Our West Highland Way Challenge
“Running the West Highland Way” is not considered the typical answer when your fellow co-worker asks you about your weekend plans. Running the West Highland Way was often regarded as “impossible and dangerous” for many of the people we spoke to prior to our challenge, followed by “it’s hard enough walking the West Highland Way over 5 days and thats with sleep!”. For us, this was our idea of “Type 2” fun and we couldn’t wait to put our minds and bodies to the test.
On March 10th 2017 we both set out to take on the greatest running challenge of our lives to date, limiting ourselves to complete this in 24 hours. For those who are not aware, the West Highland Way is a 96 mile route through the west highlands of Scotland. It starts in a small town called Milngavie just outside of Glasgow and stretches north all the way to Fort William. The route encompasses a vast array of scenic landscapes, the odd mountain goat (FYI don’t mess with these guys) and a whole load of tricky, and what seemed as never-ending, terrain. To top this off, over the 96 miles, we ascended the equivalent of Mt Everest (30,000ft)!
For a challenge this scale, organisation and planning are without a doubt, the most important factors if you have any hope in the world of reaching the finish line! This was emphasised to us even more so because of our lack of experience in endurance challenges. Ironically, the initial idea to run this challenge wasn’t planned at all! Infact, it was just a spontaneous, in the moment comment that got us thinking, and 10 minutes later we agreed to do it and agreed to do it under 24 hours. We wanted to push the boundaries of endurance to see if the every day, run of the mill lads could achieve a challenge so big, with such little experience and time to properly train our bodies.
It was not easy. We experienced a few hiccups along the way:
Recommendation 1 – Train more than 6 weeks
We only gave ourselves 6 WEEKS to plan and train before carrying out the challenge. In all of the blogs we read regarding training and preparation, 9/10 of them said they trained for upwards of a year (this is on top of their ultra-running background).
Recommendation 2 – Don’t interrupt Valentines Day plans
The furthest we ran on the build up to the challenge was a 23 mile road run in perfect conditions with little elevation. We actually ran this on Valentines day, interrupting VD plans, much to our girlfriends dismay.
Recommendation 3 – Always bring the SOS essentials when running long distance
Three weeks prior to the challenge, we got completely and utterly LOST up the local Corbett, Tinto Hill. For the first time in our lives, we were totally “feart”. Helplessly lost in the cold and blizzardy weather in the dark of the night with the iPhone battery bailing out on us just moments after. By complete fluke/luck, we managed to get back on track and descend down the hill as quickly as we could. Always carry a fully charged phone or spare phone!
Recommendation 4 – Buy a navigation device to save/track your route
Learning from previous escapades, we plugged the full West Highland Way route in to our Garmin’s navigation feature to ensure we stayed on track. Absolutely CRUCIAL when running during the night, sign posts are just now enough.
Recommendation 5 – Research fully the appropriate nutrition needed
Due to our lack of experience in endurance events, we were unsure which food supplies to put in the tank to avoid complications i.e. vomiting. Always consider the “what ifs” and plan accordingly.
Check out the link for more details on our plan which paved the way for a magnificent expedition experience: West highland Way Challenge
The Big One
The journey to Milngavie:
- We set off from Lanark on the Friday afternoon on our way to start our expedition. The car journey through to Milngavie was a mixed bag of nerves as we couldn’t quite process the scale of the task we were about to endure. The traffic was surprisingly light despite the fact it was a Friday afternoon (4pm). On arrival in Milngavie we did the usual last minute routines. rituals. call them what you want. we were terrified (FEART). We emptied our bladders, took on some last minute fuel, tightened our back packs/bum bags, checked our watch (5.30pm), then we took the first step of the 100,000 + we had ahead of us.
Milngavie to Rowardennan – 25 miles (Checkpoint 1)
- We set off on our adventure and the first major thought 1 mile in was – “how the f**k are we going to manage 96 miles”. This thought soon cleared and we kept chirping on. The weather was calm however it was extremely foggy. This was particularly straining on the eyes as the darkness was fast approaching. 6 miles in and we ended up in the middle of a field/swamp (It seemed slightly off track but we trusted the Garmin). This was the first major set back of many. Knee deep in a swamp we thought this was the end shortly after we started. This thought soon cleared and we kept chirping on. Our mindset was critical during this setback and we knew, it was how we react to these situations that was more important than the situation itself (Reference). This was a real low point of the expedition as it was cold, dark and foggy and we were in the complete unknown. We managed to escape the Swamp with wet feet. 19 miles to go till checkpoint one where fresh clothes, shoes and footwear were patiently waiting on us along with a family of four sized portion of tuna pasta. Looking back if we had the choice of the clothing and footwear or the tuna pasta – we would have definitely gone for the latter.
