West Highland Way Adventures: The Last Chapter

Day 5: Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven

Awoke feeling very refreshed after a great night’s sleep at Tigh na Fraoch. Whenever we stay in Tyndrum (which we do fairly regularly to access the hills) this is our accommodation of choice. Heather, a lovely host, really makes it feel like coming ‘home’. It was good to catch up on Heather’s news last night – as a fellow runner there are always tales to trade over a cuppa! An early breakfast allowed a relaxed start to the day.

We were collected by taxi and taken back to Bridge of Orchy where we were deposited at the start of the Way. Unsure of the weather with rain showers forecast, we’d opted for base layers and jackets. Heading uphill to begin we quickly warmed up.

Bridge of Orchy from the West Highland Way

The first rain shower came, the waterproof trousers went on. I quickly overheated – I always find that no matter how ‘good’ my waterproofs are, I very quickly feel like I’m being boiled in the bag! The waterproofs came off. Another rain shower came, blowing in from behind. The waterproofs went on.

Loch Tulla, West Highland Way

At this point a decision was made – the waterproofs stay on until Kingshouse, hot or otherwise, and venting legs/pit zips would just have to suffice for cooling.

The path across Rannoch Moor is good. Showers blew through from time to time, usually very short lived, and the sun shone through occasionally. A rainbow appeared on the horizon and stayed with us for much of the way.

The breeze picked up as we progressed and the wind chill was at times considerable. As we headed down towards Kingshouse the wind direction appeared to change and it was particularly biting. I could now appreciate that the forecast of snow in Orchy tonight may not just be a figment of the forecaster’s imagination!

Arrival at The Kingshouse Hotel was timed pretty much perfectly, just ahead of the next rain shower, this time more prolonged – no bad thing as this meant Bruce was happy to sit for more than 5 minutes. We enjoyed a very leisurely lunch in the refurbished and very much upgraded restaurant, enjoying watching the progress of the rain and the deer running around outside through the huge panoramic windows. The cheese on toast was pretty amazing (as was Bruce’s soup).

West Highland Way, Kingshouse to Kinlochleven

Refreshed, and having seen the rain clouds having pretty much passed over, we readied ourselves for venturing out again. Waterproofs on, initially it felt very chilly. This was purely due to the warmth of the hotel, and by the time we’d made our way to the foot of the Devil’s Staircase we were ready yet again to get rid of the layers.

Again, we timed it to perfection! The sun broke through on our way along the path and we were free from the constraints of waterproofs for the slow, steady climb up the ‘staircase’, a blessed relief as it takes quite some time to reach the top and a fair heat is built up! At the top again the rain came on. Another shower and another quick turn for the waterproofs!

View from the Devil’s staircase heading down to Kinlochleven

I had it in my head that it was all downhill from here but I was wrong. We went down, and then we had to go up again. Up and down the undulating path went. Finally we got to the point I’d remembered where it really was all downhill to Kinlochleven.

Far better than I’d remembered, today it didn’t kill my quads. My knees weren’t screaming (and thankfully neither were his), and before we knew it we’d skipped down to the pipes. The houses by this point were tantalisingly close and suddenly we were at the back of the factory.

Delighted to have completed the longest leg of our journey, we headed straight to the local inn to celebrate before going onwards to our hotel.

Amazed (again) by how good a shower feels, we headed for dinner in the bar and enjoyed some good chat with a couple of guys who were also on the Way. Unlike us, they were camping – the ‘cheaper’ alternative. To clarify, they’d learned that it’s not really cheaper when you spend the night in the cosy bar, rather than outside in your cold tent!

Day 6: Kinlochleven to Fort William

Trying to avoid Bruce’s cold, I spent the night outdoors (or might as well have as I kept the window WIDE open to avoid germs); however, cocooning myself in the duvet gave plenty of warmth and comfort. I guess this is why mummy bags are so popular with campers!

Breakfast at the hotel was excellent – I love smoked salmon, and combine it with scrambled eggs and you’ve got a winner.

Setting off, it was up and out of Kinlochleven and I began a steady plod. Surprisingly, my legs felt pretty good again. I’ve been amazed this trip how strong I feel and how little DOMS I’ve experienced. It looks like despite cutting back on distance (not running at all for a fortnight!), the odd yoga practice and strength training have done me good.

