Wednesday, 19 October 2011

West Highland Way recce

I’ve had an affinity with the West Highland Way (WHW) since reading John Kynaston’s blog in preparation for this year’s Highland Fling. There are many others who contribute to the WHW story but John gets the most hits on google; that’s how I found out about it (and the famous WHW family).

I suppose in one way my proposed winter attempt may be regarded as a calling. My reasons for planning to do this have been documented earlier.

For the run itself I plan to set off from Milngavie at 8am on 9th Dec 2011, following the traditional south to north direction taken during the annual footrace. I will be running with a good friend, Rob Kennedy, who just happened to offer his companionship for the whole thing!

The plan is to get to Beinglas Farm whilst just getting dark and from thereon in travel with headtorches on.  

As I haven’t done the whole of the WHW I wanted to make sure there were no nasty surprises ahead of me which could result in me getting horribly lost on the attempt, hence this recce.

My original plan was to get the train to Ardlui which is on the opposite side of Loch Lomond from Beinglas Farm and a couple of miles further south. I’d then do the route to Fort William over two days camping somewhere in the middle. Then return to Ardlui via train and do the whole thing again in the dark.

Family commitments and some words of advice from a certain gentleman (mentioned above) forced a rethink.

So plan B;
Drive to Ardlui, leave the car there, run to Kingshouse Hotel, stay there, run to Fort William the following morning and return to car via train.

All in, less than 36hrs away from the wife and kids. I liked plan B a whole lot better.

Plus by running at 6am on Tuesday morning I got to find out how the head torch would get on. For an interesting read about the debate on head torches click on this link. Within there is another posted by Peter Duggan which is really useful.

Pre recce
Last week I was ill, for the first time since April. Both my kids were full of some viral infection so I probably picked something up from them. Nevertheless I had a go at doing some sort of training albeit carefully.

By Saturday I had amassed a paltry18miles. I had planned to do the recce on Saturday and Sunday but I was still feeling like crap so I binned it until I felt reasonably better. Thankfully I got to watch Wales in the Rugby World Cup Semi-Final and then Utd play Liverpool on the telly. This was a real treat as I rarely get to chill out these days.

On Sunday I felt great. So I decided I’d go the following morning. And to build some fatigue into the legs for the recce, I took myself out for a leisurely 20 miles, done at less than 70% of maximum heart rate and in 2hrs 40mins i.e. 8min/miles. I had thought that with some freshness in the legs (from not being able to train) I might have had a better time but there are some cheeky hills on that route, so overall I was happy. And I got up to around half of my weekly average.

That run also gave me the opportunity to try out a new nutrition strategy which I will write about at some point in the future. Essentially I had no complaints from the tummy but again I don’t know if this is because I wasn’t running with fatigue (as I usually do at the weekend) or if it was because my strategy was working.

Day 1. Monday 17th October 2011
I had the car packed the night before but as is always the case I did forget something.........a watch!

I set off at 6am and drove up to Ardlui which took me 3 hrs. The weather forecast was grim so it was full waterproofs on for the day.

Now, normally I steer clear of waterproof trousers but a little flirtation with hypothermia on the infamous OMM that was eventually cancelled (for the first time in its 40yr history) paid me a lesson I’ll never forget. Still we (Rob and I) managed to complete day 1 (placed in the top 20) and were gutted for it to be called off.

Back to the here and now.........and into my very first step of running I felt a hot sharp ‘ping’ on the right side of my right knee but almost instantly said to myself ‘it’ll be fine’, as you do. So off I went along the A82 passing the Drovers Inn. If only I knew at the time that John K and his wife, Katrina were there and planning on running the same section as me that very morning! Looking back I can’t help thinking about that coincidence and my new calling.

Down into Beinglas and away. Unfortunately this morning I never implemented the new eating strategy because of the uncertainty of where I was going and how long it would take me to get there. The strategy is all about timing you see.

The run was a pleasure until I got to the forest at Crianlarich. From there to the hill out of Tyndrum I pretty much walked the whole way. This was a surprising body blow. Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t in race mode but I did want to manage a fairly decent cadence for the day. I think I know where I went wrong. It may have been the apple Go-ahead bar that I had just before the forest but by the same token my knee had been niggling away for quite a while now. Anyway, I just had no inclination for running at all – even on the downs.

I resolved to try and at least take something from the two days I was sacrificing from being away from my family on our week off work. So after Tyndrum I got back into shuffling mode which seemed to work because I managed to keep going almost the entire way to the Bridge of Orchy.

This was a nice little treat. The couple of isolated Highland cows standing in the path and refusing to budge made me smile. I wonder what this encounter would be like in the dark. 

At the Bridge of Orchy, I stopped for a coffee and slice of cake and then set off. The weather was playing its part in keeping me on my toes but I have to say it wasn’t as bad as expected. Sure it was cold, wet and windy but if you’ve ever been to the Falklands you’ll know that nothing compares. 

I was getting happy again going up the hill out of the Bridge’. I was using my hill muscles and giving my inferior running muscles a little break. However, that disinclination for running re-materialised at the top, just when I’d have been grateful for the run down to the Inveronan hotel. This time the coconut slice was getting the blame! At least I was learning stuff here.

And that was me until close to the Glencoe Ski resort – walking! Thankfully this section was breathtakingly picturesque (though obviously won’t be in the dark). With the weather being as ‘awful’ as it was it really was a time to savour, a time to thank the Creator (if there be one) that I am Scottish.

The walk/run from the hotel is fairly flat until you get to the Forest Lodge (about 1km) from there the path just seems to go up and up for what seemed like forever. It isn’t a significant drag, I could probably run it if I was feeling up to it but today it felt like I was never going to top out.

