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The West Highland Way

In March the Bear interviewed one of his friends, Malcolm Fowler, about running the West Highland Way (WHW). When two other friends, Cat and Kate, read about it, they decided that they’d like to do it but in 4 days rather than Malcolm’s awesome 3 day challenge. With Malcolm and Cat’s husband Mike as their support crew, they booked accommodation and headed up to the starting point in Milngavie, near Glasgow. Here’s their story….

A tasty pasta-fuel dinner at Andiamos restaurant in Milngavie and a decent night’s sleep at the Premier Inn set us up for a good start. With the reality dawning on us of 4 marathons in 4 days (on minimal training), we were feeling a little nervous, but mainly excited.
We began at the official start at Milngavie station and then jogged through the town centre to the WHW photo-point, before waving goodbye to our support crew (Malcolm and Mike) and heading off on the route to meet my step-mum Jan and her horse Remy, at around 6 miles. For the first few miles, it was a little tricky to follow the signs and map, whilst chatting and taking in the scenery….and we missed a couple of turns, adding an extra 3 miles to our first leg. A phone call to Jan got us back on track and we soon met up with her and Remy for a quick hello and then onwards to Drumgoyne Garden Centre for a pitstop – 8 miles on the route but 11 miles for us!
Our next target was Drymen and then on through a forest towards Conic Hill and the first climb. We approached the summit of Conic Hill up a steady path with only a few walkers and a herd of Highland cattle to distract us. Malcolm was there to greet us, as he would be on most legs of the Way. When we reached the top it was packed with tourists climbing up and down from the other side. It wasn’t a fun descent, with endless muddy and slippy steps…..and it felt like long way down to Balmaha. By the base we’d run over 20 miles and were very pleased to stop for a sandwich and hot drink at the car. Malcolm and Mike had got pork pies for Kate, which became her lunchtime staple.
The rain started and we donned our waterproof jackets for the short but steep climb over Craigie Fort and down to the banks of Loch Lomond. As we were starting to creak a bit at this point, we distracted ourselves singing many renditions of the famous song “On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond”. We followed the Loch as it weaved in and out around Sallochy Bay and over many undulations until we reached Rowardennan Hotel, aptly named after the many Rowan Ash trees. The rain was heavy and we were rather wet and achy, having completed 30 miles that day. However, Mac and Cheese was on the menu for supper and the rooms were cosy , so all was well.

It continued to rain all night, creating a very atmospheric view of the weather rolling across Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond.

Day 2 started off from the hotel and continued along the shore of Loch Lomond, which is 23 miles long. The path soon passes an obelisk war memorial and we learned that Ben Lomond was bought as a memorial to those who lost their lives in WW1 and WW2. The path winds in and out of the Loch shore, which was a combination of pleasure and frustration: the views were stunning in the morning sunshine and we could hear the lovely sound of waves lapping on the shore but we were trying to run over a path of nobbly roots and rocks and could never quite get going. For short periods the path leaves the Loch into an ancient forest, which is perfectly silent and you feel as if you’ve been transported into into a magical land. With hindsight, we’d have been better to walk some of the shore section and relax to enjoy its beauty, rather than do battle with the endless lumps and bumps.
After about 8 miles, the path meets an impressive Waterfall before cutting through the grounds of Inversnade Hotel, where we met up with Malcom and Mike.
After Ardennan, they had to backtrack to Drymen, then travel onto to Aberfoyle and over the top to get Inversnade. So a relatively. short section for us was a 40 mile drive for them, but the picnic they provided was much appreciated!
Off again along the Lochside, we passed Rob Roy’s Cave, a tricky section, and finally left the Loch to travel up and over Cnap Mor through a misty drizzle and muddy moorlands. We descended to Beingglas Farm Camping site but our crew couldn’t get to us because the bridge had been damaged and there was no access from the main road. Ever-resourceful, they found another approach to meet us further down the path. This was the beginning of a severely flood-damaged section along the river Falloch, where we saw the full impact of a recent and mighty storm, having swept one bridge on the route away completely.
Further down the route, we re-emerged through two small tunnels, one a low cattle creep, to have a quick refuel by the A82 before ascending up and around Kirk Craig. We then left the WHW to descend through another ancient forest into Crianlarich. Through more heavy rain, we were soaked and after 26 miles, we were ready for a hot bath at the Crianlarich. Hotel.

We were soon warm and dry and snuggled up in the card room, enjoying hot soup, tea and scones….soon to be followed by dinner. By this stage we had various aches and were praying that they’d be gone by morning, with a good stretch and foam roller.

Day 3 started with a mile climb back up the hill through the ancient and eery woods to the WHW. Most of it was too steep to run and so we were able to give our stiff legs a nice and steady warm up. There wasn’t a soul around and the trees were sparkling with the sunlight on dew. There were many
mushrooms and ferns and no doubt eyes watching us that we couldn’t see. As we joined the WHW, it took a steep turn upwards through Ewick forest and then down for a good mile. Our legs felt light again and we were almost dancing down the forest path. Throughout the run, Kate taught me more about wild plants: we saw goats foot, venus fly trap, scabious, harebells, heather, larch, bracken, bilberries and brambles and many more.