Heading up and out of Kinlochleven on the West Highland Way

Ascent aside, it was a beautiful morning and the flurry of snow on the tops last night made for stunning views. The climb was long but we finally started to see the top of the tree line and the path levelling our ahead of us.

Leaving Kinlochleven on the West Highland Way

Climb over, the path ambles pleasantly along between the hills. This is easy walking, the only downside today being that we were heading into the wind. What a difference in conditions! Although still lovely in the sunshine, there was a real bite in the air and a wintry feel to things.

This reminds me why I’m not a great lover of winter hills – I seem to fluctuate between extremes, very hot or freezing!

Along this stretch we were caught up by a fellow walker. One of the things I love most about walking is the people you meet and, as always, it was good to exchange tales of the walk and hear someone else’s story. An interesting man, we walked quite a few miles as a group, easily passing the time.

Company on the trails, West Highland Way

Sunlight coming and going changed the colours and the landscape quite dramatically! I’ve loved the autumn tones this week, so beautiful. We’ve also been so fortunate with the weather, again only having a few very brief spots of rain today. The thought of returning to reality next week is not appealing at present. I’d happily just continue on.

The first glimpses of Ben Nevis came into view, thoroughly majestic and impressively clear. It’s a rare sight in all ways to see the Ben so clearly. It definitely looked far more picturesque with the snow covering.

Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, dusted by snow in October on a clear day

Ahead we dropped down before rising up through what was once forest. We parted ways with our walking buddy here, continuing on together. Dropping down through the trees finally with the Glen Nevis in sight, feelings were mixed. I’ve so enjoyed the walk this week and definitely need to do something like this again. Thoughts are drifting to next summer.

The road that leads from Glen Nevis to the finish of the West Highland Way is probably one of the least inspiring sections. It very much feels like a return to civilisation being back on tarmac, and not in a good way.

Back on the road, Glen Nevis round to Fort William, finishing the West Highland Way

We passed a few walkers on this final stretch, chatting briefly as we went. Coming into Fort William proper we got chatting to a couple at the ‘original’ end of the Way, ending up walking to the finish point in the town centre with them.

Photographs taken it was time to relax. Heading for the Grog & Gruel, we were joined by the couple we’d ended the Way with, shortly thereafter by the chap we’d walked with earlier. Good banter ensued and provided a great end to our adventure. Once again, the Way came up trumps proving why it’s such a special trip.

Statue at the end of the West Highland Way, Fort William

Prologue: West Highland Way

Our journey started from Fort William, leaving the car at the B & B after a relaxed overnight stay. We were rather delighted to find that the Black Isle Bar had opened and enjoyed a mighty fine pizza and a refreshing beverage (or two). Company was good and we enjoyed chatting to others, whiling away a couple of hours while the rain battered down outside. Careful planning ensured we got the pub before it started and left as it went off. 1-0 up!

The next stage saw us take the mid-morning train to Milngavie, and the world once again proved tiny, finding our allocated seats opposite an American couple we’d chatted to over breakfast. Cue lots of chat about their West Highland Way adventure and our upcoming trip.

Arriving in Milngavie we went for a walk to investigate the start of the route. Having found the start (and a new signpost indicating the correct way where previously we’ve gone wrong), we headed back to the centre. The discussion then involved pub or coffee. I won! So we had coffee, then went to the pub. Got my doggy fix in both, initially with Basil the Dalmatian, who had a rather impressive foray into Costa, sadly thwarted by his human who had initially been fooled into thinking he would be delighted to see him and requesting his lead be let loose; fooled! He said a brief hello, approached another few folks, then headed indoors for cake (or not). The second, a friendly chocolate Labrador in the pub who took advantage of being local, frequently doing a circuit taking in the bar (and behind it) before being ushered out. Think he was disappointed to find that the three dog biscuits on his first ‘bounce’ were not to be repeated.

A good night’s sleep in Premier Inn followed by a hearty breakfast ensured we were good to go.

Grey Corries, Fort William

Having checked out the weather forecast for the weekend we were left with no alternative. Alarm set for 5 am, it was a ridiculously early start (all the more so for those of us on holiday!) in order to head for Spean Bridge.

