was amiss, but having spent countless hours on the hoof with Dale, I know when he is 'Booming Away', and in the present period this was not evident.  As I spied Paul looking out for us, my thoughts on the matter subsided and I took a quick inventory on what food and fluids I had depleted, and what I would need to load up to take us to Balmaha.  It was good to see Paul, who seemed to be relishing the task of providing vehicle support for the first time.  Similarly it was good to put the first section behind us.  It generated a feeling that we were now in the thick of it and coping well.  From a personal perspective however, this couldn't have been further from the truth!!

As we headed off to make our way toward Conic Hill, my thoughts concerning Dale came back.  He became quieter as we headed toward Garadhban and as we picked up the forest track, I took out the camera for a few action shots to lighten the mood.  The weather so far had be changeable at worst, but as we headed along the easy tracks there was a brief glimpse of the sun, which certainly added to the aesthetics of the run.  Photos taken we pressed on and soon came to the realisation that our impromptu photo shoot had caused us to bypass the temporary way marker which marked the diversion due to forestry management works, and we ended up back where we first got the camera out, but 20 minutes down!  Great.  Neither of us were particularly concerned by this as we had agreed from early on that due to the impending forecast and also the fact that this was largely a quest into the unknown (neither of us had ever ran 95 miles before), we were not pinning ourselves to any predetermined performance criteria.

Back on track we headed to Conic and Dale began to discuss his mental state of play.  It was clear to me that whilst my pre run thoughts had been scant to say the least, Dale's may have been analytical to the point where they were causing him to choke.  Reading the archives of this blog, it should be clear that the period which followed Dales' successful Bob Graham had left him devoid of confidence, such was the shock of his initial failure at the round.  Despite the first attempt ending in ways which were out  of his control (being violently sick for seven hours will kill off even the most ardent athlete!), it had taken over a year of test and adjustment with training before Dale started to believe that he possessed the tools to take on the serious distances.  For him this challenge was the culmination of those endeavours (this point may serve to justify my annoyance at the unhelpful predictions of failure outlined on the forum).  We agreed to walk up Conic Hill and to take stock of the situation.  It seemed somehow ominous that the weather had now began to take a turn for the worse.  The ascent up Conic was straight forward enough, although with neither of us wearing full on fell shoes the descent in such bad conditions was a little shaky to say the least, and I recall a particularly awkward twist of the knee as I lost purchase on some sodden grass.  As we veered south and picked up the rocky gulley which leads to Balmaha the running got easier and not before time as it was only a short distance down the path where Paul was waiting to join us for the short trot to the car.

After I topped up my drinks bottle, we pressed on and it was with great relief that I realised Dale had wrestled with his head and had taken back control.  Things were looking easy, and with another stop off behind us we cracked on to Rowardennan.  We were well and truly in the thick of things now and I know that both of us at this point were feeling positive.  

It was around this point however that my thoughts started turning toward the night time.  The time of year, and also the overcast skyline meant that already the air was looking gloomy and I was acutely aware of the impending forecast for the night stages.  We had already formalised drills for the evening, and had a separate survival sack comprising essentially of full mountain marathon gear, complete with tent and stove for any emergency.  Myself and Dale share twenty years experience as professional soldiers, and the option to take all possible measures to mitigate a mountain rescue call out had been well and truly addressed.  We were aware of the fact that the date of this challenge was completely of our own design, and to simply rely of Mountain Rescue to bail us out of an otherwise avoidable situation was quite simply not on the cards.  Our collective experience has brought us in front of some of the most extreme weather bearable (my particular favourite was a six week stint living out on the Prairies of a sub zero Canadian winter!  I'm sure given the chance, Dale would regale you about his rather chilly time in the Falklands too!!!).

The stage passed with nothing more than perhaps a little too fast a pace on occasion, and again Dale took a minor dip, but with his head now sorted out, I had no concerns that anything beyond this point would be beyond his control.  Our meeting with Paul at Rowardennan came around quickly and there was even time to feed a hungry duck before heading straight back out onto the way and off to Inversnaid.

