TEACHER AND mother of three Nicole Brown was the final finisher at this year’s gruelling West Highland Way Ultra-Marathon. But why would anyone want to run 95 miles? Nicole Brown stirs a pan of chilli on the hob. She’s just remaking her cup of tea because I put milk in the first one and she doesn’t have it. Teenage son Paddy appears saying he ‘needs’ chocolate but she’s sent him away empty-handed. He doesn’t know she’s just hidden a pack of Oreos in a top cupboard. Older daughter Clara isn’t home yet. She’s volunteering at a dance school. Seven year old Rosa is in the living room watching TV with my own two children. My daughter is on absolute best behaviour: Mrs Brown is her teacher.
“I think that so much of what you want to and what you can achieve in running is just in your head,” she says. “It was 2013 that I first crewed on the West Highland Way. I had no idea what I was doing. We had a table and a stove set up at Balmaha at 2am when it wasn’t needed until 4. We fell asleep and our runner woke us by banging on the window. At that point I never thought I would even be able to do anything like that. It was a ridiculous distance.” It is a ridiculous distance. The 95 mile West Highland Way Race is the equivalent of running from Sheffield to Dudley. It’s not road running either – hills, lochs, woodlands, disused railway lines – parts of it are practically bouldering. Even if you make it round, it doesn’t count unless you finish in less than 35 hours. Brown hasn’t even been running that long. She did her first half marathon (a mere 13 miles) in 2014. She hated it. “After that I decided I would just do trail running,” she says. “I did not like running fast so I just wanted to go further as a challenge and I enjoyed the endurance of doing that.”
Egged on by barrister and ultra-runner husband Steve, Nicole ran a 30 mile race in 2015 and then three 50 mile races in 2016. She began a running group to teach others to go from 0 to 5k. Her Twitter feed started filling up with race information, @UKRunChat and pictures of rotting toenails. She then worked as support crew for Steve’s West Highland Way run. “At the start of the race I said to Mikey ‘I wish I was running rather than crewing’. We bumped into John and had a chat about his running and he pointed out I would qualify. From that point onwards I knew I was going to do it. “I cried and vomited my way through the Hardmoors 60 in September. I applied for entry on the 1st November 2016 and then spent all of November having cheese-like dreams about running the West Highland Way. I cried with delight when I got my email saying I was in.” I tease her a bit, reminding her of when she used to laugh at how the ultra-runners were all high powered businessmen trying to be glam by running until they were sick, only to eat a lasagne and run until they were sick again. “There are a lot of men in their forties, certainly,” she admits. “It’s like a healthy mid-life crisis – not wine, women and fast cars but fast kit. I say to him ‘Steve have you been on the computer?’ and he answers ‘…yes’ and it’s not porn but £650 worth of running kit he’s considering buying.” Her training program is still stuck to the wall, mounted on silver frieze paper.
Every day from January to June is planned for running intervals, resting, endurance and suchlike. There are six colour coded headings, felt pen circles and spidery notes everywhere. It’s the kind of revision timetable a panicked student would create whilst high on crack. “I wanted to stand on the start line knowing I had done everything I possibly could,” says Brown. “I did the Hardmoors 60 but was really ill again. On reflection that was quite good because recovering gave me a good rest break. I then stuck to the plan until I tapered. Then I didn’t sleep for 3 weeks.”
Tapering is when runners stop running before a big event. The idea is they go into the race feeling really rested. Brown spent the evenings annotating her map and trying on kit. “In terms of ultra-running you cannot be too prepared. Better to over prepare and under train. I was closely following the weather forecast and I took all my winter kit. There were people dropping out because they didn’t have the right kit. There were expecting a summer race in Scotland but there was howling wind, rain and gales.” Steve drove her up to the start line. “I felt I was having an out of body experience going to Glasgow. I convinced myself I had the wrong start time and I couldn’t get online to check it. I cried in the car. I thought I had lost my map. Once we arrived at Lynne’s house all the support group was there.” She talks about Lynne like she was the running mother: taking an interest in her map, making sure she’s got the right food, ooh-ing and aah-ing at her kit. “At registration Steve took me by the hand. He said ‘don’t worry it is all going to be OK’ because I looked like a frightened rabbit. I went and sat in the car and managed to have an hour’s sleep.”
The West Highland Way Race for 2017 starts at the Milngavie Railway Station (west of Edinburgh, north of Glasgow) with a pre-race briefing at half past midnight.
