With race season in full swing, numerous running events took place in June, but few would surpass the iconic West Highland Way Race. 95 punishing miles set over the stunning West Highland Way in Scotland, it’s one of the most challenging events on the ultra race calendar. Starting at Milngavie Railway Station just north of Glasgow, competitors can run, jog or walk along the West Highland Way route to the leisure centre in Fort William, provided they finish within the 35-hour time limit.
With 14,760ft of ascent, timed checkpoints, enforced motorised backup and compulsory accompaniment for the final sections, it’s not for the faint-hearted. But one runner knew what to expect. 36-year-old Scottish 100km champion Paul Giblin from Paisley, AKA Pyllon, who set a new record last year in an incredible 15 hours 07 minutes and 29 seconds, was back to fight for his title.
When not managing the Digital Media team at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games the Scottish mountains are his playground, but Giblin was not in for an easy ride. 27-year-old rising ultra star Robbie Britton from South East England was in town determined to rob Giblin of his title, and even in the beginning sections the chase was on.
Following a neck-and-neck race with Britton in the lead for the first half, Giblin overtook Britton at the Auchtertyre checkpoint, retaining his title and setting a brand new record in a remarkable 14 hours 20 minutes and 11 seconds in the process. So what drives someone like Giblin to run such extraordinary distances? We speak to the man himself about running, nutrition and race day strategy.
What did you think about during the race? Did you focus on form or let your mind wander?
I think about my form a lot. I try to stay in the moment rather than letting the mind wander too much. It’s too risky when you’re racing that long. If you’re not completely focused you can easily drop your pace for miles before you realise. So not only is it physically taxing there’s a lot going on mentally if you’re to get anywhere close to a course record.
What food/snacks did you eat during the race?
I’m pretty meticulous with race plans so I was well organised. As much as possible I like to keep it natural; food that you actually want to eat and that delivers more than just a short-term sugar rush. I’ve changed things about recently following the testing I’ve been doing with Osmo nutrition’s hydration products. It’s meant I’ve been better hydrated in races and it’s cut out any signs of stomach issues (which are common for ultra runners). The big difference with Osmo is that it’s not trying to feed you carbs at the same time as ensuring there’s enough water in the blood to maintain power and endurance. It’s meant that energy gels are not part of race day at all now and I only take on solids and semi-solids (like HoneyStinger chews and waffles as well as some homemade bars). Leaving the gels at home has taken some convincing but I can’t argue with recent results. It’s certainly seen the end of the energy roller coaster and the highs and lows that the gels provide, which has helped me maintain a more consistent pacing strategy.
What was your favourite section of the race?
The start is always pretty special; 200 runners and a few hundred supporters in a suburban Glasgow car park at 1am. You can sense the nervousness and the excitement with 95 miles of trail ahead. I quite like races that start in the dark, it’s a good way to mark the start of an adventure and the sun coming up is always something to look forward to. Especially when it happens looking onto Loch Lomond. The tricky descent from The Devil’s Staircase in Glencoe is always a favourite too. You get to let loose and you’ve got 80 miles in the bag.
What was the most challenging section for you?
Rannoch Moor is always a tough section and it was no different this year. Some tricky cobbles underneath really test your joints and you can see the long hilly trail stretching out for miles in front. It was just a matter of trying to keep the head down and the pace up. I was glad to see my crew when I finally reached the Ski Centre at Glencoe where I took a minute to eat, drink and prepare myself for the next section and a tough climb.
It was pretty neck-and-neck with Robbie and you shaved an incredible time off your PB, did the competition push you harder than you normally run, or were you always hoping to run sub-15?
A sub-15 was always the plan. Everyone kept telling me how fast Robbie was going to be but I’m no slouch myself and my 15.07 CR from the previous year meant that if he wanted to win it he’d need to go faster than that. I certainly knew I could. We ran the first few hours together and then Robbie pushed on for a while as I recovered from a nasty fall. I caught him again before the halfway checkpoint, kept up the pace and pulled out a decent gap. It was great to have him there - racing hard brings out the best performances in people.
