Here’s how it unfolded on the day!
The challenge was to run 192 miles as a relay-team on the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Fort William and back in 24 hours. After a lot of talking, sharing and organising, that’s all we had left to do.
November 16 - a small group of supporters and well-wishers had gathered in Milngavie to see us on our way. After some chat and the distribution of some kit and nutrition supplements to the team (kindly supplied by 2pure), you could sense a change in the air. The waiting was over and we were ready to run.
The team that had been selected from within the Pyllon ranks all knew what would be required of them.
Each runner would need to be prepared to run hard 3 or 4 times and leave it all out there on the course. The goal was always ambitious and everyone would have to run every leg harder than they had done before.
The main difference this time was that we’d all have to be there for each other too - for 192 miles, however long that took, to offer encouragement and support and be willing to give more if required!
Pyllon Endeavour was more than a show of strength or individual running ability. It was a demonstration of what we could do together as a team and not just in an athletic pursuit. This was about raising awareness of the benefits of running and community to mental health and well-being. And we chose to support The Scottish Association for Mental Health by raising funds where we could and by having conversations, a lot of which, were online.
Before we started we had already exceeded our donation target which would only to grow as the endeavour progressed. If we needed any further motivation then this was it. The support had been incredible and even a little overwhelming.
At the time of writing this we’ve raised over £10,000 which says so much about the community and the need to continue to have these important conversations about mental health (Link to just giving page).
It was a great way to start, and a real statement of intent, something that only helped to further motivate the rest of the team. As we waited at Drymen (for the first time) prior to James handing over the tracker, Graham Connolly, could be seen pacing the carpark, getting himself mentally prepared for the battle ahead, reminiscent of his cage fighting days! When James handed over to Graham he took off at a furious pace, screaming in to the night sky.
By the time Graham had reached Balmaha and handed over to Paul Giblin, he was emotionally drained. It was clear that the project was very important to Graham and in some way, this endeavour was an extension of Grahams journey through his own mental health challenges. It was more than a personal challenge, he was emotionally invested, and you could see that after his first “dark” section he’d reached a place where he was able to see he wasn’t letting anyone around him down. A path he’s walked once before.
Paul Giblin, 3 x winner of the WHW race took on the next leg, running to Rowardennan, an unforgiving and undulating section of the West Highland Way. At 19:08 (3hrs 8mins elapsed) and after a strong section it was on to John Connolly & Chris Cowley to run a double section from Rowardennan to Beinglas Farm a total of 13.9 miles.
Chris and John discussed tactics before the handover. Chris said “I didn’t appreciate until a few minutes before we set off that I would be running three more times before John would run again, and there would be little point in trashing my legs early on, trying to keep up with somebody who is certainly quicker than me over that terrain.”
They set off on the long loch-side section together, but after a couple of miles John pushed ahead knowing he’d have more time to recover for his next section: “I knew I was acting as insurance; if John turned his ankle, an all too realistic possibility, my run would be the one that counted, and I didn’t want to let anybody down. The good news was that John finished fine, and I came in a few minutes later.”
We were ahead of schedule by Beinglas where Eóin Lennon took over, tearing up the trails on his way to Crianlarich. A few people woke up to those dreaded ‘Oh oh’ Strava emails on Saturday morning, 6 x Strava crowns in one section!
Marco Consani was waiting at this point to take us up to Tyndrum. All along the way the progress was good, each runner chipping away at the projected times and making marginal gains.
By the time we reached Glencoe we had +20 minutes versus the schedule, although we were all too aware of the tough and remote terrain that lay ahead!
Paul ran his second leg and passed on to Chris Cowley who got us safely in to Kinlochleven (KLL), Graham faced his tough second leg and little did he know what lay ahead. After climbing out of KLL, the WHW trail vanished and left him lost on a building site.
“The West Highland Way as I know it, disappeared. I’ve run that section several times whilst training for the the Devil race, and I know it intimately. I can only describe it as a building site and with a limited field of vision due to the head torch I couldn’t pick a point to run towards or get my bearings. Before I knew it I had drifted off course on a service road as time ticked on. Luckily I still had a phone signal and I was able to check my position on the tracking app! I had been running parallel to the WHW but had gone approx half a mile from the WHW itself. I composed myself and started heading across the heather back to the WHW. I’ve never been so happy to see the spooky wee house, I knew I was back on the right path then.”
Marco faced further challenges descending from Lundavra towards the turnaround point in Fort William. Due to ongoing forestry works the trail was difficult to follow at times and a few detours were required to avoid felled trees.
Marco arrived at the statue, marking the end of the WHW at 03:49am with 11hrs49min elapsed. We had originally planned to just run to the Sports Centre which has been the official finish of the WHW race for many years, but decided the day before to do the extra mile or two.
At this point due to the unexpected works outside of KLL, and the forestry operations between Lundavra and Fort William, we lost around 15minutes of our advantage.