Rowardennan to Inverarnan – 15 miles (Checkpoint 2)
- We took our last bite of Tuna Pasta, said our good byes to support crew 1 and made our way in to the dark woods to begin the journey through the traitorous terrain along the east shore of Loch Lomond. Out of the full run, this was the section we enjoyed the most as we were enclosed in the trees from the wind and rain. The next checkpoint was also only 10 miles shorter than the first one which was quite motivating as we knew my mammys home made mince and tattoos were only a couple of hours ahead of us. The strange thing was, this was the part of the challenge we were advised would be most challenging due to the technical nature of the trails. And the fact it was the middle of the night. We were feeling very nervous about this section however it was the complete opposite of what we were told. This really made us think about how you should never listen to others perceptions of things. Just because they found something challenging or they felt bad during this section, it certainly didn’t mean we would. We believe this is a key lesson that everyone should take on board – as cliché as it sounds, it is true! As we were running through the narrow intricate trails, one of us led the way for a few miles then we would swap. This meant we could take turns of communicating potential hazards to the person at the back as we only had small head torches on. Going through certain parts of the loch edge it was rather dangerous. Sometimes you were down low running along side the water edge however others you were 20ft above with a narrow path to run on. One foot out of place and you were falling straight off the edge and in to the loch. On two occasions we were running along and our head torches caught the reflection of small glowing balls in our peripheral vision. On our right hand side were black mountain goats with huge horns staring us out like we were invading their territory. This was quite a frightening experience as we weren’t sure how dangerous these animals were. We certainly didn’t want to take our chances against their 3ft long horns. First time ever being out numbered by mountain goats. However, theres a first for everything. 15 miles and 4 trek bars later we made it to our next stop at mile 40 to meet support crew 2. (Lewis’s mum and auntie with home made mice and tatties)
Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchie – 19 miles (Checkpoint 3)
- Leaving Inverarnan at mile 40 was tough. The rain was heavier and we still had another 6 hours of darkness to power through. After climbing back over the huge metal gate at Beinglass Farm we were back on the trails of the West Highland Way. 56 miles to go. We made our way in to the forest with the only thing allowing us to see where we were going was our £15 head torches from eBay. As we got a few miles in to this section of the run the sat nav on the watch alerted us we had gone off route. It wasn’t anything major we were still making our way along the road which ran parallel to the WHW trail. We were on the road for around 10 miles until we came across an opening which had one of the famous white thistle stamped posts with an arrow leading us back on track. Looking back, running on the road in the middles of the night was the single most de-motivating aspect of the full challenge. It was so boring and repetitive and we had no idea when we were gonna end up back in the trails. We found the trails so much more interesting as you constantly something different to do, whether that be opening the wooden farm gates, climbing over rocks or running up and down and round the corners of intricate little footpaths. The sky began to get lighter around mile 50 at the Green Welly camp site. this is when we had to stop to see to Clark’s feet. Lesson learned – never run 50 miles in wet shoes. Team work played a huge part at this stage as I had to physically pick Clark’s wet toes apart to replace the soggy plasters that were merely jammed between his toes. Doing this with cold hands after running 50 miles certainly wasn’t an enjoyable aspect of the challenge. However, these things are expected during a challenge like this and you have to suck it up and get on with it. We made our way up the steep hill at the side of the green welly hotel with a few miles left till our third support stop at Bridge of Orchie. We climbed to the top of the hill and continued running/staggering along the trail which ran parallel to the main road and the railway line. At this point we were really struggling mentally and physically. We were almost running on empty (at least it felt that way). Just at this point our third support crew saw us as they were driving along the road to meet us and they stopped and to give us some encouragement via shouting across the road. It was nice to see more human faces rather than mountain goats and sheep. That little bit of encouragement was the fuel we needed at that point to see us through the last few miles before we stumbled (literally) in to Bridge of Orchie train station.
