West Highland Way Race 2019 – crewing for Iona Mackay *Team Bronde* -Guest Blog by Joanna Murphy

I crewed for Iona in the 2018 WHW, this was my first time “crewing” but being able to bring plenty of my own ultra-running experience to the fore, I was confident I could feed and encourage her no problem. That and the fact I was also accompanied by Neil MacNicol who is a better than average runner (and also Ionas coach). What makes a good crew? Personally I think having running experience and knowing your runner inside out are important. It is knowing what your runner needs without them communicating that to you.

2018 was a success and Iona was 4th female in a time of 21hours and 2 minutes. This was a superb time and both runner and crew were delighted, however as her own worst critic, she wanted better. Less than 24 hours after completing it, 2019 was agreed upon. Armed with new found confidence, the training kicked off in late 2018 with all road/trails/hills leading to Milngavie.
Our friendship first blossomed at the 2016 WHW race when we were both racing it and ended up running the Loch section together. Since then we’ve become loyal training partners and crew for each other. Iona and I ran 20 hours of the Glenmore 24 race together last year so it’s safe to say we are pretty well acquainted with each other – the good, the bad and the ugly!

Trained hard and smart

Iona has always viewed herself as an inferior runner to many others out there but what she doesn’t know is that she inspires me to better myself and challenge my capabilities. I know there are many others who see her name on the start list and think “contender”. When she completed the 2018 WHW race, it was only then that she believed she could really compete (she forgets her numerous previous podium positions and somewhat plays them down).
We trained through the winter, hitting the trails after work armed with our head torches to bag the obligatory “long runs” after work. Fife, Alloa and beyond….you could say we got around a bit!
By the time December came round, Iona (and I) were both a bit scunnered by the darkness and just winter in general – Meh! Iona had ploughed the miles in but as a result felt constantly tired. However, the turn of the year saw the improvements. Winter miles, summer smiles and all that.
Iona was complimenting the running with her strength training and it was beginning to show – leaner, stronger and fitter. I was not at all jealous 😉

With the Falkirk 8hr race in February, that was to be the real test of the winter training. I went along to crew for Iona, with our trusty sidekick Derek Fish. His chat is alright I suppose. Iona ran a strong and consistent race to bag just shy of 50 miles and place 1st female. The early rises, speed work, mileage and commitment had paid off. Iona is modest though and played down the win, claiming a lot of the big names weren’t there. Got to be in it to win it though girl!

Next up was the Fling. Sub 10 was the goal and she scored! Conditions were wet and she improved by over 10 minutes on her 2018 time but I sensed disappointment from her as she knew there was more to give. Competitive Mac was starting to show…and I liked it!
She wanted more elevation in the lead up to the WHW so we hit the hills. Mid May the trusty trio of Iona, Derek and I headed to Fort William to bag some Munro’s. You could say I was lacking hill fitness but one thing that was for sure, those two weren’t! An 8 hour bonanza taking in 5 Munros and 20 miles on the Saturday was the mental and physical challenge needed ahead of the WHW. We also had Ben Nevis for breakfast the next morning (which nearly finished me off).

A penultimate long run in the Ochils with Iona really showed her current form as she bounced off up the hills, running sections that historically she would have walked. This was the best shape I had seen her in. I felt like a proud parent.
Race day came around in a flash. Iona and Neil arrived at mine at 1900hours. We loaded up the van and headed to Pizza Hut. Iona had forgotten a minor bit of her kit, only her headtorch – FFS! I was on hand with mine, flat battery and all. What a team we were!

Carbed up, we headed to Milngavie. Iona was in good spirits, a little quieter than normal and I could sense she was nervous at the task that lay ahead. We had agreed that she would get registered and return to the van to chill out away from the hype which can be draining. I went out to deposit the drop bags for her. In truth, I was feeling nervous and didn’t want it to rub off on her so gave her some space. It gave me a chance to mingle and catch up with some of my running buddies.
I returned to the van a short time later, she hadn’t slept but she had lay down and kept the load off which is equally as important. I helped her get organised, encouraged the obligatory “PRP” (no further explanation required).
Race briefing and the famous “there will be weather” statement making its yearly appearance before the runners assembled.