On the way back to Lundavra Robert took a wrong turn at Braveheart carpark and then faced the same challenges that Marco had on the way down, he arrived at Lundavra just over our original projected time, having pushed as hard as he could:
“Losing time was tough, but once I got over that climb, I was flying. That single track from the top of the fire road to Lundavra was stunning and witnessing shooting stars and looking at the heavens (when I stopped) was something I will never forget.”
James took us back to KLL and ran straight in to the same ‘building site’ problems that Graham had encountered despite us all now being aware of the issues. Maybe in daylight it wouldn’t have been so bad, but with just a narrow beam from his head-torch James had to stop and contact the support team based in KLL to work out exactly where he was.
After an intense conversation with the team he was guided back on to the WHW with an additional 1.5 miles added on to the total distance, “192 was never enough” quipped James.
From having time in the bank to being well behind schedule, it was back to Chris to power us up the long, steep climb from KLL to the back of the Devils Staircase. It was great to see the support on the course, we even had someone who’d hiked to the top of the Devils Stair case in the middle of the night to welcome Chris as he started his descent of the Devils Staircase.
At this point we all knew that we had lost a significant amount of time. With 3 navigation errors in the dark and the challenging climbs out of both Fort William and Kinlochleven we found ourselves 26 minutes down on our projected 24hr time schedule.
We knew we had it all to do, and there was no easy section or steady running if we were to have any hope of achieving the 24 hour goal we had set.
Paul led from the front, giving it everything he had, running towards Glencoe mountain resort and the rising sun. As he got to the change over point it was time to put away the head torches and leave the tunnel of light that we had spent the last 14 hours running in.
Graham ran strong across Rannoch Moor with the early morning song birds providing the soundtrack to a beautiful Scottish winter sunrise, and the start of some fast daylight running.
Chris awaited at Victoria Bridge, ready to go again, this time he gave everything he had left in him, as this was his last leg of the endeavour.
By the time he came over Jelly Baby hill and descended into Bridge of Orchy he was spent. He collapsed to the ground and took a well earned rest on the tarmac as Marco took off.
We had been eating into the deficit slowly but surely - matching the times we had run the night before despite the tired legs and lack of sleep.
Arriving back in Tydrum with another strong leg from Marco we had just 6hrs and 16 minutes to make it to Milngavie.
Robert and James made short work of the two sections from Bridge of Orchy to Beinglas Farm. At this point James had completed all his planned legs, he’d ran them hard and gave it his all. And he was due his rest.
The long loch-side then awaited Eóin and John. This time John was the back up runner and Eóin would set the pace. After a brief discussion about John’s effort the night before and some analysis of what was required, an ambitious plan to run this section in 1:45 was planted in Eóin’s head. As soon as they left BG Farm Eóin went straight to work, within 2 miles he had opened up a gap to John by 90 seconds.
Eóin arrived at Rowardennan in a brilliant 1:44 and had pulled back 15 minutes on the projected 24 hour plan. John arrived soon after.
At this point we were getting much closer to the projected times and were only 6 minutes behind schedule. But the schedule really was only a guide. We were going to be affected by lack of sleep and the conditions and it was always more difficult to predict potential times especially on the reverse direction than any of the races go. All we had to do was run the remaining sections faster than they had been run the night before. We were getting tired and running out of miles to claw the time back though.
Paul ran another gruelling 7 mile section back to Balmaha. Due to the time of day and the interest in the challenge the crowds and supporters along the home stretch had started to grow. They were a source of encouragement and a much needed lift for the team.
At this point the team discussed an alternative strategy for running the last 3 sections from Balmaha. We decided to break up the 3 sections in to 6 so that every runner could run at maximum effort. Pushing their aerobic capacity to the limit. This is nothing new to the team as we do this on a regular basis during training but not to the extent we were about to attempt.
Paul came charging in to Balmaha. He had run as hard as he could and passed the tracker on to Marco before falling on all fours - trying to take in as much oxygen as possible, trying to replenish those oxygen deprived muscles, he had ran hard and fast.
Marco had the task of getting over Conic Hill and to the carpark just above Drymen in Garadhban forest. The climb was relentless but he made short work of it, shouting at members of the public to get out of his way. If only they knew what he’d undertook in the previous 21 hours.
Graham then ran from there to Gartness, setting a new 5k PB in the process and collapsing in a heap after handing off to the next runner.
It took Graham a few minutes to regain his composure, he had given it everything he had and no more could be asked of him.
Due to the new strategy - splitting the final sections, it required a runner to step up and be counted. Step up James Stewart! With a polite “F*ck it” James ran an additional 5K. Having already emptied the tank on his final leg to BG Farm he was prepared to do it all over again!
And he did. A shorter distance, but at a ferocious pace, running sub 6 miles was at the top end of the spectrum at this stage in the challenge.