As we headed towards Tyndrum, it was good running terrain, albeit very wet under foot, and we knew that a coffee break awaited us at the famous Green Welly cafe.

As we started going again, I was worrying about developing shin splints, so we had a very tentative start, straight up a steep hill to run along side the railway line. For the first time on the WHW, we were seeing and passing lots of walkers, many young Germans, carrying all their gear in large backpacks. We were sure that that was much harder than running! A lengthy goods train passed in the opposite direction and the driver gave an encouraging toot of his horn. We built up our momentum and regained our rhythm to run at a good pace to the Bridge of Orchy a further 7 miles down the way, where we had a brief snack at the station carpark. Again, It was a slow shuffle to re-start as stiffness was setting in fast each time we stopped. There was something about the shuffling movement that made us laugh each time. We’d shout “Let’s get ready to shuffle” and slowly get going.

We tackled a steep climb up an over to Inveruran, where Malcolm had stayed on his way through in March. The sun was out and it was pleasantly warm as we topped the cairn and took in 360 degrees of greenery, mountains and lochs before we enjoyed another “dancing descent” to a good running trail, which would lead us all the way through Rannoch Moor. This was the stretch that we were most excited about passing through. The views were literally breathtaking and it felt special, being on the other side where vehicles can’t reach. It was an 8 mile stretch, taking us up to 22 miles but the scenery so was so beautiful that we just counted them off. Finally we ascended up an over the end of the moor and enjoyed a 2 mile descent into Glen Coe, arriving at the door of our Inn for the night the Kingshouse. Apparently, it was called The Kingshouse because it was used by British army during the subjugation off the highlands after Jacobite rising of 1765. Recently modernised, it was a very welcome and luxurious break for our little team. Whilst a G&T was tempting, we had tea and scones , and watched a celebrity deer emerge from his hiding to to entertain the tourists. After a break to refresh, we had a delicious dinner in the glass fronted restaurant looking down Glen Coe.

We both started day 4, our last day with concerns of injury. An old knee injury of Kate’s was threatening and both my achilles were very bruised and tender. Kate’s knee held up well but my achilles worsened throughout the day, no doubt from then sudden increase in mileage and and not having adapted to running for so many hours each day on low drop off-road shoes.
We set off with Mike, all in midge head nets, along an old military road through the Glen before we turned off and climbed a mile up the Devils Staircase. Unlike Conic Hill, we were the only people on the dramatic summit. One thing that strikes you about the views in the Highlands is that there is water everywhere, from magnificent charging waterfalls to rushing rivers, babbling streams and lapping Lochs, which all add to the magic of the landscape. It was a 4 mile descent towards Kinlochleven, the first 2 miles of which were a joy but the last two were a grind to the bottom. Malcolm had met us half way and Mike was waiting at the bottom with a picnic of energy bars, pastries, sandwiches.

As we tackled another very challenging climb over Lairigmor, Dr Kate gave me a lesson in anatomy from the hips to the knees and importantly the areas causing the pain: the achilles tendons joining the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles to the calcaneal tuberosity on the heel bone!

Our path was rolling and we enjoyed big views and big scenery, singing along the glens and splashing through big puddles. It was great fun to start with but lunch was a couple of miles further on than expected and we had to try not to be grumpy. That’s me, I don’t Kate’s ever grumpy! Around this stage, we started to meet more walkers and the path was busier from thereon, to Fort William.

We were now on the last 7.5 mile leg and in good spirits but every step was painful for me and for both of us, it took all our concentration and effort to maintain a good rhythm and pace. The path undulates through the woods before joining a forest track for a long descent, in full view of Ben Nevis. When we reached the road we had a relatively fast 1.5 miles stretch into Fort William to original finish, just in front of our hotel. Like a race, we had new-found energy to motor along. We finished at exactly 100 miles on the Garmin.

A brief stop to freshen up and then we walked into Fort William for some delicious hot soup in Garrison West and visited the more recent end to the WHW (no doubt, to get people to come through the High Street). We had to pop into the pharmacy for emergency tubigrips! Dinner that evening was a special celebration at The Crannog restaurant, with Lorna and Finlay, my aunt and uncle. We raised a glass to our crew, Malcolm and Mike, for their magnificent support throughout…..essential for a successful and enjoyable challenge.

In summary, it was a great start for long distance running. With more long training runs, to build strength and help keep us injury free, we plan to tackle some more “Ways” in the future, possibly the Dales Way next.

What kit was the most helpful?

Hydration vest – my Archmax carried waterproofs, soft flasks, energy bars etc and I forgot I was wearing it.
OMM Halo waterproofs – feather-light and effective. Only wore the jacket, so the rest of me go soaked!
Peregrine shoes – comfortable and good across very varied ground from trail to mountain.
Compression calf sleeves and shorts – good for running in. I wish I’d also taken full length tights for evening recovery.
Twin skin shorts – Both Ronhill and Craft were really comfy.
Foam Roller – a good evening discipline
Ibuprofen and paracetamol – pain relief and anti-inflammatory
Beetroot juice – apparently good for endurance, especially if you drink it. For 2 weeks beforehand!

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