06 July 2012

West Highland Way Race - race report (DNF)

I'm back home after the two-week trip to Scotland and London.  This has giving me plenty of time to reflect back on the race and my first ever DNF.  

As I sit here to write this, I'm finding that I don't really want to re-visit the emotions I had at the end of the race after I had torn my calf muscle.  I generally try to deal with disappointment - or similar - in full during the present, then move forward full-steam ahead as soon as possible.  There's no sense dwelling on it longer than necessary; what's happened has happened and there's nothing to be done about it now. But that's the easy part, I think. The more delicate task is trying to capture just the right amount of that disappointment to use as motivation for future race (or life) moments. I think that's where I'm at right now -- trying to find that perfect balance of my West Highland Way Race experience to use to my advantage for the rest of my life.

When I discovered as a young child that my name McMurtrey is of Scottish origin (and so is my mother's name, Ferguson) I've wanted to go to Scotland. When I started getting serious with ultras in 2007 I googled best ultramarathons in the world and found a site that listed "West Highland Way, Scotland" as one of the top ten. Within a few minutes I had also come across "My Heart's in the Highlands." This race immediately went to the top of my to-do list.  

But it took awhile to find the right time to take the big trip over.  Having a crew commit to come with me has always been the biggest hold-up. It's easy to travel by myself, and even relatively easy to find friends and family crew for my big races in the States, but making a trip to Scotland required a huge commitment from at least two others at their own expense. I set things in motion last summer, and somehow everything just clicked to make it possible for me to make the trip and run the race.  In fact, it was sort of a perfect storm situation as I ended up having four crew members travel to Scotland for me!: Annie, my girlfriend; Megan, my sister; Aaron, a friend I met last summer who had been wanting to travel to Scotland for years; and Joe, a friend who recently moved to Germany and could make the relatively easy hop over to Scotland.

I'm not going to say this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but it is definitely a tough and expensive one to compete in from the States.

So, to say this race had been built up in my mind is an epic understatement. 

My training had been very good, my build-up races went extremely well, and I felt as strong as ever.  Judging the little bit of information I received about the course from all the photos I could find, race reports I read, the course profile, and previous WHW results, I anticipated that if everything went very well on race day (weather, fueling, etc.) that 20 hours may be reachable, and that 24 hours was a very reasonable goal. I told my crew I was roughly shooting for 22-24 hours.

Milngavie to Checkpoint #1 Balmaha 
(0 - 19.6 miles)

Saturday, June 23rd, 1:00 am. 

I'm not sure if anyone squeezed in any hours of sleep prior to the 1:00 am start -- I'm sure I didn't. We arrived in Milngavie around 10:30 p.m.  Enough time to register and sit in the car for 2 hours to try to deal with the nervous excitement bubbling in my gut. The energy buzzing around the train station was increasing rapidly as 1:00 am drew near. 

So far so good!

The weather had been a big concern the week of the race, and the forecast was predicting a very wet weekend.  There were a few drizzles here and there, but the start of the race was as dry as anyone would be for the next two days. Temperatures were mild and I decided to run (wet or not) the first 20 miles in a short sleeve shirt and shorts. I knew that early on I'd put off enough heat that I wouldn't want to wear my waterproof jacket; I'd rather run a little cool and wet than "dry" and warm. I'd save my outerwear for later in the day if my body temp started dropping.

All geared up and ready to go.
(photo by Joe King)
Excitement at the train station tunnel

The Start.
You can see my bright yellow shoes
a couple rows deep on the left.
(photo by Joe King)

The first couple miles were dry and dark and uneventful.  Most of the path was wide and flat. At this point everyone is still bunched up together and it was fun hearing all the excited voices. It seems everyone knew everyone else; I felt like a very welcome outsider at a family reunion. The early stages of these races really are a lot of fun as everyone's hopes are sky high despite the knowledge that there's a lot of unknowns ahead.

Then the rain came down. And kept coming.  And then got even wetter.  I settled into the back end of a line 10 people deep through the wet darkness. Big puddles and fat rain.  There was even minor flooding across one stretch of road we ran for awhile.  

I regretted carrying my hydration pack because it ended up being dead weight for during this first section; if I was thirsty, I only had to tilt my head back and open my mouth. 

