Only a couple of years ago I would have said this challenge was well beyond my capabilities. I hadn’t run further than 53 miles (a phrase guaranteed to annoy your average marathon runner) never mind seriously contemplated the actual West Highland Way race.
Why then did I find myself outside the Lochaber Leisure centre in Fort William on an unusually mild December evening?
Inspiration is the answer. Inspired and motivated by the acts of others. I, like many before me, simply thought “that’s pretty gnarly & cool, maybe I could give that distance/race/challenge a crack one time?”
That’s the main reason why I ended up doing the WHW race in 2015 and also pretty much how I ended up in the Leisure Centre car park on 29th December 2016 to begin a winter solo effort.
All of these showed the difficulties involved and how the weather can hamper your efforts no matter how determined you are.
I think I first gave it serious thought after reading about Keith Mabbott giving it a go unsupported in 2016.
The unsupported thing attracted me somewhat, not sure why, I just thought that would be pretty cool. Carrying all your own kit and fuel and just going for it.
Completing the summer race in 2015 with a not too shabby time only increased my confidence and the likelihood of me giving the lone winter version a go sometime.
2016 was my year of going long, decent warm up at the 53 mile Fling in April then into the 105 mile Lakeland 100 in July. Completing 151 miles around a track at Tooting Bec in September, and finally the Sandstone Way 120 miler in October.
With all that under my belt I was pretty comfortable with the thought of around 100 miles of running. During a nice lazy November recovery period thoughts turned to the winter WHW challenge.
The 29th December date was chosen basically because it was the only quiet period in the family diary. I posted a wee enquiry on the WHW facebook page as to what people’s thoughts were on the supported versus unsupported definitions.
Some great debate and comments ensued and I came to the conclusion that “self sufficient” was perhaps a better description for completing it by carrying all you need and with no outside help from start to finish.
I had a rough idea that no one had done it completely self-sufficiently before and the knowledgeable people on the facebook group seemed to think the same.
To be the first had a certain attraction to it along with ticking the “gnarly and cool” box in my warped mind.
Paul Giblin’s time was referenced as the quickest winter WHW time so far. That would have been nice to beat but realistically only achievable if conditions were a lot less hazardous than he had experienced. Finishing it self sufficiently was my main priority.
I took some WHW result times and reverse splitted them to give me the below guideline table for timings. I didn’t really factor in that most people start quick and finish slow. Just a very rough guide for Fraser and I to work off.
The date was set and a rough plan formed. Ultra running friend Fraser McCoull would be my emergency support in case my self suffiency objective turned into “shit, I need some help here!”
I felt it was only responsible to have some sort of escape plan rather than knocking on someone’s door in the middle of the night saying “I am a stupid ultra-runner, its proper baltic, get me out of here!”
Fraser would drop me at Fort William and then enjoy the comforts of my campervan until the finish or my call for assistance came in. Simples.
Preparation hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary to my usual start to winter training. I took a decent break after the 120 mile Sandstone Way Ultra on the 22nd October and only started training again properly midway through November. Through December I was completing roughly 50miles a week and feeling pretty good.
It was clear that a bit more kit than your normal ultra race would be required not to mention all the food. My usual Ultimate Direction vest wouldn’t have the space for the extra kit I needed to carry. Luckily Ultimate Direction make something for this type of task and it’s called the Fastpack (20 or 30 litre versions).
I opted for the 20litre version and my sponsors Beta Climbing designs graciously supplied one at short notice when I told them of my plans. The kit I would carry was based upon a worst case scenario. Something happening that meant I couldn’t move much at all and would maybe have to wait for help to come.
With that in mind I rented a tracker from Racedrone.net http://www.eventstracking.com/shop/ that would allow Fraser and a small group of people to follow my progress. A bargain £18 for an extra layer of safety cover .
I would also carry enough kit that would enable a complete change of clothes and a protective bivvy bag to bed down in and wait while help came.
The full list included:
The Fastpack 20;
Bivvy bag, spare base layer bottoms and top;
Full waterproof cover (OMM Kamlieka top and bottoms);
Down jacket and lined walking trousers, spare gloves (Buffalo mittens) spare socks, spare headtorch and spare batteries;
Mini charger brick, Fenix 3 charging cable;
Mobile Phone, Map, Compass;
300ml thermos Flask, 2 x 500 UD soft flasks;
Nutrition was an overdose of Cadbury mini roll bars, 25 to be exact, 2 boost bars, 7 Tailwind sachets and 10 High 5 effervescent tablets;
All in the kit came to just under 5kg. Well over double what I would normally carry for your average ultra minimum kit list.
