West Highland Way – 96 miles over 5 days in other words Scotland’s Great Trails-Slighe na Gàidhealtachd an Iar.
So when telling people I was off on holiday to run 96 miles over 5 days instant Scottish response was: Yer aff yer heid – yeah probably.
Setting the Context
When the opportunity came up to run the West Highland Way with some of the guys from Sheffield Running Club I was somewhat disappointed that it clashed with a semi-organised holiday. However luck had it that my semi-organised holiday was re-organised to the end of May allowing me to step in at the last minute and take part in what was to be one of the most beautiful challenging and fun running antics that I have had the luck to participate in.
Pre Facebook banter had taken place with discussions about who’s rucksack weighed the least. With too much sarcasm on my side I had suggested I was going to take flask, kettle and iron along side the kitchen sink whilst others would spend 5 days living out of an 8 litre rucksack. I vowed I was not to share cars with them on the way back.
Other conversations revolved around Buffs so I had decided to make goodie bags for everyone including their very own (albeit cheap) buff, energy gels and silly sweeties just to weigh them down.
Gone running wont be back too soon – Message left at home on the fridge
Myself and Sue headed up to Bonny Scotland and arrived at the service station well before the other 10 guys. We had Superultra and Marathon runner Will Beauchamp, Jason who had run Manchester Marathon and London Marathon a week apart and almost sub 3’ed on both, little Ben, who completed his first marathon narrowly missing a sub 3 a few weeks’ beforehand. Then we had Strava stastic Trevor, Joe and Kev obsessed with statistics and segments and CR’s and PR’s and PB’s and all sorts of other acronyms that only running junkies would appreciate. Then we had our off road junkie Stuart who is doing a Bob Graham this summer, full respect. Jed, long-standing o wise man of the group and Dave token ‘Strider’ leftover from what was Sheffield Athletics Club.
Our female contribution consisted of Jenny one of few females to ever get near 2hrs 50 minutes for a marathon, Super strong Sue who participates Triathlons, ultras and all sorts of things and myself, winging sarcastic Sheffield lass who likes to run long distances.
Tell me that I can’t do it. Tell me that I shouldn’t even try. Tell me that’s it’s impossible. Tell me the risk is too high, the challenge too much, or the feat too tough. Tell me that I won’t do it…And I will!. – Jade Huffmam
After a quick snack and tea, we made our way up the motorway to Glasgow. Everyone was in good spirits when we arrived at Milngavie Police Station despite the pouring rain. The lycra-wearing rucksack raincoat clad of Sheffield Running Club (and Dave from Striders) were all raring to go.
Day 1: Milngavie to Balmaha – 20miles
‘Leader’ Will who had organised the trip and ran it in 3 days the previous year did his obligatory safety check – always running with someone else in pairs and threes, being sensible, looking after each other, eating lots, taking plenty of screen breaks, and drinking tea. Then we were off under the obligatory ‘West Highland Way’ start sign for 96 miles of pure fun.
It felt like everyone was going rather fast immediately as myself and Sue took up the rear of the group ploughing through the puddles round Mogdock Country Park at a steady pace. The first incline there was an inclination to run up it but in pure ultra style it seemed right to walk. It’s allowed. If Will was walking then so was I.
Anyone can run a hundred metres its the next five days that count –
Running through rolling hills and misty drizzle didn’t stop us having smiles on our faces. The weather was getting slightly brighter as we approached our first stop around 6 miles in. A perfect location, the perfect timing for a cup of a perfect cup of tea and perfect scones. Was this trip to be renamed; ‘Ultra Trail de Scottish Scones’?
After a good rest we were off once again to the more lush countryside as we trotted around the banks of Loch Lomond. We were carrying all our own gear for 5 days including the odd snack here and there. The trip could have been sponsored by OMM as half the group supported the traditional black and yellow OMM running rucksacks.
There is no sexy way to run with a backpack. It’s more of weird gallop that causes the bag to furiously hump your back and butt. – Fuel Running
The only real climb was towards the end of the day up the side of Conic Hill about over 300 metres high. Some of the more ardours guys took on the challenge of running the hill whilst the more sedate of us walked up chatting away and enjoying the views. The highest point was rather windy out came the gloves as the mist set on Loch Lomond it was pretty at its worst and outstandingly beautiful at its best.
