Love long distance!

The 2012 West Highland Way Race takes place this weekend, starting at 1am on Saturday 23 June. The start time alone makes it an interesting and difficult concept, but the object of the race is simple; you start at Milngavie Railway Station (slightly north of Glasgow) and run, jog or walk to Fort William Leisure Centre in (you guessed it!), Fort William, by noon on Sunday 24 June.

In a nutshell, it’s 35 hours to cover 95 miles including 14,760ft of ascent. So, in the words of the famous Meerkat: Simples!

Along the way, competitors must pass through checkpoints with time limits, and in order to participate they must have their own motorised backup, consisting of at least two people, one who must be capable of covering the last two sections with them (or find them if they get lost!!), if assistance is required, or during the hours of darkness.

It’s a crazy, amazing, stunningly beautiful event (check out some of the videos and pictures on the event website) and quite rightly, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The fast approaching 2012 edition did get me thinking however, about how running, jogging and even walking can be done in so many varied formats that why would anyone considering anything else?

Just under a fortnight ago I took part in a slightly less extreme event myself, but with impressive credentials nonetheless!

The Welsh Castles Relay is a long distance event over 200 miles and 20 relay stages from Caernarfon Castle in the north of Wales to Cardiff Castle in the south. It takes place over two days, with each stage measuring between eight and a half miles and 13 miles approximately. The terrain switches from narrow country lanes to mountain trails and the scenery, just like the West Highland Way, is enough to take your mind off the effort, even just for a brief second!

I was a Welsh Castles virgin. Many of the guys in our team had done it for years and there were stories aplenty of years gone by. Not all of these actually involved running, and for some the high points came from the camp site antics after dark or the support crews en route.

I was on stage 15 which was 12.8 miles. Somehow, having come into the squad as a replacement, I ended up with the second longest leg of all. I claim to enjoy half marathons so I couldn’t really go back on my word after enthusiastically offering to get involved!

I won’t lie; the toughest part of the day was finding the start line. It’s not entirely ideal when the race pack documentation states that the start postcode is approximate to the venue and not exact. The fact that it took me (and another few cars) to a deserted lay-by on the edge of a military base was, again, not ideal.

Eventually, having collectively agreed to move on, we met a walker who pointed us in the right direction. We were nowhere near. Still, I was (somewhat surprisingly after a country tour which involved single track roads with sleeping sheep) on time and raring to go. The prospect of running uphill for the first half mile wasn’t a great one, but I was reassured by an old-timer/more experienced Castles campaigner, that there was more downhill running than uphill and that the worst hill I’d encounter would be at ten miles. Perfect, just the right point in a race to get hit with the wrong side of undulation.

As you’ll all have figured out I’m sure, you tend to know within the first few minutes of a run how you’re going to feel, and I’m happy to report that this was one of the good times. I hit a nice rhythm and stuck to it. I hadn’t done any specific half marathon training, the lure of a team relay perhaps distracting me from the seriousness of a long distance event, but I knew I was in decent shape and as I got going, I started to really enjoy it. What was best however, was the relentless support from the team crews along the way; every team (and there were 60 I think), had support crews and while some were in cars tooting their horns and shouting support from their windows, others were in camper vans with bells ringing and music blaring. It was a real eclectic mix of people from across the country but the support was unanimous, regardless of club vest or standard.

I loved it, and after the excitement of finishing first lady (and the relief of eventually reaching the top of the ten mile hill) and being awarded a pretty ghastly (but nice to have!) yellow jersey as stage winner, I jumped in the car to follow my club mates to the next stage and give back some well deserved support!

I’ve written before about relay races, but there’s definitely something to be said for being part of a team and sharing the highs and the lows (which there were plenty of - literally - in the Welsh mountains!). There’s also something to be gained from branching out onto slightly less common ground and experiencing the true versatility of our sport.

The beauty of these events is that they can turn a race into far more than just a performance and you don’t have to be the best guy on the start line or even in the team; you can revel in the success by simply being part of a team or a unique event and embracing all that has to offer!

Good luck to the 240+ who will take to the West Highland Way in Scotland this weekend. You’ve already come a long way from the few dozen who started each race a decade ago.