These have been on Bruce’s radar for a few years now, but have always escaped his clutches due to bad weather. Not today though. The very warm weather followed us west and it was near 20C when we left the car. Way too hot for my liking! Suncream clarted on, sunhat and full sleeves/long trousers, I was a’ the bash!

First up, a good track took us to meet the wee minister, a carved wooden statue that watches over the glen. He was somewhat larger than anticipated, not really that wee!

The wee minister, Spean Bridge, Fort William

This good track continued climbing very gradually allowing us to gain a few hundred metres in height. Reaching the Lairg Leacach Bothy, we stopped for a sandwich, only realising at this point how long it had already been since breakfast.

Lairig Leacach Bothy

Onwards, the wide stream was easily crossed thanks to the spate of recent dry weather. We even had a few sheep pick their way over the stones ahead of us to show the best route. A small cairn then marked the track off up the hill and footprints could be found in the grass to indicate the pull up the side.

Path from cairn up towards Stob Ban (Grey Corries) looking back to the corbett

This faint path swept round to the shoulder, a good path then pulling us along the ridge and up onto the summit of Stob Ban. This final ascent was steep, but the zig zagging path meant there was nothing too taxing involved. Always good on the first summit of the day!

Continuing on, we had to descend via a steep scree slope. Oh, how I love scree! I debated in my head whether I have more affinity towards scree or scrambling; the decision has not yet been reached. Maybe scrambling is preferable?!

Lochan looking back towards Stob Ban

The flatter bealach was fairly easily reached as there wasn’t too much drop overall. This was good as it obviously meant not too much ascent to reach our second summit, Stob Coire Claurigh. There was a good path up this so we made decent progress and before long had reached the top with stunning views along the ridge.

Grey Corries ridge

Although it had been a little windy at times, we’d managed to dip in and out of it with the odd bit of shelter as we’d progressed. However, as the ridge opened up the wind also appeared to pick up. We were increasingly buffeted, more so as we moved along, and it was at this time that Bruce’s Buff cap blew away! How very frustrating, particularly given that it was it’s first outing! To make matters worse, it didn’t just blow away, it soared upwards, tantalisingly floating around for some time before coming to rest somewhere down the rocky slope, far out of our reach.

The ridge took in three further tops before reaching Stob Coire an Laoigh. Due to the wind we weren’t greatly inclined to linger. I was, by this point, getting a little fed up of being blasted and the ridge, although not exceptionally steep at the sites, was enough to make me uncomfortable in these conditions. Reaching the top of Stob Coire Easain I therefore decided to sit the next one out – quite literally.

Grey Corries ridge

While Bruce continued on to Sgurr Choinnich Mor, I sat in a sheltered position behind the cairn. It was amazing how even in the mild temperatures I cooled quickly, and before too long I had both jacket and gloves on while seeing Bruce finally reach the shoulder ridge on his ascent. It took around 90 minutes for him to return and I was glad to see him reappear, particularly as my Raynauds had kicked in and my fingers were cold and painful, despite the rest of me feeling okay.

I very quickly warmed up again on moving and we followed a path across a minor peak, Beinn na Socaich, before descending via a grassy slope with vague hints of footprints here and there. The stream at the bottom was easily crossed, again thanks to the recent dry conditions, and it was then the long slog back to the car, fortunately on good fire roads which made it less arduous.

Finishing our day, reflecting as we walked, I was happy with my lot – again quite happy to miss a peak as I’m not ‘bagging’ so don’t really care about the numbers – while Bruce was delighted; as they’ve been on his radar for a few years and now they’ve finally been done!

2018 Fort William Marathon – As good as I remembered and then some!

A week has passed since I completed the 2018 Fort William Marathon, my second attempt at this beautiful race. Having loved it in 2017, I signed up for 2018 pretty much immediately afterwards, my main fear going into the race that it might not be as good as I remembered and I’d be disappointed. Fear not, it was as good and even better!

