Some time last year I heard that Rocket Events were putting on an extension to their annual Great Glen Way Ultra, adding (just!) the whole West Highland Way beforehand to make a 170 mile + 21,500 ft of climb continuous route all the way from Glasgow to Inverness via Fort William. It sounded just like my kind of thing and I was the first to sign up on the day that entries opened! In the end there were only three of us bold (or foolish) enough to attempt it. Read on to find out how I got on… and count the toilet euphemisms along the way 💩💩💩
After an abject 10-loop capitulation at the Lionsgate Backyard Ultra at the start of June and still carrying a bit of tendonitis picked up while at Cape Wrath Ultra my preparation was unconventional, to say the least. To give the ankle some recovery I’d done barely any running (barring buddy running with Julie for the last 50 miles of Ultra Scotland 🙈) and concentrated on fast hiking, including a great 5+ hour walk around the Pentland Skyline route. I’d also started on a bi-weekly strength training programme, so while my running mileage was way down on my usual, I was probably in pretty good shape as it turned out.
One unusual feature of the race was the 9pm start on Thursday – designed so that we would arrive in Fort William at around the time the Great Glen Way set off and so pass through the same checkpoints for the second half of ‘our’ race. With the end of term/start of summer holidays, things had been pretty busy and even though I took Thursday afternoon off work, I hadn’t managed to get any extra sleep before I took the bus and train to Milngavie for the start. Julie and the kids would be crewing for me, but with no crew access along Loch Lomond, and little point in having them make the trip just to see me pass through Drymen and Balmaha in the early stages of the race I was effectively running the first 50 miles unsupported and they would see me first at Dalrigh (near Tyndrum) on Friday morning.
I carbed up with a classic pizza crunch supper on the way through Glasgow, and had plenty of time for a cup of tea and loaded ice cream in a cafe in Milngavie before the start. It had been 20 years since I had last been here, when I hiked the West Highland Way as a student, so it was good to remind myself how to get out of Milngavie and onto the WHW – avoiding the potential of embarrasing navigational errors right at the start. With about a half an hour to go, the other two runners – Kev Craig and Calum Anderson (with their crews) – and the race organisers and some of the marshals who would staff the early checkpoints all arrived. We got our trackers, dropped off drop bags and then had a nice moment with Keith Hughes, who is the only known completer of the WHW+GGW double in a time of 49h02m back in 2009. The race was planned with a cut-off of 50 hours (although I put together a 46 hour schedule which I thought was achievable), and Keith by his own admission reckoned his time was beatable. He had brought a bottle of whisky and offered some from his finishers’ goblet, although none of us fancied it at that point – maybe at the finish line it would have been a different story! A few photos were taken and soon the time ticked round to 9pm and without much ceremony we were on our way.
Milngavie – CP1 Drymen (12 miles)
It was quite a strange feeling to start a race with only three participants – we all set off together through the underpass from the station into Milngavie and then onto the route. We chatted a bit, but it felt to me that the pace was a little bit too fast, and I was mainly planning to run my own race so I soon made my apologies and dropped to a walk, letting Calum and Kev run ahead. Before we split I did manage to save them both from missing a turn 3/4 of a mile in 😂
Before too long I had got into a good run/walk pace and caught back up to them as we dropped down towards the old railway path near Dumgoyne. I made a bit of an effort to push on into the lead, but they seemed to keep pace with me so I dropped back again. I was already moving faster than my planned 12:30/mile pace so was happy to let them go. Legs were feeling good, I was able to eat and drink well and with such a long way to go there was no need to worry about ‘racing’ at this early stage. My focus was on moving efficiently, keeping to my planned pace with the aim of being in a good shape to run when we hit the canal at the start of the GGW. At about 11pm it was time to put headtorches on – it would be quite a short night since we were only a week past the summer solstice. As it happens, I caught up to them again as we rejoined the road on the way in to Drymen and we all arrived at CP1 together, about 12 minutes ahead of schedule. So far, so good!