On the 29th December Fraser and I headed to Fort William in the Campervan. A brief stop at Glencoe ski centre confirmed there was no snow or ice on the ground. From the road we could see there was a tiny bit showing around the top of the devils staircase but I decided the Kahtoola ice spikes wouldn’t be required. That saved a few 100 grams of weight.
In the weeks leading up to my run Caroline McKay became the first women to complete it in winter. I heard she had trouble with the forestry operations diversion in place between Fort William and Lundavra and lost a lot of time because of it.
This was a major concern for me as I really wanted to complete the official route and didn’t want to get lost in there at night because of the route being blocked or torn up. Using the diversion up the single track road wouldn’t have felt the same.
To reduce the chances of a navigation challenge I slightly increased the requirements of Fraser’s “easy support jolly” by asking him if he would be happy to complete a wee recce of this section South to North starting at Lundavra. He was happy to oblige and so I dropped him at Lundavra about 5.30pm and he set off into the dark to check on the route to Braveheart car park.
With minimal phone signal around this area this is where the timings could all have gone badly wrong if Fraser had got himself lost in some sort forestry operations trench hellhole and we couldn’t contact each other.
All went well though and we reconvened about an hour later near Braveheart car park when I scared the shit out of him by jumping out of the bushes. He reported that the path did disappear under a sea of tree branches at a couple of points and he hit the fire road at a slightly higher point after losing it completely. With this info, OS mapfinder tiles in my phone, map and compass I felt the risk of fighting through trees or getting lost was minimal.
With a few hours to kill before my intended start time of 9 or 10pm pre challenge fuelling commenced at the Great Glen in Fort William. Some nice pasta was swiftly dispatched before Fraser selfishly outdid me on the calorie count with his choice of Chocolate fudge cake versus my Chocolate Brownie (McCoull 950 calories, MacNicol 947).
We parked the van up outside the leisure centre and I faffed with my kit some more before coming to the conclusion that dinner had been digested enough and now was as good a time as any (8.30pm)
I phoned my wife Gillian and asked her to send the pre prepared email with the tracker link to my coaching clients and a few other interested ultra nerds. In keeping with previous winter attempts I was intending to keep it low key until completion.
At 8.33pm I gave the leisure centre door a wee pat and set off into the night.
Progress to Lundavra was good and there were only a couple of tricky points where the path disappeared. It was quickly found again and I was at Lundavra in about 1hrs 10 mins. This was a load off my mind and I ran to Kinlochleven in the light rain and wind feeling pretty positive. The wind increased a bit but thankfully not the rain. A few near slips calmed my pace down a wee bit, progress was still good though and I was in Kinlochleven in 2 and a half hours. Far too quick really.
I refilled my bottles here next to the pipes after the bridge before starting the climb. Thinking I wouldn’t be in the mood for any photos later on I nearly fell in the burn completing a timer photo doing this task below.
Luckily the climb out of Kinlochleven is early on a north to South completion as it’s probably the toughest section of the route. Nearly 5 miles and about 1800ft of climb. The rain and wind increased a couple of notches about 3/4 of the way up this climb but with the temperature about 6 or 7 degrees it wasn’t a major issue.
It felt good to be over the Devils Staircase and on the way to Glencoe. With the rain getting heavier I sheltered for a moment at the Kingshouse hotel and decided it was time for my waterproof trousers to go on over my shorts.
Fully waterproof suited and booted it was off past the ski centre and onto Rannoch Moor to get blasted sideways and head on by the wind and rain. After a brief wrong turn coming off the moor I got to Inveroran and refilled my bottles again at the bridge there.
My headtorch was fading but with the bottle fill seeming to take ages I decided I could get to Bridge of Orchy before faffing with batteries as well. The descent off Jelly Baby hill was a bit precarious due to earlier torch decision but without incident.
Murdo Mcewan had advised me he wasn’t going to be in his usual place of duty due to my stated self-sufficient objective. Just as well as it might have been difficult refusing a jelly baby had he decided to turn up there at 2 in the morning.
Another brief shelter at Bridge of Orchy hotel (35miles) to change the headtorch batteries and I was feeling good again and on the road to Tyndrum.
There was another brief navigation error halfway to Tyndrum as I missed the gate for the track up to the tunnel under the rail line and briefly headed towards Auch Estate before I realized my mistake.
I rolled through a dark and driech Tyndrum knowing that Fraser was probably snoozing cosily in the van only a few 100 metres away.
No matter, I had half way as my next major milestone and cracked on to Auchterytyre. Another brief water stop at the burn halfway between Tyndrum and Auchtertyre, another explosive mess with a tailwind sachet.