As the light began to fade, the first signs of what lay ahead for me started to show.  The pace initially was not so much the issue, although I felt on occasion that this was moving up and down now.  I mentioned this to Dale, who it was clear was enjoying himself now.  Dale said that the change in pace was probably in my head, however on reflection I feel that the pace was more dictated by Dale's increase, and my respective decrease in endorphin levels.  Usually we will share the high points, or else exchange taking the lead in response to our comfort levels, however in this case I was getting light headed and was struggling to keep momentum on any inclines.  My recent virus played on my mind and I felt myself turning insular for the first time on the run.  We were still making decent progress although by now we were on head torches.  Our conversation was becoming stilted at this point, however this was probably more to do with the lack of light imposing a dark mood on the situation.  We focussed our efforts of tackling the awkward terrain and before long Inversnaid was well behind us, and we were anticipating Ardleish and the easy run into Bein Glas, where we were to meet our new support team Alan and Alison, complete with mobile horse box and hot water!  With Paul still there at the stop off, we were inundated with attention, and after changing into gear for the night time, I drank some welcoming soup and tried to rid myself of the feelings from the last section.

The road to Tyndrum was taken at reasonable pace, which was surprising as we had discussed Dale's previous difficulties in making any significant progress on this section.  Having changed clothes and taken on hot fluids the mood had changed somewhat, and we were focussed on getting to Tyndrum, which had all of a sudden become a notable milestone in the challenge.  Kind of “Get to Tyndrum and then it's just a case of hanging on in there!”.  If only we knew. 

The path to Crianlarich was taken well, with the exception of a crashing fall which pushed all of my body weight down onto my right knee.  Fortunately the damage was nothing more than ripped clothing and blood.  The mechanics were still working fine so I picked myself up and we headed into the forest.  Again at this point I got a sniff of Dale's quality as he kept running me out on the descents.  The weather was turning now also and alarmingly my speech was beginning to slur (a point which Dale picked up on as we headed past Fillan.  It was here that the first utterances of dropping out were made by Dale.  I could see he was concerned by my demeanour and as discussed my pace was not upto it's usual standard.  I was however, still in an alert state and so managed to make a convincing case that I was in fact fine and that my commitment to the run was non negotiable.  There was clearly a window of flexibility here as the intention was that Paul would join us at Tyndrum, thus alleviate the necessity for me to accompany Dale if I were feeling bad.  My stubbornness however would have none of it, and good job too, as when we reached Tyndrum, Paul had understandably stepped down from pacing duties, having been sat watching the weather getting worse as time went on.  Once we stopped in Tyndrum, we realised just how bad the weather had got, and this did little for the motivation levels. 

One unexpected highlight of this part of the run was when a lone supporter working at the By the way hostel cheered on Dale as we went past.  It must have given him a great sense of purpose to see someone standing out in such terrible weather, waiting for the opportunity to spur him on.  I have no doubt the encouragement hit the mark.  Certainly it brought a warm smile to my face that something as innocuous as a complete stranger deciding to run through the night can move someone to stand patiently waiting out in the elements just to say well done. The world is not all bad!

Alan and Alison were well into the swing of support duties now, and after only our second visit to the luxury horse box, this place was beginning to feel like home.  We ate well and took our time to get prepared for the conditions and set off toward the Bridge of Orchy knowing that we had now completed the 'Fling' half of the way, and every step would reduce down the distance left on the Devils section.

We headed toward Auch on the well established track and I have to say that things were looking promising despite the fact that by now we were being lashed with hail and every drainage channel we reached was in spate, and any burns or rivers had turned into raging torrents of water.  Unbeknown to me, something at this stage was beginning to occur, which would shape the next 14 hours of my life. 