“I loved the start. I loved the briefing. I loved the first 19 miles,” says Brown. “Leaving Balmaha I was surprised at the number of inclines but then I hit the lakeside. I know that the lakeside has a reputation of being really hard but the reputation doesn’t do it justice. It was ridiculous. “Having done my first mile way slower than I thought I would I then decided to try and fell-run the lakeside and spent four hours just panicking I wouldn’t make the cut off.” Runners who don’t make the cut-off times are out of the race. If Brown wasn’t at Beinglas Farm by 1pm, her race was done. “A lovely runner pointed out Dario’s post,” says Brown. “As you go past Dario’s Post you cannot see the next check point. At that point if the checkpoint had been three miles away I do not think I would have got to it. “I saw this bloke and called out ‘Is there a campsite up ahead?’ He was German. As I got closer to him I thought ‘I cannot actually stop’ so I said ‘Campsite? Soon? Less than a mile?’ and he said ‘Yes. I think so.’ And I yelled ‘I love you!’ “I checked in with 20 minutes to spare. Other people checked in after me. I was really shaken. From the point where I started worrying about the cut off the whole race just felt incredibly stressful. All I could think about was ‘am I going to make the next cut off?’ I was constantly doing maths in my head. I was changing my Garmin at every checkpoint.”
Anyone planning on doing the West Highland Way has to show a history of doing long runs and at least two support crew – one driver and one able to run a marathon. “Alexa was the driver,” says Brown. “She was just brilliant. I was barking requests at her and she was sorting it out. I think there was only one point where she was slightly hacked off as I was yelling I’d put trousers in a bag and they weren’t there. Then I remembered they were somewhere else. “James started running with me at Aucktertyre and he stayed with me right to the end. That was from about 4.30 on the Saturday afternoon until we finished 11.30 on the Sunday morning. “I always thought in my head what is going to be brilliant is if I can get to Glencoe then I can finish but in the race when I get to Glencoe I still have a marathon to do.
From Glencoe onwards I was banning James from saying anything vaguely encouraging to me because I couldn’t bear it. I still had ten hours to go. By the time we were on the last stretch I was pretty much with the sweepers.” The sweepers are essentially the back runners. They check runners have eaten and drunk enough, are healthy and can keep going. “They were brilliant,” says Brown. “I was moving 2-2.5 miles an hour at that point. They kept me going. It was actually more painful going downhill at that point. I was really tired and grumpy and grouchy with everybody. I was annoyed with the trail underfoot.
“What is amazing is that you come to a corner and then you don’t realise that you are 100 metres away from the end. All of a sudden it was just me on my own and they kind of disappeared. They left me to cross the line and have my own moment all to myself. “I went round that corner and I expected to only see a few people there but it felt like there were hundreds. I saw Steve. It was all I could do not to collapse with the emotion of it all.
I got a handshake and a hug from Ian Beattie the race director and Steve then my aunties manhandled me into the changing rooms and I had to get showered.
“From there all of a sudden I was at the finishers’ ceremony. When I got my goblet I’m thinking an hour and a half ago I was still on the moor. It was surreal and wonderful and one of the best experiences of my life.”
The following day, back in Sheffield, Mrs Brown was not in class. Her headteacher had given her the day off. However, her class of five and six year-olds were very busy: “What I was really touched by was that Deirdre had done a whole day with them on the Monday I was off,” says Brown. “They did a lot of Maths about ‘Mrs Brown’s Adventures’ so when I returned on the Tuesday they were all saying ‘You were the last man standing Mrs Brown!’ and ‘You were so brave and you did this!’ It was really wonderful.”
Headteacher Sue Preston then encouraged Brown to do an assembly about her running: “What I wanted them to take from it – both my class and the Y2 running club – running is something that is really enjoyable and a really great lifestyle to have. They can be brave and resilient and try their best. I wanted them to know when you’re alone and you’re completely in the dark God is holding you in the palm of His hand.”
Given half a chance Brown would persuade everyone to run. It’s her stubbornness and encouragement that led to me and several other WIER Runners into gaspingly making our way round first 5k and then 10k races. One of her WIER Runners has already done a half marathon. “You can so easily talk yourself out of being able to do something and your body will try and talk you out of doing it because your body does not want to feel the discomfort,” she says.
“The very first time you run a mile your body is telling you to stop because you are out of breath and uncomfortable. So much is about mentality. The hardest bit of running is going from 0-5k because you are going from nothing to something. Everything else is just doubling – 0-5k, 5-10k – but that is not even a percentage increase. That is starting from zero. “I genuinely think that a 50 mile run and a 100 mile run are becoming what a marathon used to be. It is still a small percentage of the population that have run a marathon but it used to be a really unusual thing. People are properly getting into running. There used to be only a few people at park runs and now the likes of Sheffield Hallam Parkrun are packed. People are getting into ultra-running because they want to see what their body can do.” She’s back training now. This week is her first week back, she tells me. She’s phasing herself in. “Just around a thirty mile week,” she says. “That’s only four runs. It’s a six, a four, a seven and a fourteen I think.”
Hands off the Oreos, Paddy. She’s earned them.
By Jude Jones