2017 was a solo expedition as the weather forecast wasn’t great. Bruce therefore decided against joining me as the hill walking he’d hoped for looked unlikely. This year, however, he was again hankering after hills and had decided to come along, hoping to complete the Ring of Steall. Sadly the weather was against him on this – no point in going if there’s no chance of a view – but he did get some walking in elsewhere. He also opted in last minute to volunteer … more on that later.

Making a weekend of it, we headed over to Fort William on Friday afternoon, settling into our B & B before heading out for a meal. An early night was called for as I like to sleep plenty in the run up to the marathon, easing any worries of being restless the night before. Bruce, having checked the forecast for Corrour, had opted for an early start on Saturday. This worked out perfectly for me as I barely registered him getting up to catch the first train out of Fort William, opting for a more leisurely breakfast time myself. I then headed back to bed and enjoyed the luxury of yet more sleep before waking at 11 am and heading for the station to meet him off the train, returning happy having walked the single train munro, Beinn na Lap.

A leisurely afternoon was spent having lunch and browsing the shops in Fort William, later heading to the Grog and Gruel, our favourite pub, for dinner. Having stocked up on carbs over the previous couple of days I opted for the ‘eat what you fancy’ train of thought and enjoyed a burger. Home early, I laid out my tried and tested kit – Brooks Ghost shoes, Metro Aberdeen club vest, Ronhill shorts, Balega Hidden Comfort socks, and my current preferred race fuel, Clif Shot Bloks and Lucozade Sport.

Surprisingly enough, I slept pretty soundly again – if sleep was the only key to success I might have won the race – and felt quite relaxed going for breakfast. Not one to shake things up on race day, I opted for my usual pre-race breakfast of porridge with banana and chia seeds, and toast with peanut butter, washed down with plenty of peppermint tea.

Bruce volunteering, we had to be at the Nevis Range for 8:30 am. In my usual style, I was running late by this point and was grateful to him for geeing me along. Had he not been in the car with the engine running outside I’d probably have continued faffing for at least another 10 minutes or so, only to then panic when I realised how little time I had left to get there! He headed off for the volunteer briefing when we reached the Nevis Range and I faffed as only I can for some considerable time. I bumped into fellow Aberdeen parkrunner, Ally, and his wife Kay, enjoying a chat with them before going to get clarted in suncream. The weather was overcast with a forecast of rain later but I was taking no chances. Being of true Scottish fair skin I have an ability to get sunburn in any weather.

Chip on my shoe, suncream on, and at least one comfort break later, I bumped into Natalia, my clubmate from Metro Aberdeen. Her first marathon, she was fun of enthusiasm. Pleasantries exchanged, she headed off for a warm-up. My warm up routine consisted of some stretches (courtesy of Helen Strachan, physio extraordinaire), and the first few miles of the run. If I’m running 26.2 miles there’s no way I’m running further before I begin!

Pre-marathon at Fort William Marathon

Time passed quickly and before I knew it we were being called to the start. I’d briefly seen Bruce to pass on the car key and say a final goodbye, and was aware that he was going to be somewhere in the first few hundred metres. In his usual style, he made me laugh as he called out, asking me how it was going so far as I passed by having almost missed him.

Fort William Marathon - Leaving the Nevis Range at the start

The first few miles are gradually uphill, starting near the Gondola Station, and I’d cautioned both Natalia and Ally to take it easy here. The temptation with all races is to go off too quickly, and in a marathon you can’t claw this time back at the end if your legs give up or your energy runs out. I happily plodded along giving myself time to get into the swing of running, confident that I’d gain more than I’d lose by letting others pass me at this stage.

Fort William Marathon Elevation Profile

Heading up the fire road, I exchanged a bit of chat with some other runners. There were a few 100 marathon club t-shirts on the go – I have no idea how these people do it, and always enjoy hearing about their favourite marathons and the number they’ve completed in total. Further along I got chatting to a young man from Edinburgh who told me he’s getting married in two weeks – less than a week to go now! Should he read this, all the very best for a long and happy future with your new wife.

The marathon route is stunning. For me, this beats a road marathon any day. I defy anyone to try running here and not fail to be impressed by the views on offer. Despite the rain on Saturday, it was clear, and with less humidity than we’ve been used to the running conditions were pleasant. Drainage has been improved on the flat fire road section around 6 miles, and the huge muddy puddle that had us skirting around it and up the bank before the (failed) leap of faith last year had gone with a big drainage ditch running alongside instead.