It started innocently enough with me asking if Dale was on caffeine yet.  I had suddenly started to feel tired.  Not fatigued, just that my eyelids were feeling heavy.  Obviously we were heading into the night, but I had done enough 'through the night running' to feel confident that my body will wait for the right time to go to sleep.  I mean, how on earth do you fall asleep whilst running?  Sure the likes of Karnazes talk of it in books, but how much of this is solid fact, and how much has had more than a brush of artistic licensing?  In my military years I had forgone upto 4 days without sleep, and this was whlst under similar physical duress.    For these reasons I didn't think twice about the fact that I was feeling unusually tired, and we pressed onto the bridge with enthusiasm based on the fact that we had the shortest leg underfoot.  Let the weather try it's best!

We paced toward the horse box awaiting our spread of soup and coffee.  The weather must have been bad as our conversation had broadly been based on hot food for at least half of the previous leg.  Alan and Alison were practically seasoned pros at supporting now, and whilst we were perhaps looking a bit battered, the occasions inside the horse box were always filled with upbeat talk and undeniable confidence in our success.  These guys had a genuine infectious aura around them that allowed you to enjoy every last second in their company.  If only we didn't have Inveronan to contend with, we may have been enjoying ourselves at this point.

The trudge to Inveronan and beyond to Kingshouse was just about the peak of the bad weather.  Wind chill had increased significantly, and same as since Tyndrum, it was hat on, hood up and buff masked across my face, we barged our way through the terrain.  It wasn't long however before my make shift mask was saturated and as such became impermeable.  Breathing in simply caused the buff to draw to my mouth, which cut off my air supply.  Great.  Buff off, hat on and hood up would have to do.  The tiredness had returned too, despite the even cooler temperature.  Dale's comfort breaks, which were at an absolutely staggering frequency (seriously bud, one to address before any major competition :)) meant that I was standing swaying in the elements whilst waiting before we progressed.  In time I would use these periods to nod off on my feet.  Only the erratic flicker of the approaching head torch caused me to snap out of my brief hibernation and start putting one foot in front of the other again.  Physically I felt fine, but I quite simply just kept dropping off like an ultra narcoleptic.  Thankfully there were an abundance of ice cold watercourses to cross on the road to Kingshouse which would keep me awake and in with a chance of marching into Fort William. 

The Horse Box!!!!  Our arrival this time seemed to cause Alan and Alison to go slightly ashen faced, as we bundled ourselves into warmth and shelter.  To be fair to Dale, whilst he certainly wasn't cruising, there was at this point one stand out hand brake, and I was beginning to get worse.  Twice Alison needed to wake me before I fell into my hot coffee.  I was spiralling downhill.  Sat, slumped in the same gear I entered the horse box in.  No inclination to get changed, dry, fed or watered, I was simply shutting down.  “You ready pal?”.  “Yeah mate!”. 

I've seen addicts in less denial!

The hallucinations started relatively unspectacular.  As I staggered up the Devil's staircase, I began to visualise American 'spots and stripes' pool balls on the ground randomly.  Without being able to comprehend that Dale may find this slightly strange, I began to give him updates on things such as this.  God only knows what was going through his head.  The pace had dropped solely due to me, and if I were honest I would say that only 40% of my time was spent with my eyes open.  I began to get terrified at the fact that the landscape would change in one visual thunderclap, overwhelming the senses, and causing my gut to wrench in half anger, half fear.  Quite simply, I was going down.  The lowest (but now highly amusing point) was when I spent what felt like about ten minutes co-hosting Saturday Kitchen with James Martin!!!  The more disturbing point about this was that I no longer felt cold.  I could sense the hot studio and the audience enjoying the show, as I stirred some concoction in a bowl.  WTF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  During a tour of Bosnia I had trained as a team medic, and everything occurring now was telling me the situation was getting worse.  Dale suggested using the tent option and camping down until the morning, but I was too scared to stop moving to consider this.  It didn't take long after this for Dale to announce that we were binning it when we reached Kinlochleven.  I mustered a tepid resistance, but my eventual silence told Dale all he needed to know.  Besides, I wasn't really in the mood for arguing.