If you can’t see over it, walk it – Author Unknown
We all safely arrived at the first bunkhouse nested beautifully on the banks of Loch Lomond. Trail shoes a little wet, socks a little muddy but all intact having ran around 20 miles. A healthy pub meal finished off the day perfectly. My only disappointment was that I ordered Yorkshire pudding and minced beef and there was no gravy. My face dropped and I began to weep inside. I can cope without Henderson s relish just but no gravy… really. Next time Will – ensure there is gravy on the menu.
Day 2: Balmaha to Inverarnan 20 miles
Today Will warned us that it was going to be challenging, not due to the hills but more so the terrain. Running / walking over the rocky banks of the east side of Loch Lomond for nearly 6 miles negotiating tree routes and slippery stones would not be easy. And the wise Will was right.
So we all set off after an obligatory group photo and went on our merry running ways. The group was mixing well by now getting to know each other, sharing running stories and admiring the gorgeous surroundings.
It’s not where you take the trail, it’s where the trail takes you. – Fuel Running
The first section through wooded paths was blissful, we were all running as a large group, stopping to ‘regroup’ politely at specific sections as instructed by Will. Although there was a mix of abilities in the group from Will’s near on 2.30 marathon to Joe’s 16 minute Park Run (minus all his stats stuff) we were all looking after each other and ensuring we didn’t lose each other or go off too fast.
A couple of photoshoots with our official photographer ‘Jason’ were a sight not to be missed, linking arms on the bank of Loch Lomond with the glistering water stretched in the background we could have been on the cover of Trail Running Magazine without a doubt. All supporting our club vests (with token ‘Sheffield Athletics Club’ vest from Dave)
I’m only doing this so I can post a picture on Facebook – Author Unknown
The second part of the morning run was much further than some of us thought. We all ended up splitting up considerably, of course, all running in at least pairs, however, the speedy Joe’s and Trevor’s of this world fearlessly sprinting onwards towards the lunch break stop whilst myself and Dave took up the middle and some of the other guys paired off towards the back. The paths clung to the lochside as we ran alongside, happily chatting and blissfully enjoying the run.
However, we were aware the group was dispersing a little too much and breaking the rules of the game. Here was a reminder that jumping over the mossy tree stumps on the bonny banks of loch Lomond with 11 other like-minded people was the best way for me to spend an average Thursday.
Today, I run for pure, absolute joy – Lopez Lomong
Some 14 miles in; Inversnaid hotel and the beautiful waterfalls appeared. Myself and Dave kept a good strong pace on rough and at times narrow paths. We deserved a good rest after that.
A healthy lunch involving either soup, chips or / and scones was a must as we trashed the hotel in great running style and kept up the tradition of ‘Ultra Trail de Scottish Scones’
After a good hours’ rest or so we were off again, for the last 6 miles or so of the day. This would be the hardest of the sections due to the rocky terrain. Mentally stimulating concentration at its fullest. Little point in trying to run these tricky sections. I began to have a blip, questioning if I had overdone it before lunch as my sugar levels dropped and I dropped off taking a position at the back. It wasn’t so much food that I needed after a hefty lunch but the fatigue of a strange sort. I munched on a sugary snack to give me a boost and soldiered on. I am sure that every one of us at some point during the 5 days will have had a blip of some sort and would have questioned why the were doing this and whether they could get through it. Just like we all do when we are partaking in events. I knew I would come through it and I did. My comfort zone felt shattered but I would piece it back together again.
It was being a runner that mattered, not how fast or how far I could run. The joy was in the act of running and in the journey, not in the destination. – John Bingham
Just as we were heading down towards the Beinglas Farm Cabins for our second night, it began to gently persist it down. It was refreshing at its best but the looming dark clouds were threatening a thunderstorm and we didn’t want to get drenched. We all made it in time to a blissful camp-site with cute primitive camping pods.
We had to hire towels and sleeping bags, the pods were somewhat basic, but fun with limited heating and electricity points. However the showers on site were made in paradise, hot and steamy, the perfect reward at the end of the day alongside a Scottish lasagne and toffee apple pie, my oh my.
Day 3: Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy
Day three started with Scottish porridge, a hearty breakfast in our stomachs wrapped up in waterproofs. They were soon to come off as we climbed the first woodland hill and meandered further up into the highlands of Scotland.