There were a couple spots in the first 20 miles where crew members could have access to runners. I told my crew not to worry about me for the first section and that I'd just see them at the first checkpoint (they were required to meet me at all checkpoints).  Around mile 12 (the second of the two crew access points), it seems everyone in front of me stopped in to meet their crew. So as I pushed through the quite crowded parking lot and onto the trail I was alone for the first time.  The rain was still coming down quite hard and there was still no sign of the sun coming up. 

The West Highland Way is marked well, but there were definitely moments in the dark (and in the light later on in the day) when I would stop for a few seconds or even a few minutes to wait for someone to come up the trail behind me just so I confirm that I was in fact still on the right course.  It's a lonely feeling being on a path you've never been on before in the middle of the night during a rain storm. So I'd wait and when I'd see a headlamp pop out from the trees or from over a hill I'd press on.

One of the most memorable moments of the race had to be the climb up Conic Hill around mile 17. I imagine that on it a good day it was a fairly steep and rocky climb -- but on this day the path was literally transformed into a fast-flowing creek because of all the rainfall.  I felt like I was climbing up a waterfall for much of it. The path was covered with so much water (often well above the ankles) that you couldn't help but laugh and remind yourself of the ultrarunner's mantra: if it were easy then everyone would do it.

At the top of Conic Hill the sun started to shed some light and there were gorgeous and calming views of Loch Lomond below.  I tiptoed down the slick and steep descent and into Checkpoint #1.  According to the post-race splits, I came through 18th out of some 170 starters.  

First light over Loch Lomond

With my crew - Annie and Joe. A tad wet.
(photo by Aaron Whiteman)

I changed my socks in Balmaha. What a joke! Not more than 200 yards later they were soaked all the way through. That was my only sock change of the day.  I did try to change my shirt at each stop -- it was much faster and mentally it felt like I had gotten ride of a lot of water weight even if it was just for a few hundred yards before it was soaked through too.

Balmaha to Checkpoint #3 Auchtertyre 
(19.6 - 50 miles)

Now that the sun was up (but still unseen behind the rain clouds) I felt like I could run forever. I could finally see Scotland and the WHW!  I was actually running the race and I could now look around and see the course I'd been dreaming about for the last few years. It truly was exciting and lifted my already high spirits even higher.  

I took extra care to focus on an even effort and conservative pacing. I relaxed on inclines and tried to float down declines. When pressed from behind, I stepped aside to give way and fought whatever urge I had to keep up or to push my pace based on someone else. I know these races are long, and unless you're fighting for a top spot, there really is no reason to get too competitive. So I kept running my own race.

I wasn't going to see my crew until Checkpoint #3 which was a full 50k away from Balmaha. Mentally, I treated this section as though I was on one of my many 50k training runs during the months before the race -- alone and self-sufficient. I had a pack full of water and food.

This section spent most of the time winding along Loch Lomond.  There seemed to be a lot of tree coverage on this section too, so the rain didn't seem as bad as the exposed sections.  Of particular note along the Loch was the rocky, rooty technical section that was probably only about two miles long but seemed closer to ten. With the addition of the driving rain, that rocky section was some of the more technical stuff I've been on. I tried to use the rocky section to slow down and mentally recharge for the long miles ahead.  

Sweet single-track along the Loch

Yep, this is the trail.

This was one of the permanent waterfalls.
There seemed to be many additional temporary waterfalls
and water crossings cause by the heavy rains.
Some roots thrown in for good measure.

One of my favorite views from the day.

First class accommodations for scaling a stone wall.

Memorial post for former RD.
It's a beautiful spot.
(Notice the water-filled trail down below.)

I hit Checkpoint #2 (mile 41) in 8:01 and in 17th place. I was tired of course, but feeling strong and confident that my training was going to pay off.  No crew was allowed at this checkpoint and I passed through without stopping while a few others were looting their drop bags. 

I spent the better part of the next ten miles without seeing another soul. Lots of sheep. Lots of cows. Lots of water puddles. I did give a young hiker a mild heart attack when I came up behind him. The startled look on his face was enough to give me something to giggle about for the next 30 minutes or so.

Heading up into the clouds.

Ah, Scotland.

This is what a wet smile looks like
around mile 47 or so.

Some views are worth stopping for.

Nearing Auchtertyre.

