On Saturday 22nd June 2019, the man, the legend, Umega’s very own Mike Hoppe set off at 1am with a goal of completing the 35th edition of the Ronhill West Highland Way Race – one of the world’s most iconic and well-established ultra-marathons along the long-distance trail between Milngavie (North of Glasgow) and Fort William. The race covers 95 miles and 14,000 feet of ascent and, 28 hours and 45 minutes after starting Mike crossed the finish line! The pride of Palestine, Mo “Up-for-anything” Abushabaan, met Mike at Glencoe with 24 miles of the WHW remaining as part of his support team to help Mike through his second night of non-stop running and the last gruelling miles of the race. I sat down with Mike and Mo this week as they reflected on this incredible achievement.
To most people, running for two days on one of the most mountainous trails in Scotland sounds like madness. What made you want to do this race?
- Mike – About 5 years ago I watched a documentary called ‘Closing Distance’. It’s about the WHW race and I’d heard about it after joining my local running club. I wondered how on earth people could do something like that and thought there was absolutely no way I could ever achieve it. It would be common at my running club for people to come along and talk casually about a 30 mile run they had done that weekend. I hadn’t done a great deal of running but with people of all ages and all body shapes and sizes regularly running these crazy distances, I thought; if they can do it, I can do it…… so i signed up for the 33 mile Glenogle Ultra. Long story, short, I managed to complete Glenogle – my first ulta…and then I was hooked! Ultra marathons were my new ‘normal’! After last weekend my new ‘normal’ is now 95 miles! 5 years ago I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams I could do this.
- Mo – I’ve done a marathon before and I hated it! I hadn’t trained properly so i really suffered. I didn’t really train for my section of the WHW either but I do a couple of runs a week with the team from work and when Mike said he needed one more in his support team, I jumped at the chance! I really wanted a challenge.
I’d imagine there are a million things can go wrong in preparing for and attempting the WHW race. What were your biggest fears in the lead up to the race?
- Mike – One of the biggest challenges is to make it to the start line healthy, fit and ready for the race. I entered the race a couple of years ago and i didn’t make the start line due to injury. About 30-40% of entrants pull out before race day and then only about 190 of 250 starters manage to finish the race. So my main goal was to make it to the start line and give myself a chance of finishing. I was also worried about the unknown. The furthest I’d run before was 53 miles so 95 miles really was unknown territory – I didn’t know how my body would react to such an increase in distance. I was worried about my knee playing up and I wasn’t 100% healthy the week of the race as the whole Umega New Business team came down with the lurgy! But I never considered pulling out and by that stage, I was going to give it a go, no matter what. I was annoyed about feeling unwell but I’d learned from my experience earlier this year at the 53 mile Highland Fling race (along the Southern half of the WHW) when I successfully completed the race after feeling unwell the week before the race. Your body can take a lot more than you think!
- Mo – Leading up to the race, I wasn’t really nervous. I was worried about my knee which has a long-term injury but Mike sent me the Closing Distance documentary which i watched the night before and I was just really excited. It was great to see that ‘normal’ people can do these things.
Was there any point during the race that you were worried you wouldn’t make it to the finish?
- Mike – I got through the first 60 miles feeling ok but then I felt awful from 60 to 70 miles. I felt really sick and couldn’t stomach anything. When I reached 70 miles I saw my support team and for the next 10 miles I was buzzing and felt great! Other ultrarunners have said to me in the past that ‘you just have to stay in the race’; even if you feel awful and think you can’t continue, just stay in the race for another 2-3 hours and before you know it your body says ‘ok I’m going to have to do something about this’. Now I know what they mean! My support crew were amazing and really kept me going; I separated the run into blocks and would think ‘in 6 miles, I’ll see my friends’…it really kept me going. It also amazes me how you build strong relationships on these long runs. I ran with a couple of people for about 4 hours along Loch Lomond and time just flew as we chatted and jogged together. When I reached only 3 miles to go, I wanted to give up. Those last 3 miles felt like 30 or 40 and I was falling asleep while walking. Mo noticed that I wasn’t stable and I knew things were bad when my support crew started being really nice to me instead of the usual cajoling! They managed to get me through it even though I wanted to give up, my knee had gone and I thought I had nothing left.
- Mo – With 8 miles to go my knee gave up too! I didn’t show it to Mike but I was in agony. I just tried to put it to one side; it’s amazing how your head can run through these pains and it definitely helped being part of a group.
Was there anything in particular you did or thought about to keep yourself going during the race?
- Mike – I had the funeral of a guy, George, from my running club this week. I thought about him a lot on the run. He used to come on our group training runs, even when he couldn’t run with us. When I was at one of my low points on the WHW I thought of George and how he would’ve given anything to be in my shoes, being able to do one last run. It’s such a privilege to be able to use my body and know it will recover. I realise it won’t always be that way so it’s important not to take that for granted.
Almost a week after crossing the finish line, how do you feel?
- Mike – I feel ok, my legs feel pretty good. It’s amazing what the body can cope with. The day after the race, I could hardly move and 2 days after I was walking normally and we’re now only 5 days after the race and I’ve been for 2 runs! I feel really at-peace. A friend had a 6 month period in his life after an ultra-distance race when he said ‘bring it on’; anything in life seemed so easy after such an epic challenge.
- Mo – I’m still in a bubble and I don’t feel the pressure I did before the trip. The things that seemed so important to me a week ago don’t seem so important now. I’m taking life slower. You put your body through pain which is so different to day-to-day life. Being in nature takes you back to the very basics of existence. All you think about is moving, fuelling and surviving. Running is meditation. You feel so small and insignificant – in a good way! Up there in the hills, in the middle of the night, you’re outside your comfort zone, suffering, feeling exposed and small. So many of our usual fears come from worrying about the wrong things in life. It’s so interesting to take yourself away and remember what is important.
What do you feel you have learned from this experience?
- Mike – In terms of running, I’ve learned that I need to eat better to fuel myself on long runs. In terms of life lessons; we set boundaries for ourselves of things we think we can and can’t do. I didn’t feel 100% leading up to this race but I realised I could cope with a lot more than I perhaps thought. If I look at other areas of my life, I can definitely push myself way harder than I previously thought – we all could, with the right desire and belief. I’ve almost pushed my body to the limits and I want to see what I can achieve if I do the same with my mind. If you think you’re performing at X% you definitely have another X% but we put boundaries on our capabilities. We really can achieve so much more than we can even imagine if we set goals and work hard towards them. Ultrarunning teaches you that.
- Mo – I agree, too often in life we, and other people, set limitations and boundaries on ourselves. People don’t challenge themselves and the first reaction is ‘I could never do that’. I want to challenge myself more and be really bold. I also want to get more people into trail running as it’s incredible… I’m working on Nikki and Tim as I know they would love it.
And finally, what’s next?
- Mike – In a few weeks I’ve got the Devil o’ the Highlands race which is the top 42 miles of the WHW. If I complete this I’ll get the Triple Crown medal for doing all 3 races in a year. I can’t wait to get back up there and just enjoy it with no pressure. I’m going to enter the WHW race again next year as I’ll take what I’ve learned and hopefully go a bit faster. I do have a goal of one day doing the WHW in under 24 hours and I think I can do it.
- Mo – I want to do more trail running, I love it. I’ll enter the Highland Fling (54 miles of the WHW) next year. Being on Mike’s support crew, I got a taste of the WHW race without any pressure but my goal is to do the full West Highland Way race within the next 5 years! (you heard it here first!)
Well done Mike & Mo! You’re inspirational and the whole Umega family is so, so proud of what you’ve achieved. See you at run club on Thursday 🙂