Marathon mum meets big challenge head on

Nicole Brown pictured during the climb out of Bridge of Orchy.
Nicole Brown pictured during the climb out of Bridge of Orchy.

Morpeth-born 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?

As Nicole stirs a pan of chilli on the hob, 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.

Nicole meets her husband, Steve, at the finish.

Nicole meets her husband, Steve, at the finish.

Older daughter Clara isn’t home yet. She’s volunteering at a dance school. Seven-year-old Rosa is in the living room watching television 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.”

The scene at Jelly Baby Hill, around 65 miles into the West Highland Way Ultra-Marathon.

The scene at Jelly Baby Hill, around 65 miles into the West Highland Way Ultra-Marathon.

As well as the huge distance, the course includes hills, lochs, woodlands and 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.

Nicole, who now lives in Sheffield, hasn’t been running that long – she did her first half marathon in 2014 and hated it. But a change of approach was a change for the better.

She said: “After that I decided I would just do trail running. 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 did a few 50-mile races and a 60-mile event in 2016. She began a running group to teach others to go from 0 to 5km.

She had met the criteria to take part in the West Highland Way and she ‘cried with delight’ when she received an email saying she was among the runners for the 2017 event.

This year’s race started at the Milngavie Railway Station (a few miles north of Glasgow), with a pre-race briefing at half past midnight.

Nicole, 43, said: “I loved the start. I loved the briefing. I loved the first 19 miles.

“After leaving the village of 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.

“I checked in the Beinglas Farm cut off 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.”

She was well-supported during the run by her crew. All West Highland Way participants must have at least one driver and one person able to run a marathon with them.

She said: “James started running with me at Auchtertyre and he stayed with me right to the end. That was from about 4.30pm on the Saturday until the finish at 11.30am on the Sunday.

“Alexa was the driver and she was just brilliant. I was barking requests at her and she was sorting it out.”

James and the sweepers – the people who check runners have eaten and drunk enough, are healthy and can keep going – moved aside when Nicole reached the final 100m of the run.

She said: “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.

“I was given the Monday off by the school and the pupils in my class did a lot of maths about ‘Mrs Brown’s Adventures’ during that day, 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.

“Running is something that is really enjoyable and a really great lifestyle to have.”

Given half a chance she 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 5km and then 10km races.

One of her WIER Runners has already done a half marathon.

Hands off the Oreos, Paddy. Your mum has earned them.