Further on we started to make our way downhill so I decided to stop chatting and push on a little more, enjoying the opportunity to relax and stretch out the legs. The path narrows in places and there were some gentle undulations and single track paths to keep the mind focused a little more.

Finally reaching the road crossing at Spean Bridge it was a pleasant surprise to find the Police holding traffic and giving runners priority. One cheeky cyclist decided he was going instead and I’m sure regretted this move when given a ticking off by the Policeman! Rules are rules! I’m sure next time he’ll do as told without question.

Continuing on, we crossed the bridge and had a short section along the pavement before heading swiftly off road again onto more single track paths. This took us up, up, up and the enthusiastic spectators at the Commando Memorial could be heard long before they were seen! On reaching them and another water station, I passed Natalia before heading downwards towards Gairlochy.

Fort William Marathon - first 13 miles (Strava splits)

Being a bit of a running geek, I like to keep a paper diary in addition to the more modern online record that is Strava. My plan had therefore been to pace in a similar manner to last year as that earned me a PB, and I therefore chose to pick up the pace further at this point. Reaching the canal path I felt strong and began to pick people off targeting one runner after the other. There was a slight breeze along the canal but unfortunately it felt like we were running into it; it was refreshing nonetheless. Encouragement from walkers, canoeists and boats was welcomed.

As I progressed along this section, I became increasingly aware of my tightening calves and pain in my back. By the time I reached Neptune’s staircase I wondered if ditching my waistpack would help and was surveying the terrain for somewhere to dump it, planning to collect it later. Turning onto the minor road, I wondered about leaving it in the long grass but was concerned that it might get picked up as rubbish. There was also the worry that driving back up this road when other runners were potentially still on the course wasn’t the safest move ever so I fastened it back on and held onto it until finally the temptation of the the manicured lawn at Lochaber High School proved too much; over the railings it was flung!

Carrying on, I reached a further road crossing at the A82, and again the Police were holding traffic and giving runners priority. This took me back onto the bike path that heads up to the Nevis Range and I was pleased to be on this final drag. I continued to pass a few more people but felt like I was beginning to struggle, despite the pace holding out fairly well.

Fort William Marathon (Last 13 miles, Strava splits)

Turning off towards the North Face car park I was greeted by the familiar small bridge and I’m sure it was steeper than last year! Heading up towards the car park I was passed by one runner who was looking stronger than me and we exchanged brief pleasantries.

The pull up the fire road from here saw quite a few people walking, and while my legs and back were sore, I was determined to keep slogging it out. Seeing the 24 mile marker I knew that the race was in the bag and I would complete whatever; I started to feel quite emotional at this point. A little further on I spotted an Insch Trail Runner. Always fine to see a local vest, I yelled at him something to effect that, ‘I thought you teuchters were made of tough stuff!’ This gave him a wee bit of motivation to pick it up again, I hope.

Overwhelmed by mile 25, I struggled to hold back the tears. I could vaguely hear the sounds of the PA system as I headed through the last section of single track, up and down in the footy section of the forest, and was delighted to hear the friendly shouts of Kay and Ally as I headed down the finishing straight towards the line. When Bruce stepped forward to put the medal round my neck and give me a hug the tears did come!

2018 Fort William Marathon Finisher's T-shirt and Medal

It was such a lovely moment to have him do this and will stay in my special memories forever. He then returned to his ‘proper job’, cutting the chip off my shoe and chatting, inviting me to sit for as long as I needed.

I was delighted with my run. No PB today but you can’t have one every time. I ran strongly and once again loved the course. It’s amazing how quickly the time passes when you’re enjoying it!

Each and every one of the marshals and volunteers was great and they were such an encouraging and supportive team throughout the event. The goody bag was great and contained a Ben Nevis whisky miniature (which Bruce later traded for a Fort William buff), alongside some nibbles. I can’t recommend this marathon enough and most definitely plan to return next year.

Congratulations again to Natalia on completing her first marathon, and to Ally for completing his first Fort William Marathon and getting a PB! A great day out for us all.