What’s it like to run the West Highland Way Race?
Graham MacBroom completed in his first West Highland Way Race this weekend. He reveals the lows and highs of the iconic 95-mile Scottish ultra-distance race.
Graham, 41, of Cumbernauld, has been running on and off for a number of years and has been focused on ultra-distance events for the past three years. He enjoys the long-distance challenges and has made great friends.
He says: “The people in the ultra distance community are great. Everyone looks out for everyone, from the race snakes to the back runners. In fact, I could not have done my WHW Race without their support.”
Graham has previously completed the 43-mile mile Devil o’ The Highlands 2014, the 33-mile Glen Ogle race in 2014 and 2015, the 53-mile Hoka Highland Fling 2015, the Glencoe Skyline 2015 and the Glenmore24 (12-hour Race).
First time in WHW Race
The West Highland Way Race (95.28 miles) has been a long time coming for Graham. He first heard about it 24 years ago when he chanced upon a few runners crossing the main road just south of Tyndrum. He says: “A friend said it was a race on the West Highland Way and since then it has been somewhere at the back of my mind.
“To be honest, though, I never thought I’d run it. For most of those years I just day-dreamed about it but then, as I started longer distance running, I began to think: ‘Why not stop dreaming and give it a go?’ ”
With a busy family and work life, Graham has needed to be smart about his training for the WHW Race.
He runs about five days each week, with a couple of runs at 5.30am before work. He includes two speed/hill sessions, a longer, slower run of three to five at the weekend and a couple of easy-paced runs in between.
Graham mostly trains with his ultra runner friends. He says: “I have a group of about 10 or so people who also run longer distances so there’s usually someone available to run with me. Luckily, most of them run before work like me. Some even earlier than me! The community of ultra runners has been great for me.”
One of his running friends is James Stewart. He won this year’s WHW Race at his first attempt. He finished in 15 hours, 15 minutes and 59 seconds. Read his blog.
Graham ran many of his longer weekend training runs on the West Highland Way route and having completed both the Devil o’ the Highlands and The Fling he has become familiar with the trail and the terrain. But nothing can really prepare you for running the full 95 miles in one go.
The day of the race
Graham, who wears Hoka Challenger ATR 2 shoes, describes feeling a mixture of excitement and nerves on race day. But as soon as the runners started, leaving Milngavie behind to run northwards to Fort William, his nerves settled down.
He says: “My plan was to run my own race and not to think about anyone else’s race and pace. I wanted to control my effort by not getting out of breath and not getting caught up and carried away with anyone else. I managed to stick with my plan and I think that paid off.”
The biting midges
However, there were many difficulties to deal with. The first low came between Rowardennan and Inversnaid on the shores of Loch Lomond.
Graham says: “I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors and I’ve camped all over Scotland but I have never seen anything like the midges that I experienced on Loch Lomond during the race.
“I had my buff pulled down over my face and had to try to stretch it to see if I could see through it. They were awful.”
Obviously, tiredness in ultra distance races can be very tough. Graham says: “When tiredness comes it is really bad. All you want to do is walk or sit down but you know you have to keep moving on. You tell yourself that every step forward is step closer to home.
“When I look behind me and see people catching up it always makes me move that little bit faster but I guess it’s a game of will because the person behind will probably be keen to reel me in as well.
“At those times I just think of all the early mornings and hard work I’ve put in to get here and that if I don’t get a move on I’ll regret it. I never want to let myself – or anyone else – down so I dig deep and move forwards.”
The unknown mileage
The most that Graham had run in one go before was 63 miles so a 95-mile race was an unknown. He says: “Someone said to me at the start of the race that I shouldn’t worry because once your legs ache so much they don’t ache anymore.
“I think this is true because your legs do hurt and you do want to stop but if you just keep moving and push on through that barrier – and stay in the rhythm as long as you can – it’s as if they go numb or you just get used to the pain and keep going.
“It’s weird but when you are hurting the miles seem to go by as if you are in autopilot.”
The warm weather
Scottish weather is fickle and on race day it was unusually warm and sunny. Graham says: “The heat on Saturday was horrendous with Rannoch Moor being especially unbearable. There was no shade from the sun and at mid-day it felt like a foreign country.
“My crew were soaking my buff and hat in water at every opportunity to keep me cool.”
But there were good times, too
One of the highlights of the race for Graham was seeing his wife Joanne and children, Grace and Owen, at the Glencoe Ski Centre car park as he ran though.
Graham’s eating plan also went well. He found he could tolerate a mix of foods including Soreen malt loaf with butter, pasta soups, crunchy nut porridge pots, bananas and even part of a sausage supper at Kinlochleven.
He was very thankful for his brilliant support crew, too, including his brother Stewart MacBroom and friends Paul McNair, David Inverarity, Raymond Quinn (who completed the race last year), Greg Beattie, who completed it in 2014) and other people who Graham runs regularly with.
Finishing could not have felt sweeter. Graham came home in a very respectable 22:39:29. He was 48th of 159 finishers.
Although he’s understandably still tired two days after the event, Graham says he feels better than he imagined he would. He says: “I got a massage straight after the race, which hurt like hell, but I feel it has helped and, thankfully, the blisters on my feet have died down.
“It’s such an iconic race and it certainly lived up to everything I’ve ever read and dreamed about.”
The next race
Graham says he would like to do the race again but for now he is focusing on a second attempt at the Salomon Glen Coe Skyline race in September. He says: “I completed it last year but admit I underestimated it so I’m going back to hopefully learn from my mistakes.
“I got it all wrong on the day with nutrition and paid for it with stomach issues and severe cramp in both legs over the last 17 miles. That was my toughest day ever. I’d like to do better this year.”
Graham’s five WHW race tips
- Do your homework and train on the route or similar terrain.
- Be prepared to be on your feet for a long time. That sounds obvious but it really is a very long time.
- Eat even when you feel you can’t because it will make a difference.
- Have a solid support crew around you that know what you need even when you don’t.
- Take a midge net.
Well don to everyone else who took part in the West Highland Way Race 2016. Lizzie Wraith was the first female and fourth overall in 17.42.27.Norma Bone aged 64 became the oldest to complete the race. The last person home had been running for an incredible 33 hours and 39 minutes.