Topping out, and ready to take the plummet into Kinlochleven the light levels lifted.  I could see the tree line below, which was outside the light splash of the torches.  The path was clear, if dim, and my mental state followed suit.  Dale broached the inevitable, and outlined his intent to continue on to Fort William by himself.  Understandably Dale had an obligation to stay loyal to his sponsors and finish the job in hand.  And my role in this?  Well, I suppose if I had supported Dale to this point, and he was able to continue now on his own and complete his challenge, had I not done my bit also?  This question irritated me, because I should have been satisfied with this.  Before the challenge I had assured Dale that the run was all about him.  So why now could I not swallow defeat?  Unfortunately my previous sufferings had caused me to become emotionally embroiled in the WHW.  I had come too far to step down myself.  In short, the run had become all about me.

I peppered Dale with queries of the last leg.  How big is the first climb?  BIG.  How long is the leg? LONG.  My game was transparent.  More to the point, my game was futile.  Any success or failure would not be down to the quantity of ascent, nor the length of the leg.  I was merely skirting around the truth and failing to commit myself one way or the other.  I chose.  “I'm coming with you!”.  The conversation which ensued was both one of emotion and concern, but overriding it all, stubbornness prevailed on my part.  I was going to finish.

There are some who at this point may consider my decision to continue both reckless and insensitive.  These thoughts were ones which I considered myself also, and I can say that it is precisely why it took a significant time for me to make my decision.  Rather than being reckless, I was completely aware of what I needed to do if I were to continue.  My earlier issues had already affected the overall pace, and if I were to carry on I had to be better than Dale.  That was my only condition.  If I held him up more, then my decision would become selfish.    

The stop off in Kinlochleven was pretty much a blur.  I was refocussing, galvanising myself for the final leg.  We set off and I put myself in front to rise back up on to the path to Fort William.  The weather remained nearly as bad in the light of day but by now I didn't care.  It was almost relief when I cut the pace at the request of Dale, who was now taking a dip in form (not, I should add anywhere like the pathetic state I had previously been in).  We took our time and trudged over the uneven terrain.  We traversed the now beyond mundane watercourses, and pressed on and on through the rain.  As we dropped into the forest track and out onto the road, all drive and hardiness left us.  We moaned, we limped.  We each had the perfect listening partner for our woes.

The horse box came into view and our last dregs of motivation happily subsided.  We sat in our chairs, knowing that the job was done.

Myself and Dale completed the WHW in 27:10.  Is the time relevant?  Not to me.  In summer conditions we would each aim for a sub 20 hour run.  Our time taken for stop offs was nearly two and a half hours alone due to the necessity to completely change clothes and reheat (not including Dale's toilet breaks)!  I would like to think that this fact alone shows we were never bungling amateurs, heading into the unknown with promises of glory.  We knew the risks, planned and took appropriate measures to ensure the challenge remained testing but safe (is proper planning not half the challenge?).  In the latter half this run took on more meaning than any challenge I have ever put myself forward for.  Certainly I know that Dale's Bob Graham demons are vanquished for good, and here's to looking forward to the future adventures.  It has been the deepest privilege to share this experience with my best friend.  A friend that I hope the content of this narrative shows, I would trust my life with. 


  1. A fantastic report Rob! An amazing recovery after the Devil's Staircase to finish the whole route when you were clearly hypothermic. Brought back a lot of my own memories of my winter run but I was considerably luckier with the weather than you.

  2. Great read Rob and a super effort from you both.

    Op grapple
    Op resalute
    Were made to soldier on ;-)

  3. Well done Rob. Fantastic effort from you both especially considering the weather. I have always fancied running the WHW in winter. Not really sure I fancy it still after reading this. Too much hard work. :-)
    I hope you both recover well.


  4. A great report of an amazing achievement.

    Anyone who has run at all in really bad weather can really appreciate what you went through for hour after hour.

    Congratulations on having the mental attitude to keep going and make it to the end.

    Well done.

  5. Awesome report of an awesome achievement. Much respect.

  6. Amazing stuff - being out overnight in those sort of conditions must have taken a huge amount out of you both. Great report Rob and well done again.

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  8. Amazing achievement Rob and Dale. I really enjoyed reading your account of the experience.