Over the rollercoaster in the Crainlarich woods and finally I hit the halfway gate. I told myself it was mainly easy downhill to Bein Glass now but got so pissed off with mud, rocks and cow poo here that I had to stop for a break and do a naff video on my phone showing the water being squeezed out of my gloves. Obviously tired as its 7.21am not 7hrs 21 of running like i said, more like 11hrs at this point.
Through Bein Glass (55miles) at 0800ish and finally daylight began to appear and with it the rain finally began to let up.
Onto the lochside and the rough section to Inversnaid fair broke up my stride. Not long after here I began to feel some tightness in my left shin/ankle.
I was slowing somewhat and taking too many walk breaks on the slightest inclines. My Fenix 3 low battery warning came on so getting out the charging brick and cable and setting it up gave me another wee break.
Onto the new low path to Rowardennan which I was looking forward to as it was new ground for me rather than a long drag up the forestry road.
A few miles from Rowardennan a couple of runners were bombing towards me. They were nearly on top of me before I realized it was WHW legend Paul Giblin and John Connolly out on a training run. They offered a good few words of encouragement, which I needed at the time as I was feeling a bit sorry for myself; and then scarpered off at probably double the pace I was managing.
Yet another water stop just before Rowardennan which must have taken a good few minutes as when I went to run again my ankle/shin issue seemed to have stiffened quite a bit during the stop.
Rowardennan to Balmaha seemed to take me forever with low energy levels again. This was confirmed when I checked my stats afterwards. 1hr 40 mins for the 7.5 miles!! A brisk walk basically.
Conic hill was weighing heavily on my mind as well as my hopes of getting under 21hrs. I crawled up Conic only slightly faster than the tourist walkers and then had some words with myself about getting under the 21hrs marker.
A decent impression of running followed down to Drymen and most of the way to the Beech Tree Inn. I was moving ok on the flat and allowing myself only minimal walking on any inclines. The darkness came back just as I was getting to Mugdock Park.
Headtorch tunnel vision resumed and I texted Fraser to ask him to get some frozen peas for my shin. I had texted him my times as I went through the major CP’s in case he hadn’t been able to access the tracker. This was the only text he responded too as he didn’t want to be too supportive. lol.
I had some paranoid worries about getting lost in Mugdock park but the signage was pretty good and soon I was near the end of the way.
I rolled onto the high street with quite a smile on my face and jogged up to the underpass expecting Fraser and Gillian with the kids to be waiting on the other side. Through the underpass and there’s Fraser waiting to see me. No Gillian and kids who roll up 5mins later wondering how they missed me pass on the high street somehow. Family support fail!
20hrs 33mins 12 secs on the watch, 97.94miles according to Garmin.
Primary objective of a self-sufficient run was in the bag. Billy bonus with the secondary objective as well of getting under the previous winter fastest known time (FKT)
Pretty damn pleased I was and after a wee sit down it was into the van to get the frozen peas onto my shin and hopefully reduce the swelling a bit. Before long we were all sat in the Burnbrae Inn enjoying a fine feast.
It was a great challenge and winter training motivator. I realize I was very fortunate with the weather but like to think I was prepared for the worst had it been the case.
Should you be inspired to give this a go yourself my top tips would be:
Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
Have back up support in case the plan goes wrong
Carry a tracker device and share this with some people additional to your back up support. I can recommend racedrone.net
Train extensively with the heavier weight you expect to carry during the challenge.
Know the route and know it backwards if going backwards (South) ;-)
Carry a full change of kit and the kit you may need to lie down/shelter on the ground with whilst waiting for help
Be prepared for all weathers and extended headtorch running.
If sourcing water from the rivers, plan where you will do this.
If weather is full on winter conditions think about doing the more exposed sections between Fort William and Tyndrum during the day.
Thanks to Tim & Dave, Jezz, Paul, Keith, Caroline and Noanie for leading the way and making the ridiculous seem achievable.
Thanks to Murdo McEwan and Adrian Stott for their interest, advice and obvious passion for WHW related adventures!
Massive thanks to Fraser for making himself available during the festive season and agreeing to be my emergency support for the challenge. I look forward to doing the same for him one day.
Thanks to Malcolm and Lee at Beta Climbing designs for the Fastpack 20 and the continued sponsorship & support with the supply of the great Ultimate direction and Injinji kit that I use.
Thanks to Gillian and the kids for putting up with my endeavours.
Thanks also to the WHW family and facebook group for their interest and advice on the challenge and the advice a few people took the time to contact me privately with. It’s a great community.