We’d had very little sleep in the past 36 hours. Most had assembled at the start in Milngavie straight from work and ready to go, so had already been up for most of the day before we started.
Some of us had managed power naps along the way but were never able to fully switch off. Ready if needed to step in and help out at a moments notice.
We were pushing hard at this point and asking a lot of mind and body - to do the seemingly impossible, and try to make up those precious minutes to achieve the goal we had set ourselves.
At the Beech Tree handover point it was apparent that despite the heroic efforts to pull the time back, it was very unlikely we would achieve the sub-24hr target. But we didn’t dwell on it or hang back in any way. Still hopeful. Still pushing.
Now it was all about making a statement and doing something that would be remembered for many years. This challenge had never been attempted before. We were writing another footnote in the rich history of our beloved West Highland Way, our spiritual home!
Robert ran his final leg at maximum effort. By the time he got to Paul just outside of Mugdock Park he fell to the side of the support vehicle and relieved himself of the contents of his stomach. He literally emptied his tank and more, the sign of a true champion.
Paul had the final 4 miles to run with 17 minutes left on the clock before it struck 4pm.
He pushed hard all the way, again showing why he’s the athlete that he is:
“I ran as hard as I could and it was really hard to see the clock get close to 4pm and I still had too much ground to cover.”
At around 16:06 Paul came in to the tunnel at Milngavie Train station to applause and cheering from a large crowd that had gathered. He’d put behind him the gruelling 7 miles he had ran which had left him in an oxygen depleted stated only 80+ minutes earlier and had run another 4 miles at 6 minute miles pace.
In the end, we were 6 minutes over our target time with an additional 2 miles.
We gathered in a huddle in the tunnel at end. Having started from the same spot 6 minutes earlier the previous day, we took a moment to let the magnitude of the endeavour sink in. We’d given our all and come so very close.
In the end the time wasn’t important, what we had achieved as team will be with us all forever. A once in a lifetime experience. A bunch of people who love to run. Who had an ambitious idea to turn what we love into something bigger. To make a positive difference in our lives and the others around us we know we reached. Our individual all-out efforts ended up bringing us together as a team. New friendships were forged and we all understood (maybe for the first time) that this thing we do called running is more than just competing and racing. We had been totally humbled by the support and had taken on the whole project without ego, or drama - we really had become a team, and will be forever changed by that one day. Our Endeavour.
After the running was over, we all headed to a local pub to sit, to chat and to share. Most who had come out out to see the finish or follow us through the day joined us too. And it was clear to see the strength, warmth and kindness in our small ultra running community. Chris Creegan, Chairman of the Scottish Association for Mental Health was there too and planned to say a few words, but in the end felt it right to just let us all be in the moment. Together. It was a very fitting end to our time together on this project. Chris summed it up when he said:
“Not for the first time this week I was reminded that there is, in fact, no contradiction between strength and vulnerability. We are at our strongest when we are prepared to be vulnerable”
Pyllon Endeavour had one mission, to raise awareness and create a platform for conversation and understanding. We wanted people to know that it was okay not to be okay. That it was good to talk about the mental health and well-being challenges that we all face in our daily lives. In the process, we know we reached many people who opened up to someone. We all became that little bit more likely to listen too.
We’re proud to have raised money for SAMH. As our chosen charity they will benefit from all the great work the whole team did prior, during and post event.
If you have a spare few pounds and can afford it then please head over to our just giving page and give what you can. Maybe you missed it, but it’s not too late and every £ helps.
Looking back on the challenge James Stewart said
“The Pyllon Endeavour started off as an intriguing bit of fun, by the time it finished it was a new high in running for me and one of the greatest team events I have ever been involved in. The chase, the highs, the lows and the community engagement were all so much more than I expected. As a team we started as a bunch of friends looking to do good, we finished it as brothers who’d shared an experience that you can’t buy. This kind of magic happens not through planning, money or forced activity, it happens when great folk do great things and are encouraged by great people. There’s no formula for it, but the underlying ingredient is this; be a good person always and good things will come to you. My gratitude for the weekend will persist forevermore.”
Will we try this again? Time will tell. Paul - Head Coach at Pyllon said:
“Having a wider impact on the community and using what we do as a means to inspire change is a big part of the Pyllon ethos. We were in a unique position having so many top level Pyllon athletes and crews available to take part, and we know that we can count on our wider running community if we continue to do things that matter. So, I’m sure there will be many more adventures and endeavours ahead.”
As with many events like these, we simply couldn’t do it without the support we receive from friends and family. A massive thanks goes out to everyone that helped over the weekend in ferrying runners from point to point, taking pictures and looking after us in general.
And to everyone who shared a post, ‘liked’ a message, made a donation, talked to us on the day, laughed with us or just asked questions of themselves - thank you. You made it matter. And together we are #TeamPyllon.