Approaching Checkpoint #3
(photo by Aaron Whiteman)
Arriving at Checkpoint #3
(photo by Joe King)
Arriving at Checkpoint #3.
Annie in yellow jacket, Megan in red gloves.
(photo by Joe King)

I arrived at Checkpoint #3 (mile 50) in 10:08 and in 19th place.  I was hungry. I took my first break of the day to eat a sandwich and salty snacks.

My crew was awesome. I think the weather was harder for them to deal with than it was for me. I'm use to running in bad weather. Maybe not this much rain (it was a lot of rain), but in very bad weather. I pride myself knowing that when the winter weather in Pullman is really bad that I may be the only one running around town after work when the sun has already set and my eyelashes are freezing together.  Clearly I would rather be running in the bad weather than crewing for a crazy runner. I'm forever grateful for them to sacrifice their time and energy to wait on me and pamper me through ungodly hours and ungodly weather.

Auchtertyre to Checkpoint #4 Bridge of Orchy 
(50 - 59.5 miles)

As expected, my pace was slowing by this point and I was starting to get cold. I left the checkpoint with my jacket on, but I quickly got too hot and threw it to my crew when I saw them briefly two miles later.

During this section I kept telling myself "go easy, go slow, there's still a long way to go," so I spent extra time hiking. I felt strong and was tempted to push a little, but I was very happy with where I was at this point and in no hurry. 

This was a gorgeous section. But I was beginning to struggle. I was definitely hitting one of my low points. I think being wet was finally starting to get to me, and I was starting to get a little cold again. I ate an extra GU and tried to use the surrounding landscape as motivation, but by the time I plopped into Checkpoint #4 at Bridge of Orchy I was feeling a little grouchy and impatient.  12:29, 19th place.  I threw on a dry shirt and my jacket, shoveled some food into my face, loaded my pockets with GU and pushed on.  Just keep moving.

I can think of worse places to run.

Just crossing the bridge at Checkpoint #4.
("Can someone remind me why I do these things?")
(photo by Aaron Whiteman)

Bridge of Orchy - Glencoe Ski Area (59.5 - 71 miles)

The beginning of the end.

It wasn't a single misstep, but somewhere around mile 66 or so a tightness in my left leg turned from the normal I've-just-run-66-miles tightness to something that felt wrong.  I rather quickly went from stopping every five minutes to stretch my calves and hamstrings (wasn't sure exactly where the pain was coming from at that point) to not being able to run at all. I'd try to run then twenty yards later I'd be forced to stop because of the pain.  Not good. This isn't what I had planned at all.

I tried to keep my composure, and I convinced myself that this was just my normal hurt and that I was just at one of my low points again, that I just needed to push forward and I'd climb out of this soon.  So I put my head down and pressed on. Slowly.  Then even slower.  By mile 69 or 70 the first thoughts of withdrawing started entering my head. I knew something was wrong, but it was hard to pinpoint below all the fatigue and general exhaustion that the rest of my body was feeling.

As others started passing me their greetings gradually changed from "Looking good, keep it up!" to "Is everything okay?"

Just let me get to the next checkpoint, I thought. Let me sit down and get something to eat and get off my feet for a few minutes before I make any drastic decisions.

Running through the mud approaching Inveroran Hotel.
(photo by Aaron Whiteman)

About the point I went from tired to hurt.

Joe walked out to greet me at Glencoe Ski Area.
(photo by Aaron Whiteman)
I arrive at Glencoe in poor spirits.  15:31, 28th place.

Glencoe Ski Area - Kinlochleven (71 - 80.5 miles)

"You've been this low before," said Annie.  "Just keep moving." But I didn't want to move. 

So there I was 71 miles into my much-anticipated 95-mile run through Scotland and the race had just been reduced to simple mathematics: I had 19 hours to travel 25 miles.  Could I walk fast enough? Even if each step I took was painful, and even if I had only one leg?  My crew said, "yes." And I desperately wanted to believe them. 

"Okay, let's go," I said.

Aaron tagged along with me for this section, and Annie was planning on tagging along with me for the last stretch.  From the ski area it's about three miles to the Devil's Staircase where my crew could meet me again.  I started off down the road from the ski area and I was immediately discouraged by how painful my leg was. I think the long break at Glencoe did more bad than good because the pain was now worse. And now very acutely at the top of my calf muscle just where it joins the back of my knee.  About then I told Aaron that I think I may have torn something.