Did you have a race day strategy?
Errrr….of course I did! My races plans are famous - I hear they’ve been going for a song on eBay! Yeah, everything was planned and I broadly stuck with it. It’s a race though, so you need to be able to adapt, react to circumstances and take opportunities where you can.
What drives you to run such mega distances?
I get a huge amount from it. Not just racing though; the training and the solo challenges too. You find out a lot about yourself when you reach the low points and are able to keep going. Even when things have gone wrong and I’ve had to pull out it has always provided valuable lessons. I’ve seen some incredible sights, shared some very special moments and experienced feelings I never knew were possible. None of that would have happened without ultra and I can’t imagine a life without running big distances.
And what keeps you motivated?
For a while I was probably running from things that weren’t great in my life. So, for that time it allowed me to focus on something that was much more straightforward. Now I feel like I’m running towards something better - it’s already provided me with a number of opportunities to live the life I want to lead and I just want more. So I’ll always try to learn to be a better runner and to run faster, further and harder. It’s a hard-wired part of my everyday life now and I can’t see that changing.
What shoes/kit did you wear?
For a race like the West Highland Way I want to go as light as possible, so it’s mostly Nathan’s SpeedDraw and VaporShot handheld bottles and their firecatcher and minimist vests. You can’t really get much lighter or more flexible. The bottles give you a better feel for how much you’re drinking and are easier to manage when you have a support crew.
I’m a barefoot style runner and that really helps when running and training for ultra. I love the NB 110’s - probably my favourite ever running shoe. They’re pretty lightweight and good for 100 miles, although this year I opted for Salomon Sense 3 as they offer a little more protection particularly on the last couple of rocky sections where your feet can be tired / bruised. The team kit was supplied by Mountain Hardwear.
Do you have any lucky charms or superstitions for race day?
Yeah. I run my last few training runs backwards. Don’t know why, but makes me feel stronger. No, not really - as long as I’ve got my plan in place and everything sorted that I’ll need for the race I just try to relax as much as possible before the gun.
What do you love most about running long distances?
I get excited by challenges, so I set myself them all the time in training. Going places I’ve never been before, running tougher routes and seeing things you’d otherwise never get the chance to see. I really enjoy the solitude too and the simplicity of running. I can go anywhere with just some running shoes, some water and a map.
Do you do any other cross-training or is it purely running?
It’s mostly running. To work full time in a very busy job and still squeeze in up to 130-miles a week means I don’t really have time for much else. I’m not against cross-training but if you want to be a better runner you need to get quality miles in.
What’s the furthest you ran in training?
In training it’s unlikely you’ll ever do a 100-mile run (unless there’s a particular challenge involved). It impacts your training for the next week so I wouldn’t really see the benefit. So long back-to-back runs are more common in ultra training. Maybe 40 or 50 miles one day and another 25-35 the next.
What did you do to celebrate your win?
Nothing much. There’s a presentation the day after the race where all finishers collect their crystal goblet. This year was pretty overwhelming for me seeing crews and runners on their feet applauding. It felt like the ovation lasted way too long for all it was - winning a race. It’s a special race though and means a lot to people including myself. So it was a special moment. My team boss and sponsors took me (and the crew) out for dinner this week as a low-key celebration. I don’t drink but I can eat, so it was a nice way for us all to take in the result and make plans for the future.
What advice would you give to ultra newbies?
Train hard! The thought of completing an ultra is a romantic one. We see some inspiring videos these days of elite ultra runners completing challenges and winning races, making it look easy. But they’re doing that because they’ve worked hard day after day. They’ve trained on the tired days. They’ve gone out when conditions were horrible. They’ve focused on making improvements in all aspects of their running. That’s what it takes to run an ultra and to run it well. There are no shortcuts, so don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.