CP1 Dryman – CP2 Balmaha (7 miles)
This section is a little bit shorter, but contains the first major climb of the route – Conic Hill. Right from the CP at Drymen, the route leaves the road and climbs towards and then through the Garadhban forestry plantation. I put in a bit of an effort on the climb and gradually managed to eke out a few minutes lead over Calum and Kev, who were still running together. Fast hiking is one of the skills I have been learning from Julie (hope she doesn’t mind me sharing one of the secrets of her success 🤫) and it was paying off. However, as the track levelled out and became runnable again before too long they caught me up again and passed. I was feeling a bit churny for the first time so I took a few minutes to “take care of business” in the woods before heading on.
The climb up Conic Hill was not nearly as bad as I had expected, especially as the trail follows the North shoulder of the hill, rather than going all the way to the top. I was able to see the two head lamps not too far ahead and like the first few miles of this section I was moving faster on the non-runnable parts! I had forgotten (or maybe it had been added in the last 20 years) about the hundreds of stone steps on the descent and while it wasn’t much fun, I was able to catch right up Calum and Kev just as we came in to the car park at Balmaha, now about 20 mins up on my planned pace. They had their first chance to see their crews, but I was fully supplied to take me through the night so once again, we all headed out together onto the side of Loch Lomond.
CP2 Balmaha – CP3 Rowardennan (7.5 miles)
Out of Balmaha, the WHW winds its way through the woods between the road and the lochside and while it was nice to run with the others for a while, I quickly decided the running pace was faster than I wanted to go, so dropped back again. I also realised that the terrain, while fairly flat overall, had a lot of small ups and downs and I was not going to be able to keep up with my 12:30/mile planned pace! At least I had a little bit of time in the bank, so I wasn’t unduly worried about it. It was now getting on for 2am, and for the first time I started to struggle a bit. I think physically I was OK, but I was getting tired and for the first time, strayed into a dark place mentally. At one point I remember having a conversation in my head wondering how if I couldn’t manage to work hard enough to keep up my pace only 20 miles in to a 170 mile race, what was the point continuing? I thought long and hard about bailing out, cancelling all my future race bookings, binning my running shoes and having a nice weekend with the family… funny how the mind works!
At the same time, I was aware enough to try to get myself out of this rut – I necked my first caffiene gel, but it didn’t have much effect. I was still eating and drinking well, but couldn’t stop myself micro-napping while still upright! It seemed to take forever to arrive at the checkpoint at Rowardennan, although I was actually still 5 mins ahead of plan. I had an idea (another one taken straight out of Julie’s playbook from TR250) – I was going to have a sleep, and try to reboot my brain. The checkpoint was just a guy (Big Kev) with a van in the car park, and when I got there the others had just left. I didn’t need any water but took my pack off and announced I was going to sleep on the ground for 10 mins. Even better, Big Kev had a bed made up in the back of the van and offered use of it – I didn’t even need to take my shoes off! I got my head down and was out like a light.
CP3 Rowardnennan – CP4 Inversnaid (7.5 miles)
Big Kev woke me up after what seemed like a few seconds – my 10 minutes was up and it was time to move. Amazingly, I felt great like I’d just had 8 hours solid sleep 🤷♂️ From the car park there is a good few miles of runnable trail before the WHW splits into the high (easy) and the low (hard) path. Guess which one we were taking?
I had vague memories from 20 years ago of the ‘path’ here being a bit ‘interesting’ – in fact it’s a tangled mess of rocks and roots, and again although on a map it appears flat, there is very little that is runnable for more than a few steps. At least I was wide awake and moving! I was losing lots of time on my (unrealistic) schedule, but keeping pace with Calum and Kev who were about 15 minutes ahead. Eventually, it started to get light again and I was able to stow my headtorch. Perhaps the most surreal moment of the whole race occurred at this point – there was a steep flight of maybe 15 wooden steps, almost ladder-steep, and standing at the top was a menacing-looking goat. I hadn’t been troubled by hallucinations during the night, but I did make the point of taking a picture to convince myself it was real! Fortunately the goat decided I was not worth the fight and stepped off the path (not very far, though 😬) and I was able to pass safely.
The whole night had been dry, which was lucky considering the forecast for the race had been ‘mixed’ at best, but for the first time there were a few spots of rain. It wasn’t cold, though, so I stopped and swapped out my base layer and shirt combo for shirt and jacket. Of course, then the rain stopped again – I would need the jacket again before too long though. Shortly I crossed the bridge over the cascading burn which signalled that Inversnaid hotel was just ahead and popped out into the car park, where Bill was waiting with his campervan. In all, I was now about 15 mins behind schedule. Not too bad considering the unplanned sleep and still moving well and very much still in the race!