It took over an hour and a half to make it the three miles to the base of the Devil's Staircase. That pace was discouraging, and I sat back in the car for about five minutes to reexamine my options. We quickly figured that even at that pace I would be able to make the last 20 miles within the cutoff time.  So I pressed on again.

The climb up Devil's Staircase was actually a relief. The pain was by far more noticeable and nearly unbearable on a decent. I actually felt strong going up, almost as though there was no pain in my leg. But I knew there was a huge descent on the other side and that's what worried me.

Views from the Devil's Staircase

Climbing up.

This is my happy face.

Aaron walked with me through this section.

Over the top and on my way down.

We crossed the top and started down.  I knew it would be slow and painful.

I was now being passed by dozens (and dozens) of other runners who must have sensed things weren't looking so good for me because many of them didn't seem to believe themselves when they said, "You can make it! Almost there!"

The pain was getting quite bad and I was needing to stop every ten minutes or so for a short break.  My pace was slowing to what seemed like a halt.  Aaron was being a trooper trying to keep my spirits up, and I really am extremely grateful that he was there with me during this section. I was starting to lose my marbles and I imagine that if I was trying to do this section on my own then I would have gone permanently bananas.

We finally dropped down into the trees, which felt like a small victory because we knew Kinlochleven couldn't be much further....right?

We asked one runner, "How far to the checkpoint?"

"One mile, maybe a mile and a half," he said.

A mile later we asked another runner as she zoomed by. 

"Maybe two more miles," she said. 

I was hallucinating signs in the trees that said, "KINLOCHLEVEN -- WELCOME."

I was hallucinating Annie running up the path to check on me.

I was hallucinating car headlights coming up behind us and kept wanting to jump out of the way for them.

I was hallucinating smiley faces on all the rocks on the trail. This hallucination was actually funny (only because I was losing my marbles I suppose).

I could barely move at this point and was getting light-headed and dizzy often.

It took me 7.5 hours to make it the roughly 9.5 miles from Glencoe to Kinlochleven. The last three of those miles surely took nearly half that time.

When we reached the streets of Kinlochleven Aaron was finally okay with leaving me alone and running ahead to get Annie (I desperately needed to see her at this point).  A few minutes later she came running up and I burst into tears from all the emotion that had been building. I had already done the math and I knew that at my current pace I wasn't going to be able to make the final 14 miles in 12 hours. I felt like I had only one leg, and my good leg was going south fast trying to compensate.

I knew this was the end, that I was going to be 14 miles shy of my goal.  I really was devastated there for a few minutes.  I trained so hard, I'd been looking forward to it for so long, people I loved had traveled so far to support me, etc. etc. etc.  But I had no doubts that dropping was the right decision. 

The doc having a look at me. He confirmed that
it was in fact a muscle tear and nothing wrong
with the knee (which had been a growing concern).

Kinlochleven - Fort William (80.5 - 95 miles)   DNF

Looking back, my crew wondered if I should have dropped at Glencoe in the first place, but I was grateful that they pushed me forward a few more miles, because if I had dropped at Glencoe I would have always wondered "Could I have hobbled those last 25 miles under the cutoff time?"  So at the very least I don't have that regret hanging over my head; I know I went as far as I could on that particular day.

The massive disappointment remains, but that's part of running these epic races.  I have no doubt that I'll use this experience to my advantage somewhere down the road.

Two weeks later, I'm at ease with not being able to finish and am now more concerned with how to deal with myself not being able to run for at least a few more weeks. I'm not walking with a limp right now, but running is still out of the question.  Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to make the White River 50 at the end of the month, and likely none of my August races either. 

Will I return to Scotland to have another go at the West Highland Way Race?  Sure, I'd love to, but it's a big endevour to undertake from the States. So right now it's too soon to say.  Annie says our next trip has to be somewhere with no rain and warm, sandy beaches. :)

Even though I didn't finish this one, I really do feel like a part of the WHWR family.

Keep running!



  1. Well done. I am proud of you.


  2. I have never been more proud of you - running-wise - than I was in Kinlochleven. You put everything you had out there on that trail and accomplished 80+ miles AND the quest for finding your limit that day. Well done.

    1. Thanks for helping me push myself to the edge. Even though I didn't finish, it certainly is one of my most memorable experiences on a trail.

  3. I am proud of you. I love you. MOM

  4. Annie, I'm so glad you were there for him.

  5. Scott, you're an inspiration! I'm glad you had everyone there for support. You'll be back and running in no time. Good job and as always great effort!