It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks.
An old military road presented some tricky running conditions, aptly named between us the ‘West Highland Way path of doom’. We were climbing gently but it felt tough at the same time, having to watch every step on the slippery loose gravel stone. The reward – magnificent views across Scotland with not a soul in sight apart from 24 running shoes.
A Refuel stop around 6 miles allowed us all to catch our breaths and fuel up. Will did a great job of looking after us all ensuring we were refuelling adequately and that we were all in good health. There was no point in rushing this as much as the front runners may have wanted to do 5-minute miling up here they would have missed the views and the peace and tranquillity of this amazing landscape.
The desire to run comes from deep within us- from the unconscious, the instinctive, the intuitive.”
– George Sheehan
A good mile or so hill approached and the faster guys were able to open up and reach the top in impressive style. I got into a nice groove and focused on the run, enjoying this little blast. The packed rock and gravel-surfaced hill pushed me up to the top powering up into heaven to meet a few of the guys at the top. Happy Helen.
One more hill and the cake is history –
I so enjoyed that little blast as I glanced around it gave me time to soak in the atmosphere of the rest of the group running towards us, realising what an amazing achievement this was. The crunching of 24 shoes munching through the West Highland Way having such a great time.
Some of the group were ready for a good hearty lunch as we approached the Green Welly stop, a couple of little shops the last place to get some cash from and a nice pub supporting great food. Some of the guys took on great bowls of pasta whilst i settled on the home-made salty soup and chocolate milk I had purchased from the shop. An obligatory cup of tea didn’t go a miss either.
Runtastical – Fuel Running
Next stop Bridge of Orchy which would be our home for the night. We climbed out of the village and glanced over at the blissful views with the railway line and viaduct in the distance. This was now getting more and more remote. How can anyone not love this?
Across the bleak landscape across Rannoch Moor, desolately beautiful as we chased the wilderness and pounded the gravel paths.
Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t imagine what it might be. – Joyce Carol Oates
The Bridge of Orchy arrived some 20 or so miles in, a glistering white hotel beamed up at us, poshness at its best. We were run-stricken. After the basics of the previous night this was pure luxury as we once again trashed such a lovely hotel with our muddy shoes.
Stupidity came to mind as myself and Jason ran down to the river just to make it up to 20 miles. This was pointless anyway as I had forgotten to start my silly watch a few times anyway, so really it was just a silly number. However it allowed us to take in the breathtaking views and appreciate what we had just run. Blissfully perfect. The novelty would never wear off.
The evening meal was rather aposh nosh compared to the pub grub we had previously encountered. Of interesting quality and variety. After a game of who could eat the most custard creams in a minute, came bedtime as we were all beginning to feel the effects of running 60 miles in 3 days.
Day 4: Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven
Today we were off to even more great places. Today was our day in the mountains, they were waiting so we needed to get on our way with a 9am start after a very healthy full posh nosh breakfast of salmon and scrambled eggs. Myself and Jenny had devoured all the fish in Scotland and left no eggs for chickens.
We started out over the mile and a half hill and round the head of Loch Tulla. A good hefty climb even for the hill monsters. It was well worth the effort, for at the top we had another obligatory photoshoot as we all put on our vests and ran for the camera with Scotland stretched gracefully behind us. This was today’s Parkrun – beats Endcliffe Park ey boys and girls? Enough to make Mount Everest jealous.
Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing. – Barry Finlay
A gorgeous downhill section awaited us, with Glen Coe in the distance and the ‘Kingsy’ pub beaconing us for lunch. Will had perfected this to a tee. Every stop was thoroughly thought out and just perfect timing. Through moorland like trails, we ran, through little rabbit warrens jumping over little rocks. This reminded me of Padley gorge in the peak district but much more dramatic, heather-clad bumps, little narrow paths, small rocks just perfect. Once we reached the ‘Kingsy’ pub for lunch we admired the deer staggering the grounds of the pub who were delightfully watching the tourists and runners coming forth for lunch. Deer for lunch anyone?
Another hearty feast did not involve deer but included Haggis Pannie for the likes of Will. So that’s what makes him run so fast? Haggis Custard anyone? Haggis fruit cake? Haggis Scone? Haggis cup of tea? No, I will stick to English Breakfast tea even if we are in Scotland thank you very much.