Team Bronde

I knew once Iona was moving, things would fall into a natural rhythm. If there’s one thing she can do, it’s pace herself. This was evident in 2018 when she worked her way up the field the entirety of the race.
Neil and I got a spot at the end of the street before the runners hit the trail. The pics and videos had begun. I do like an Insta story. I love seeing everyone starting their journey. It’s 95ish miles and the only certainty is that you start the race, what happens thereafter is the unknown exciting bit.
We had previously planned to skip Drymen and go straight to Balmaha but couldn’t resist this first unofficial pit-stop. I can admit I am a bit controlling and like to get regular updates to plan ahead for Iona. We got there and waited at the top of the field, by this time, the leaders were well through. There was a lot of heavy breathing and sweating from those that followed. Too early for that carry on I thought! Iona came through as expected. She’s pretty good like that, predictable. She took a small cereal bar, which I’ve no doubt was eaten by the wildlife the following day. She was drinking too. Job done. Onto Balmaha.

We arrived and got a prime spot next to the dibber. By now it was getting light and it wasn’t even 4am. Neil and I organised what we needed for Iona coming it. This is always the first priority. Coffee to be warm enough to drink and porridge to be just right (Goldilocks and the 3 bears style- she’s a diva you know). We then put the kettle on (the luxury of Neil having the van) and watched the front runners coming through.
I got a text from Iona to let me know she was descending Conic Hill. This was my cue to walk the 0.25 miles up the trail (and not a bit further-rules are rules after all). I waited with my BB (Battle Brother) Martin Butcher here who was crewing for James Crozier (a fellow BB). This was the first of me noticing the midges were in full swing. Not the worst I have experienced by any means. James was in first and Iona followed not too long after. I ran in with her and she seemed good. Orange juice went down well, this seems to be a winner every time for Iona (more about that later) but the porridge had set too much (For goodness sake Neil). We walked her out the checkpoint with more snacks and fluids. Head torch was ditched and yellow glasses uplifted. Onwards to Rowardennan.
This is not a mandatory CP but one I think it’s beneficial to go to. Runners are on the Loch a long time so it’s important to ensure a good feed there. More so now with Beinglas shut to support crews. I think this bothered me more than Iona as I like to see her as regularly as possible to ensure she’s fuelling properly. She notoriously bad for “forgetting” to eat.

Rowardennan

As we drove towards Rowardennan we saw Iona on the path, moving well I thought. A toot and a holler out the window was well received!
We arrived, selected a mixture of juice and foods for Iona. This was to be the theme of the day. It was getting warm and we knew hot drinks would be off the menu. Iona came in and was almost bang on to her pacing from the previous year. This was good. She looked well, ate and drank and headed off to tackle the loch. I didn’t have any concerns about her. This is a section that she favours.

Van packed up, Neil and I headed off on our drive to Crianlarich via McDonalds. Neil’s annual trip to the golden arches never disappoints. I, on the other hand am quite the connoisseur.
Neils chat was terrible so I drifted in and out of sleep. He really must take those corners more carefully 😉
We were going to see Iona at Bogle Glen due to the closure at Beinglas Farm. I had got a text from her earlier saying that she had been having a tough time at Inversnaid with sickness. There was talk about possibly requiring me later to run and talk of being behind schedule. Neither Neil or I were concerned about the schedule at this stage and I didn’t take her up on the offer to run later.
I got a further text as she approached the end of the Loch. By this time it was hotting up and her suncream was in our van!
Neil and I grabbed 45 mins kip in the van before walking into the forest to Bogle Glen. Neil looked quite the picture carrying his basket with all the supplies in it.
We arrived in good time.

The basket. Key piece of kit!

By the time Iona arrived, she was not her usual smiley self and somewhat grey about the face. I knew this was down to lack of foods and fluid. I confirmed with her that she had not eaten since the sickness came on, that was about 20 miles ago. She no longer lies to me. We walked the hill with her and tried out best to get the fuel on board. By this point, Iona was a bit deflated. Understandably as she felt her time was slipping away from her but with every low comes a high right? Suncream and midge spray applied also.