  6. Thank you for posting this, I really enjoyed reading about your adventure. You are awesome :)

  7. Aaron walked 7 1/2 hours with you? Really? That is a friend.

    1. Yeah, it was pretty awesome of him. Of course, we didn't expect it to take that long...

  8. A great report Scott - and so sorry it didn't work out for you. Loved all the photos, which have me wondering if it really was as wet as I remember (does your camera have a rain filter?) Thanks for the company along the long miles by Loch Lomond & good luck with the recovery.

    1. Thanks, Andy. Great meeting you -- wish we could have chatted over a goblet on Sunday afternoon.

      My camera now has a permanent waterspot somewhere inside the lens...it wasn't waterproof enough I guess. :)

    2. Good to read that again Scott. Fingers crossed for an awesome performance for 2015, with some better weather.

    3. Thanks, Andy. I have a better game plan this time. Finger crossed!

  9. Sorry to hear that you were not able to finish the WHWR, but it sounds as if you pushed yourself as far as was possible on the day. What a great effort! Pictures seem to show that you did enjoy yourself on the WHW until you got injured. Hopefully you'll be back some time to collect your goblet! Speedy recovery. Silke

    1. Thanks! I hope to be give it another go sooner rather than later. The WHWR really does have some magic about it. Congrats on your goblet!

  10. Wow!! Scott, thank you for sharing that emotional race report. I followed your progress on the race website and figured it was something serious when I saw the DNF. That being said...rain,mud,hallucinating,and a torn calf....and you still covered 80 miles! You are one tough Ultrarunner. Get some rest and don't rush through the calf rehab. The trails will be waiting for you.

    1. Thanks, Mike. It was definitely one of my most emotional finishes. I'm itching so bad to get back out on the trails already -- this sitting around for a few weeks is tougher than all the races I have done!

  11. I'm so soryy to read that this race didn't go according to plan, but so impressed by your attitude to disappointment. What a great family and friends you have to support you! Hope you're back to full fitness soon.

    1. I do have the best family and friends. No doubt. :)

  12. So terribly sorry to read about your injury! But still what an incredible achievement and experience. Enjoyed your writing and pics. Here is to a speedy recovery!

  13. Scott, I know it has been a long time since we talked, but man I wanna be like you when i grow up. Keep doing what you do man. Adam

    1. Thanks, Adam. I think back to those days with you on Eskan a lot. That's when I was certainly at my most bad-ass. :) Hopefully we can meet up next time I head your way.

  14. Right now the DNF hurts...deep. Time will only allow you to grow a deeper passion and the gifts you received on this journey will be enjoyed for a lifetime!

    1. Thanks, R.

      Fuel for the fire, that's how I'm trying to use it. :)

  15. You have me crying right now. I'm so sorry that you got hurt. It sucks so bad. You have no idea how motivating you are though. I'm not surprised at all that Annie, Megan, Aaron, and Joe wanted to go crew for you. I'm so proud of you! I love you! Cheese! Also, I love that you were giggling about the hiker you scared. Giggling. Hehe.

    1. Thanks, Mel. It really means so much to me that I have a family that supports me as much as you do. (friends too!) I don't think I would be able to do what I do and pursue my passions for this sport without knowing that I'm not alone on my quests.

  16. Epic report, even though you didn't get what you came for. In time, however, that could differ...

    Great work, and as always, great insight into the race via pics.

  17. your race reports are always so inspiring!! i can't imagine how you felt out there and then making the decision to stop...but you did the right thing. gotta live to run another day!! even w/ a DNF, i'm still am in awe of you and think you are amazing. heal up fast, i need another race report!

    1. It's healing up fast! Next race report tbd! :)

  18. I'm sorry about the dnf, the injury, and the disappointment. You always have such a great attitude though... you'll be back at it soon. :) And what a beautiful course... I am (largely) Scottish too and have never been to Scotland, so if you need an extra crew member for the next attempt, let me know!

    1. Thanks, Holly. But wouldn't you rather run it too instead of crewing? :)

    2. I can't even run 50km these days, let alone 100 miles. But is the course first-timer friendly?

    3. It's not the easiest 100-miler out there, but I think it is first-timer friendly. Climbing is minimal (compared to the mountains you run in), and most of the trail isn't very technical - but the technical sections are pretty technical. Tempting, isn't it? :)