Bridge of Orchie to Kingshouse – 12 miles (Checkpoint 4)
- 2 Ibuprofen, 3 cups of coffee, a huge bowl of tuna pasta, a change of footwear and some treatment and we were ready for section 4. The more miles we ran the harder it was to get going again following a support stop. This is why working in a team was so effective. We didn’t want to let each other down, and this was so important through out the full journey. We helped each other when we needed help, we encouraged and we just kept moving forward. We crossed over the little stone bridge at Bridge of Orchie and began our next ascent through Rannoch Moor. By this time we began to see some walkers appear which was nice as we only had each others company through the night and in to the early hours of the morning. This section was one of the smaller ones falling just shy of the half marathon distance. However, during this section there were two extremely tough climbs which seemed endless. The first was up through Rannoch Moor then through the back of Glen Coe Ski Centre. The mountains were getting higher and the true beauty of Scotland was really starting hit home. During this section we realised how much we took Scotland for granted at times and didn’t’t really appreciate the scenery and landscapes we have on our door step (It has definitely made us want to travel Scotland more). By now we were experimenting with loads of different ways to cover the miles the quickest with minimal pain. We would walk for 0.1 mile and jog for 0.1. We tried walking for 1 minute and jogging for 1 minute. I think we even tried walking backwards at some points with the intention of trying to work the muscles differently. We soon came to the conclusion that the best method was to run the bits we could and walk the bits we couldn’t. We also came to the conclusion that after running 60 miles, the only way to stop the pain would be running on your hands and that certainly isn’t feasible. Making our way through the back of Glen Coe seemed to g for miles and miles and miles. It was cloudy, cold and rainy. Every time we felt depleted we would eat a Trek bar. They always seemed to give you that wee boost required to get through those inner battles of mental negativity. They gave you that extra bit of fuel to keep chirping on. After getting our hopes up on several occasions we finally came up over the last hill and our next stop was in sight – Kings House Hotel. It was all downhill and we were absolutely buzzing. We arrived at King House Hotel and were welcomed by support crew 4 and some Deer (Don’t feed deer tuna pasta). We were conscious of our time therefore this stop was very brief.
Kingshouse to Kinlochleven – 8 miles (Checkpoint 5)
- Leaving Kingshouse and heading for Kinlochleven was psychologically the best part of the challenge. The reason being we only had to cover 8 miles until our last support stop. We knew we still had the dreaded ‘devils staircase’ a couple of miles ahead so that was always in the back of our minds. Almost everyone we spoke to regarding our challenge pointed out how difficult the devils stair case was. However I think we mentally prepared for the worst case scenario and when it came to actually climbing it, it wasn’t all that bad -at least not as bad as people made it out to be. Another important lesson we took from this expedition was that you must never take it for definite what people say to you regarding their perceptions of a given task. To us this only means this is something they find difficult but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will. We began our journey up the devils stair case which was a relatively short climb, however it was pretty steep and a tad burnt on the auld quadriceps. We made it to the top successfully and began our long, steep decent in to Kinlochleven. During this section we had the help of our previous support crew who were generous enough to carry our bags to the top of the devils stair case for us. This was definitely a physical and psychological boost. By this point our legs were so fatigued, we were at the stage we were just dragging our feet as we tried to run. Our feet were agony due to the large pebbles and rocks sticking out of the trail down the back of the mountain. As we arrived in Kinlochleven the hallucinations kicked in. We experienced something we have never felt before. As we gazed into the seamlessly never ending trails we saw an abandoned rowing boat with a figure lying inside. Turns out it was just a boat without the man. Phew…..
Kinlochleven to Fort William – 16 miles (Finish)
- This was it, the final section was here. The section we were told was easiest. The section we thought was going to be easy. But we couldn’t have been more wrong. Before we set off on the final section, we were very lazy in terms of our refuelling at our last support stop. We had half of a sandwich and some chocolate and some water. Our logic was, we only have 16 miles to go so lets just grab a quick bite and get on our way. This was a major lesson as we ran extremely low on energy after the first steep ascent on to the Old Military Road. Emotions were running high at this point. We were getting extremely frustrated and cranky at the slightest things. This supposedly quick climb on to the Old Military road turned out to be never ending. Round every corner we turned on this climb the path just seemed to keep stretching steeply ahead of us. There was no sight of the top and it was simply devastating. We finally made it up on to the Old Military Road after several tantrums and swearing episodes. 14 miles to go and we began moving forward along the path towards Fort William. The miles felt like they were taking days at this point. We found ourselves taking a short 30 second break to rest the legs which by this point were truly aching. The smooth single track road was in sight but we were landed with another body blow. DIVERSION. There was no way we could add another metre to the 96 mile effort never mind a DIVERSION. Thankfully the distance was the same. Up and down. Up and down. This is how we would describe the final stretch. As we descended into Fort William the sun was shining as the girlfriends sat anxiously waiting.
We have never been so happy to finish something in our lives. This memory will LIVE with us FOREVER.
“The man at the start line is merely a shadow of the man at the finish line”