Iona got into Auchtertyre, as expected she weighed in less than starting weight, not overly concerning.
We were keeping checkpoint stops to a minimum as too much time can be wasted here but we also had to balance up the need to refuel. We changed her hydration vest for a small waist pack to take some load off. This was a mistake as a text followed a short time later requesting the vest back as the waist pack was not comfortable. Diva status 100.
We made our way to Tyndrum and got Iona a Solero lolly. Kat (who was part of 2018 crew and also 2016) was there to cheer on, this time with baby Jessica who was in her tummy this time last year. I knew this would be a boost for Iona. Iona was looking well when she came through here. The road crossing was its usual busy self so I took it upon myself to stop the traffic to let her cross. Back on duty for 2 mins minus the warrant card or uniform! Grateful that the woman did stop before she knocked me down.

Pep talk

By this time Iona was only 15 mins down on last years schedule. She didn’t seem to be able to process this and felt negatively about her performance. A lot to do with the fact she was suffering an ongoing low.
Onwards to Bridge of Orchy. The sun wasn’t as strong by this point but it was so clammy with little air movement. By now, a lot of the runners were feeling the effects of this.

Iona romped in here looking and feeling the best that she had in the race. Solero’s are a game changer guys.
Iona was able to take a support runner from here but prior to the race, we had discussed that I would not run with her unless absolutely required. I didn’t even get changed and Iona didn’t look for me to run with her. A quick pit stop and then on to Jelly Baby hill. Neil and I headed round to Victoria Bridge, the section after JB hill to allow Iona to brush her teeth and see her before she hit Rannoch Moor. That can be a lonely section and by this point the runners are well spread out. Iona was already feeling it after not having company for most of the race.
Everything was still on target and I was confident Iona’s mood would pick up as the food she now had on board would be kicking in. Neil and I headed to Glencoe where we would meet meet Anne, Ionas mother-in-law who was coming along for the rest of the race. We had a bit of lunch as we realised that we had not been fuelling ourselves properly. Do as I say, not as I do!

I got a text from Iona to say that she had a cold sweat and was sick again. I felt gutted for her as I was not something any of us could control but by this point she was almost 70 miles in, only a marathon to go. I knew she could dig deep, plus she was still on for target time and hadn’t lost any significant time on that section.
She came in with a couple of other runners, in good spirits. Phew! She had previously requested hot food to be available here but we didn’t get her any as we knew she would not eat it. She also spat out her pasta pot. I knew real food was going to be an issue so gels and sweets were now the default. A change of top was had here too, I find this helps and freshens you up. Again we didn’t let Iona stop, she walked in and out of the checkpoint. This might sound harsh but there was no requirement to stop and sit down, those would only be precious minutes wasted.
Again a support runner was allowed but both Neil and I did not feel it necessary. We would review this at Kinlochleven. By now I had exchanged a few texts with Craig (Ionas husband) who told me he had missed a few calls from her. I knew she was low if she was phoning Craig for sympathy 😉 Tough love is often what is required and Craig is able to administer this.

Onwards to Altnafeadh to see Iona before she headed up the Devils staircase. I gave her some trusty OJ which I was later told bounced off her stomach a short time later. I am not sure she had anything left in her body by this point. She still ran off with a smile on her face and a spring in her step. We would see her again in 7ish miles.
Round to Kinlochleven we went. We made a trip to the shop for snacks and then to the chippy. I had put my order in for chips and curry sauce and a chaser of a single sausage. Almost right on cue I got a text from Iona complaining of blurred vision and a migraine. Panic! She had taken a while to message as she could hardly see her phone. I immediately felt guilty for not running that section with her as I was sure I could have helped. There was no point dwelling, it was what happened from now that was important. She was reduced to walking from the top of the staircase down to Kinlochleven. This is about 5 miles. This would be the hour she lost on her 2018 time.
After getting the text, I cancelled the chips and took the sausage to go. No way I could cope with my sickness in addition to hers. I laced up my trainers and headed off to locate her. I found myself complaining about the gradient as my breathing was laboured and my calves on fire. I had a chuckle to myself and reminded myself I was 1 mile in whilst Iona was about 77 miles in. I met with her on the trail about 1.5 miles up. We both burst into tears and had a hug. I felt gutted for her but I knew it was not over. We walked it in and chatted. Iona had allowed negative thoughts to take over but a kind reminder about the current situation seemed to provide some perspective.
By the time we reached the CP, the mood was lighter. Iona was weighed in and we took the time we needed. Her vision was back to normal. I think the combination of being stressed, sick and lack of hydration all added to this.
There was silly talk of walking it into the finish. I knew we would be running the Lairig Mor, just as we did in 2018.

