We had the option to delay when we saw the forecast mid-week. It was looking decidedly sub-optimal (and that’s the optimist in me speaking) and each of us took a long, hard think about it. Ultimately, attempting to ride or run the West Highland Way in any weather is pretty tough, but in winter, in driving rain, gale-force winds and 14 hours of dark, night time hours we knew we would be taking on something big.
We had the option to delay and we chose not to.
The plan was as straightforward as this: Stuart and I ride up to Fort William from Milngavie along the West Highland Way, Stuart and Charlie run back. Charlie supporting on the way up, and me on the way back. But simplicity left us susceptible to disaster, and so, late in the day, I roped in my friend and bike mechanic, James Scott, to give us another pair of hands. And thank goodness we did. Charlie (who was in Canada on a lecture tour all week) messaged us from Toronto on Thursday night to say his flight home was delayed and so we’d no longer have him at the start in Milngavie. Plan change, and James saves the day #1! He’ll support us solo to Drymen and Charlie will get himself there from the airport in Glasgow.
It wasn’t just raining cats and dogs. There was a veritable menagerie falling from the sky, testing our gear from the off, both with the rain but also the massive puddle and mud baths that had formed on the trail. Thankfully, GORE had helped us out with some amazing kit. Just one minor glitch… some of it hadn’t arrived yet! Jonathan Bell, GORE’s Scottish Sales Manager, was personally delivering the last few bits and pieces to us in Milngavie, including my bike jacket, only he’d missed the UPS delivery and wouldn’t get it until 4:30 now! And we knew we wanted to leave at 4 to give us as much time as possible in the fading light. Plan change, and James saves the day #2! Jonathan would meet him in Drymen, hopefully in time for us to have a gear change. I love it when a plan comes together!
Gear (and Jonathan) was waiting for us in Drymen. Great to get a quick change into drier gear in time for the section to Conic Hill. We knew we were cutting it fine to get up there before the dark, but then conditions worsened and we slowed a little. Going was now treacherous underfoot, with about 20 cm of slushy snow along the trail. It was a case of slide, off, push, slide, off, push until the foot of Conic, and then a good 20 minutes of solid push/carry. It’s like that in the dry though! The ride down the hill on the other side was a laugh a minute. Skidding all over the place, sliding downhill on our butts and general hilarity until the last, rideable section before the car park in Balmaha. Grins! And another pit stop.
The next bit of trail is fun. Rollercoastering along the side of Loch Lomond with short steep climbs and fast descents, some quite technical. That’s where my forks blew out! That wasn’t in the plan! Thankfully, James saves the day #3 and a quick repair at Rowardenan while we pit stop has them working again. Thank goodness, because the next section without support is a long one.
It’s now very dark. And cold. And wet. And we have what is the toughest section go the West Highland Way ahead of us. About an hour up the side of Loch Lomond is Inversnaid, and the start of a brutal 2+ hour hike-a-bike that puts fear into the heart of even the toughest of bikers. I’ve done it twice before, but only in the daylight. In the dark it’s a whole other matter. No matter how prepared you think you are for it, it’s never enough.
You can’t explain that section to people, there’s nothing that describes the scrambling up and down massive bombers and roots in mud and wet. The gruelling effort of lugging your bike through narrow gaps in rocks, and up and down drops that make your eyes water when you have both hands free and decent shoes, let alone with a bike to steer and stiff-soled bike shoes. You can’t explain it, so I’m not going to try. It was long, it was dark and it was bloody tough.
Fast forward almost 5 hours! The ride in took 1, the carry a brutal 2, then we still had another 2 hours of riding until we were to meet the van next. And we were toiling. I’d barely remembered to eat, stopping for a flapjack at Inversnaid and only managing half, and Stuart hadn’t been much better. I rode along an exposed fire road into biting wind and rain in silence. Stopping periodically to look behind and make sure Stuart was behind. I could see that he was beginning to struggle. I didn’t want him to worry that I was too. I’m usually good at keeping myself fuelled, but neither of us wanted to stop and get cold in this weather and so it had slipped down our list of priorities. Bad mistake.
We finally saw the lights from the van and I discovered a massive surge of energy to propel myself up the hill to the dry and warmth of its shelter. And to food. A big bowl of pasta was waiting for me, but I was feeling sick by now and struggled to eat much. on top of that I had the worst hot aches as my feet began to thaw. Agony! When Stuart wasn’t looking I let a few tears roll out. That had been tough and I knew we were only half way. I also knew though that the worst part was now over. Part tiredness (it was now 2am) and part relief at the rest, I really had to force myself to move on. But when it gets tough like this I have one way of getting myself back on the bike. I picture how I’ll feel about it tomorrow if I don’t. If in my heart of hearts I know I’ll feel that I did the right thing, then and only then can I stop. The alternative is knowing I’ll feel like I’ve failed, and that’s usually enough to push myself on.