CP4 Inversnaid – CP5 Beinglas (7 miles)
Bill had a camping chair so I took a moment to sit down, refill my water for the first time and drop off some rubbish. I didn’t hang around for too long though as the sun was coming up and it was time to be moving on. The next section up to the head of Loch Lomond starts with a similar mixture of runnable trail and unrunnable rocky bits, but fortunately they gradually became less frequent and the trail improved as I climbed up to the bothy at Doune and past the opposite site of the Ardlui ferry. I even saw a few early morning hikers out – probably making the most of the still dry conditions to get wherever they were going.
A couple of miles further on I arrived at Beinglas campsite – I was happy to find that the toilet block was left unlocked so sneaked in to “make use of the facilities” (it was morning, after all 😂). Once past the campsite the trail widens out into a good, undulating gravel road so I made good progress up Glen Falloch and eventually crested a hill to find the CP ahead. There was a thick cloud of midges hanging around, so I didn’t – just a quick drink of water and off again.
CP5 Beinglas – CP6 Dalrigh (7.5 miles)
It was now properly morning, I was wide awake and on good runnable trails, and looking forward to seeing Julie for my first crewed CP of the race. Shortly after leaving the checkpoint I was lucky enough to see not just a train, but the Caledonian Sleeper, chugging up the incline towards Crianlarich on the far side of the glen – I have been reduced to tears by the sight of a train before, but this one just gave me a boost! It also helped that for the first time since Balmaha, I caught sight of Calum and Kev ahead. I reckoned they were about 10 minutes ahead, and I worked hard to gradually reel them in. The miles passed quite quickly and soon I reached the track junction above Crianlarich and headed down the hill again towards Strathfillan.
This was a nice little milestone as I was now 50 miles in to the race, and as it happened was where I had wild-camped when walking the route 20 years ago! More good farm tracks and even some tarmac led past the wigwam site, under the A82, and up to the checkpoint. I was greeted a couple of hundred metres along the road by Julie and a very excited Spud – it was a real boost to see them.
I found that Kev and Craig were also at the checkpoint with their crews when I arrived but I had plenty to get done. Julie and Rhona were a well-drilled ‘pit crew’ and refilled my pack with food and fluids while I tucked in to a pan full of sausage and beans and let my feet air for a few minutes before changing into a fresh pair of socks. Usually on ultras I can’t face any solid food so it was good to find my stomach was behaving itself this time and I scoffed almost all of it. No hanging around though – 10 minutes in total and I was back on my way, headed for Tyndrum!
CP6 Dalrigh – CP7 Bridge of Orchy (10.5 miles)
The car park at Dalrigh is slightly off the WHW and we had been instructed to follow the new cycle path all the way in to rejoin the main WHW path just before Tyndrum. As I made my way along, a police car pulled up on the road, hooting and flashing lights – I hoped there wasn’t going to be any road closures for Julie to worry about! Crossing the river into Tyndrum, Julie and all the kids had got there before me, and it was great to see them all again (even only after 20 mins). I decided again since the opportunity was there I should make the short detour to “spend a penny” at the Green Welly Stop, and after a quick stop I was on my way again (a few kg lighter 💩💩💩). Turning back onto the WHW I found the police car had stopped and the two officers were standing by the trail. I wondered what was going on, but in the end it turned out they were a couple of Kev’s ex-colleagues who had stopped off to cheer him on! As it happened I had been quicker through the CP than Kev and had left before him, but he passed me again while I was in Tyndrum and he motored on to catch up with Calum while I took it easy up the hill.
Once at the top of the short climb, there is about 6 miles of gradual downhill on a good wide track (old military road), and I just took it easy, enjoyed spotting a few trains as they ran parallel to the path, and still made up over half an hour on my schedule, arriving at Bridge of Orchy only 40 minutes behind plan and feeling good. Time seemed to fly by on this section 🤷♂️ and soon I was running down to the the bridge where Julie had parked the car at the CP. A much shorter stop here, although I did sit down, eat some tinned potatoes (another first for me on a race) and some watermelon (more to be said about that later). I was figuring that since my body doesn’t generally tolerate solid food, especially at night, I should carb up while I could.