We hiked up the climb out of Kinlochleven, a new target was set of 22 hours. I didn’t actually relay that to Iona but I knew we could dig deep for that. We chummed up with Andy Jannetta who was doing his first WHW and his support runner, Karen Kennedy. This was a good distraction and the company that Iona needed. We soon reached the top of the climb, stopping for a few pictures.

We played a bit of cat and mouse along this section. Iona was now on board with running what we could and walking hills. This is always an effective way to cover the miles at this stage. We picked points and ran/walked to them accordingly. At one point we had a train on the go, I called it the Fife train but Iona sharply reminded me she’s no Fifer! No offence taken.

Before long we could see the famous orange flags of the mountain rescue spot manned every year by the awesome Jeff. Iona put her request in for an orange soda “who likes orange soda?” I yelled, she replied “Kel likes orange soda” “I do, I do, I do, I do oo”. A few lines from Keenan and Kel (yes we are still young pups). Iona was laughing and that to me was a win at nearly 88 miles. We trucked on to Lundavra. The sky was truly beautiful and warm enough to be in a t-shirt. No other place I would rather be. We had a stowaway on board our train in the guise of Brian Davis. He was following my orders I was dishing out to Iona.

We reached Lundavara and didn’t hang about long as the midges were bad.
We set off again and I tried to encourage the consumption of a pan au chocolate, one of Ionas favourites. I’d be lucky if one mouthful went down. There was still gagging happening so we decided if nothing else gets eaten or drunk, it wasn’t the end of the world at this stage. I led from here and Iona followed on. When I ran, she ran. When I walked, she walked. She really is a good student. I looked back every so often and I could see she was feeling it. I talked most of the way, not looking for responses but just reminding her of how well she was doing, knowing that some of what I said would help, subconsciously.

Our new friend, Brian had asked Iona if I was a teacher as he found me bossy! This made me laugh. I am not a teacher but I am bossy so he wasn’t wrong. I told him he could thank me the next day, which he did.

By now we could see the top of the fire track, one more climb and then it was downhill all the way to the finish. Not forgetting the flat mile and a bit along the road on tarmac. A couple of dry boaks from Iona and we were soon motoring down the fire track in the last of the days sun. I couldn’t stop commenting on the sky but got met with grunts and Iona telling me she hated running. That was a lie and she has since told me the sky was spectacular.
I ran ahead, called the boss (Neil) and let him know we were on the last leg (or Ionas last legs rather).
Brian pulled away. Iona maintained a good pace and we passed Andy J and his squad again. By now Martin was running with him. If there’s anyone going to get you to the finish quickly, it’s him. (Probably because you speed up to get away from his singing – just kidding BB).

We hit the tarmac and Ionas emotions were taking over. We kept moving, by now the light was fading and she was so close. Not knowing exactly how far the finish was is a big thing at this stage in a race. An extra half a mile feels like forever. We passed the old finish point, crossed the road and Neil was out to meet us on the main road. We ran in together, a bit of a confusing finish with the twists and turns and then into the main hall. Iona stopped dead at the door, unsure where the finish line was, before seeing it in the middle of the hall and dibbing her dobber. It was over, 22 hours and 15 minutes of running.

One things for sure, Iona had been on a journey. I for one know that she would not have been able to pull out a time like that a few years ago with 60 miles of sickness. This was testament to her current fitness level and made this finish one of her most impressive for that reason. There is no doubt in my mind that a sub 20hr 30min run would have been had if things had gone “to plan” but it’s these obstacles that make Ultra running so fun. It is a cruel sport at times but one which makes you come back stronger and more determined. There is a lot to be said for experience. It is having that ability to overcome adversities during a “bad” race that are impressive.

I can add “gutsy” to Ionas descriptors now. I think with some reflection, Ionas disappointment will turn to pride.

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