From looking at the map at the Bridge of Orchy I reminded myself to look for the Ba Bridge as I told myself that there was a climb of about 75m ascent out from there and then a runnable section down to Kingshouse hotel. Traipsing along I could hear lots of sheep but curiously could not see them. That’s when I met this bridge.........and allowed myself a wry smile.

Again just like cresting out from Tyndrum I found something within that wanted to run again so off I went – all the way to the hotel. By the time I got there I was really knackered.

It took about 3hrs for my heart rate to return to what felt like normal after that. But the shower, meal and bed all helped out enormously. Ardlui – Kingshouse Hotel: 33miles (by map), 6hrs 45mins.

I instructed myself that tomorrow was going to be great.

Day 2. Tuesday 18th October 2011
I rose at 0330hrs and got my breakfast into me;
·         2 mini sausage rolls,
·         1 High 5 sports bar,
·         1 apple go bar, and
·         3 glasses of luke warm water

Obviously the hotel staff weren’t going to get up especially to prepare me something for breakfast so I improvised with some of the food I had left over from yesterday. I then packed my kit and got my head down until 0545hrs. I then rose, got changed and was off by 0600hrs (after another glass of water).

From the off I was into the wind and rain. It was pitch black but I could still make out the hulk of Buachaille Etive Mor to my left and Beinn a Chrulaiste to my right. I was soon at the foot of the Devils Staircase and up and over it. I took the torch off on the other side as I could see the ground without it.

One thing about moving in the dark though, I probably took more walking breaks than I would do if it were light. I’m guessing this is to do with being sure footed. Perhaps if the WHW was tarmac this might not be an issue. That isn’t a request by the way. However, there are definitely some sections that are more runnable than others, even on the flat.

The run down from the Devils Staircase and then into Kinlochleven was out of this world, a real pleasure, even though I caught the posterior impingement a couple of times; a timely reminder that unless it gets operated on there is no way I can return to fell running where the terrain and ferocity of traversing it is multiplied ten-fold.

The climb out of Kinlochleven didn’t come as a surprise as I’d studied the map. What did nearly put the skids on the day was the ground under foot, after cresting out. From recollection I remember telling myself that I’d make up good time here. But then I hadn’t accounted for the howling headwind and rain ‘nor the state the path was in. I virtually walked this section until I turned the corner of Meall a Chaorainn to my right. 

I was freezing by this point and was feeling sorry for myself by the time I got to a large tourist information board which stated that I still had 7.5miles to go OR (I could wimp out and take the) 4.5miles back to Fort William via the adjacent public road.

Here was my dilemma; I had to get the 1140 train. I left Kingshouse hotel at 6am thinking I’d be in Fort William for tea and scones by 11am. Think again numbskull. From asking someone what time it was at Kinlochleven I knew I was behind target when they said “ten past 8”. That body blow was hurting as much as the slow progress I’d made since then.

I took my phone out of its waterproof bag and turned it on to get an update on the time. I decided that if it told me it was past 10am I was going to have to sack it and take the easy option. I still had 7.5miles to go and by my reckoning that equated to around 1hr and 50mins, maybe more going by how slow I had been going. I simply couldn’t miss that train.

The phone said it was 10am on the money! Right, game on stop being a woos and get on with it. The waterproof trousers came off, I downed a gel and off I power hiked up the hill in front of me.

I was back in the zone. There is probably one uphill section after this that got me to slow but as anyone who’s ever done this will point out, it’s actually downhill for the majority. My quads were taking a right bashing but I had a train to catch.

At the car park where the Way meets the road I asked someone what time it was.
How far to the train station?
About 2 or 3 miles.
SH*T, I’ve got to go. Thaaaaannnkks.......

It couldn’t have been that far as I got there at 1130hrs, sweating buckets and breathing out of my backside. I even had time to grab a bacon and egg roll and cup of coffee from the cafe next door to the ticket office before boarding the train.

Kingshouse hotel – Fort William train station: 23.5miles (I think), 5hrs 30mins.

So was the recce useful?
Of course it was.

I’ve learnt more stuff about running whilst fatigued and come to realise that I would have to switch off for a long time to miss a sign post and get lost.

I’m really surprised with how slow I was. For example, I did an easy 20 miles on Sunday in 2hrs 40mins; look how long I was on the go on day 2 of the recce. I don’t really know what to think of this right now though. It could be for a whole host of reasons but ultimately perhaps I’m not as fit as I perceive myself to be.

Nevertheless I’m really looking forward to making this challenge a reality and know that the support crew will be needed more than ever.

I could go on about nutrition but in a bid to keep this post a little briefer I’ll save it for another time.

As for the Way itself, I have to say for me this will be a bigger challenge than the Bob Graham Round.

The BGR is not something you can run, well certainly not that vast majority of us. It is a challenge you do by going up and down. As I’ve explained before, my legs are more suited to that sort of thing. They are not suited to running hence the title of my blog.

This is why the WHW is such a challenge for me and why to date my training for it has been far more in depth and focussed than what I did for the BGR. Although I must admit that snippet probably has more to do with illness hampering the training than a lack of focus.

Fingers crossed I can keep up the good momentum I have so far amassed.


  1. Sounds like a good couple of days out on the WHW. I'm intrigued by your winter WHW attempt - I think I could be tempted to come out and run a bit of it on the Friday night if you want some company?

  2. Great report.

    So sorry we missed each other on Monday. It would have been good to run that section together. Maybe next time!

    All the best for your preparation for 9th December. If I can I'll come to Milngavie on the way to work and see you off!

  3. Cheers guys. It'd be good to see you for the send off, John and yes thanks, Ali some company would be ideal and thanks for the tip re the headtorch on the forum.

    I'll be in touch