Onward in the dark, up and down through the woods by Crianlarich, another rollercoaster of a section with thigh-bursting climbs made for racing your mates to the top and fast descents made for rewarding your efforts. Then some glorious single track to Tyndrum and from there a fast section through to Bridge of Orchy with one killer descent. I waited at the bottom for Stuart, fingers crossed that he got down ok (he particularly likes to throw himself over his bars). Done, and on to our next stop.
More food (Oatibix this time) and some tea. Well, it was fast becoming breakfast time after all! You could see the first glimmer of a sunrise now and I knew it wouldn’t be long before we had daylight again and the going would get easier. If only the same could be said for the weather. It started to get even heavier now, and the next time we could get a change of clothes would be Glencoe, about 3 hours away. Good job that this was probably one of my favourite sections.
A short climb out of Bridge of Orchy then an incredible, fast, technical descent into Inveroran. Stuart was taking his time down here so I let it rip in the dawn light, water everywhere, grin widening. And then a steady climb through Rannock Moor for the next 1.5 hours. The sun was allegedly up now, letting us know only by us no longer needing lights. The drovers road across Rannoch Moor is very rough and rocky and was more like a river than a path by now, with snow melt adding to the heavy rain fall pushing every stream to bursting. We kept close, talking about this and that. Its the moments like that that really make an adventure. Time spent in the saddle, riding and shooting the breeze. And sharing the experiences, like seeing a herd of deer over on the moors, staring back at us, a pair of crazies riding through rivers and laughing.
We made it to Glencoe at around 9am. The wind had picked up even more and was now about 55 mph and not showing signs of letting up. We were drenched. The Goretex jackets were amazing, but the water had been splashing up from the mammoth puddles and we were soaked from the bottom up. My boots felt like bags of water round my feet. We needed a complete kit change and Glencoe was the perfect opportunity. I took my kit to the toilets and changed everything and we reconvened in the cafe.
We ordered some hot food and talked through what remained for us. The next stage was about a half hour carry over a very exposed pass, and then a massive technical descent into Kinlochleven. There’s a river crossing at the top which was worrying us. Everything had been so waterlogged and flooded that the risks of us not actually being able to cross were pretty high. And to top that all off, with another 4 hours minimum of riding we wouldn’t be getting to Fort William until 2pm at the earliest now, and that pushed the start of the run later. We were in danger of not making it back to Milngavie in time. We had to make a call. Did we want to try to complete the bike to risk having to bail part way through the run, or worse do the carry only to have to turn around again. Or did we change our plan. A duathlon over the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Glencoe and back was still an amazing feat. And one we all felt we could comfortably complete.
And so we changed our plan again. The boys put on their running gear and I got into warm clothes. My bike was over. My role now switched to support. 15 hours on a bike, 28 hours with no sleep and still we moved on. St least the weather began to improve.
The next 24 hours are a bit of a blur. I would drive the van to the next meeting spot, prepare the food and drinks that Stuart and Charlie had asked for them set my alarm for 20 minutes and crash. Inveroran, Bridge of Orchy, Tyndrum and a stop for chips at the Real Food Cafe. Auchtertyre, Beinglass Farm then the long drive to Rowardenan, now in the dark. A long stop here while the guys got a quick 40 winks then on to Balmaha stopping each time the path crossed the road to make sure that the runners, now into 40+ hours on the go, were still ok.
Drymen. Just one more push and we’re done. The rain is back on again and the going is slow. James and I sit in the Costa at the end of the West Highland Way in the dry and dot watch on the spot tracker. 5km. 4km. 3km. 2km. The photographer arrives, having slept through the early hours of the morning. 1km. It’s so exciting. We’ve almost finished. Almost completed this amazing thing. And then they turned the corner. Smiling and hugging, with the most incredible shared experience, we had done it. We’d done this incredible thing, not for a medal, or a prize or to beat our opponent, but because we thought it would be a challenge and rewarding. And for the most incredible shared experience.
Did we fail? We didn’t do what we set out to do but did we fail? We did a thing. Sure, it wasn’t the thing we set out to do. But who was driving this thing anyway but us. We did a thing and it was incredible. A testing journey through two sleepless nights, Scottish winter weather and challenging terrain. And we became closer to each other and shared in an unrepeatable experience.
Did we fail? I know four massive grins that will tell you no.
A massive thanks to the following:
GORE for the amazing kit, and to Jonathan Bell and Jon Pettifor for your help.
Tom Welsh at Exposure for the lights. Honestly the best lighting system I’ve used. Invaluable.
Iain Macintosh of IMAC Images for the incredible photos and video.
James Scott, for jumping in last minute and saving the day again and again.