Because it is better to go too far than not far enough – reasonstobefit
Once we had refuelled it was onwards and round wards through the gorgeously bleak landscape. The stunning mountains engulfed us from all sides. Approaching us was deemed as the big one, the ‘Devils Staircase’. With 850ft of ascent in just over 1 mile, it was taking our running to the next hill. I didn’t know what to expect so I took on a gel to see me to the top. The more competitive guys (Trevor and Joe slightly obsessed with Strava segments) wanted to get up on the leadership boards and race up the ‘big one’.
Dont run away from challenges run over them – Author Unknown
We all regrouped at the top and had another photoshoot with rucksacks at the front and the glistering mountains in the background. This was my idea of heaven. Why run round in circles when you can run up here?
A final 5 mile downhill section to Kinlochleven presented us with further magnificent views of the Scottish highlands on legs. Some technical sections, jumping over loose stones and paddling through trickles of water. This was a picture and a half.
Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains. – Jeffrey Rasley
I somewhat, however, overdid the run down from Devils Staircase maybe because in my hilly mood I powered up Devils Staircase and the devils got the better of me. I got ahead of myself and kept on running down the hills, trying to feel strong but somewhat losing it a little but something inside of me was pushing me on.
Know your limits and ignore them –
I arrived with some of the others at the accommodation pub to say in pure Scottish tone ‘Am pure done in’ feeling like I had run a race. Not a good sign as I felt sick and light-headed. Had I overdone it? I had really enjoyed the day but maybe got carried away with the landscape the surreal running the fantastic company but felt lethargic and in need of some fuel. It was fair to say I ‘I’m fair puckled!’
Moderation bores me. – Dean Karnazes
We decided to eat early at the accommodation for the cheaper option and all spoilt ourselves to glasses of posh ice cream deserts.
Will probably had haggis ice cream whilst the rest of us were digging into chocolate or berry compotes with luxury ice cream and sprinkling bits on top. We then headed out for a night on the town to a pub to drink and be merry.
Day 5: Kinlochleven to Fort William
Sunday morning rise and shine. Rumour had it that Trevor Dave and Joe went out for a 4-mile sprint so they could top up their mileage over the 5 days to do 100 miles. The less crazy of us stayed in bed until time to have breakfast dreaming of running.
When I run I don’t even notice how hard it is, my mind wanders and escapes life’s troubles and I’m in my own land where it’s just me and my footsteps. I’m unstoppable when I run. – Fuel Running
The pub would only serve breakfast to us at 8am so we took on the first breakfast stint and were ready to go straight afterwards. The steep winding trail through woodland was blissfully perfect as most of us walked up allowing our breakfast to manifest in our tummies. Only 16 miles today, no problem everyone, 16 miles that is only a half marathon and a little bit more minus a bit from the past few days. And rumours have it that the last 3 miles are all downhill.
Running is ultimately a personal experience. It is a revival of the spirit, a private oasis for the thirsty mind. Yet, its healing power only increases in the presence of others. Run together and the oasis grows cooler and more satisfying. – Amby Burfoot
In true girly style myself and Sue did our wee stops just behind an inconspicuous rock. The lads were probably more than used to this by now and I was past caring anyway. A girl has to do what a girl has to do irrespective of what a boy has to do.
The following miles were exposed and remote. Purely beautiful as we climbed through plantations and woodland. The scenery was this trip. Why we were doing this, don’t even ask the question to why we were doing this.
And then came Britain’ highest mountain, towering in front of us, ready to climb but one day yet not today. It shone in its beauty as we continued to run towards it.
We sailed down the wide gravel track which meandered through forestry plantations and down the track to Fort William for about 3 miles.
And then we hit the road. We were nearly there. Everyone was running together. A mile or mile and a half of this odd sensation called tarmac. What is this? Oh, look its a house? and a humanoid? What are these strange creatures?
We ran through the outskirts of Fort William and then suddenly we came to a halt. There stood the West Highland Way Finish sign – a prepossessing end of the trip on a roundabout. Bang we had done it!
Happy trails to you, until we meet again – Roy Rogers and Dale Evans
And my thanks go out to Will who organised it all, Sue for driving and everyone for putting up with me. Until we meet again. West Highland Way 2015? The lot in one go, The Fling or something else? Who knows…
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Video courtesy of Jason Chow