CP7 Bridge of Orchy – CP8 Glencoe (11 miles)
On leaving the CP, I came across a bunch of portaloos, presumably placed to discourage WHW users from “leaving their mark on the landscape”. Not just any old portaloos but top quality Honey Wagon loos – readers who were at Cape Wrath Ultra will appreciate the distinction!
Right from Bridge of Orchy, the WHW turns uphill on a loose, rocky path. It was not fun to go up, and not even great to descend although there were good views over Loch Tulla at the top to make it (kind of) worthwhile. Passing the Inveroran Hotel there is even a mile of “the dreaded black stuff” (tarmac) which seemed to go on for ages, even though I was keeping a decent pace. Then the path starts to climb more gradually up into the Black Mount, the first real taste of remote highland landscape of the route. The rain started again here and I was paid my first daytime visit by the ‘sleep monster’ as I walked. Once again, I kept micro-sleeping as I walked and it made for an unpleasant half an hour, until the path levelled out near Bà Bridge and I was able to run again and keep myself awake.
A short distance further on I made my only real navigation error of the race – there is a junction where the WHW goes straight ahead on a good stony track, but a smaller trail heads off left. There are no WHW markers anywhere in sight (in fact there were few on this whole section), but a cairn marks the junction – which to me is a message “don’t miss this turn”. Sure enough my watch had me following the lesser path, and since I was out of phone signal and not carrying a paper map (oops!) I had nothing else to go on so I headed left. The path rose and quickly became a proper boggy mess and my feet which I had worked so hard to keep dry up to this point were quickly sodden. As I approached the crest of the hill, I regained phone signal and sure enough there was a message from Julie warning me I was off course. I was able to check the map and sure enough I was on the “Old Military Road”, which paralleled the WHW about 100m further up the hill. By that point the best solution was to continue on and rejoin the route just before the ski centre. The extra climb and the wet feet ensured I had self-penalised for the detour!
Despite the sleepiness and detour, I completed this section bang on schedule! Julie was waiting just before the car park as usual with everything I needed – I changed into dry socks and (I think) had another pan of sausages and beans and some watermelon before heading off. Julie and then kids were staying in a wigwam at the ski centre and had been able to check in early and even go ‘tubing’ while they were waiting for me to arrive.
CP8 Glencoe – CP9 Kinlochleven (10 miles)
Leaving the ski centre was the first time it really took my legs a while to get going again. It was still drizzling with the promise of heavier rain ahead, but I gradually walked and jogged my way into a bit of a rhythm across the A82 and past the Kingshouse Hotel, munching on a bag of Hula Hoops. I was intercepted for a quick photo by Terry who had missed me at the checkpoint just as I headed off the worn tarmac and up onto the hillside to contour along to the base of the Devil’s Staircase. This is well known as the crux climb of the WHW (although it’s not actually as big as the climb out of Kinlochleven 🤷♂️), but I was able to keep a good hiking pace and it didn’t really take too long! From the top, I had a last glimpse down into Glencoe before the clouds rolled in, bringing the heaviest rain of the race so far.
With the path turning into a river in places and just the steep descent on tired legs made it quite slow going. At one point I saw Kev and Calum maybe half a mile ahead, so I knew they weren’t too far away, which was encouraging. On the way down into Kinlochleven the hydro scheme was overspilling and even the water pipes were jetting water out of the joints between them – it was properly WET. I had a strange deja vu realisation at one point that I was walking through the exact location that randomly crops up in my dreams from time to time… must have been some visual memory from 20 years ago that I had forgotten the source of! For what was a relatively long section, it actually seemed to pass quite quickly and all of a sudden I could see the rooftops of Kinlochleven and was able to sit down and have all my needs attended to by my crew. They had picked up a takeaway dinner and even had some prawn crackers for me, but I didn’t fancy them and decided I should make (another) “comfort stop”. They had spotted some public loos just round the corner, so I headed there only to find it was five past six and they had been locked up at six 🤬 Fortunately I was able to sneak in to the bunkhouse/camp site toilets, so besides an extra few hundred metres there was no harm done. Since there was no crew access at Lundavra and I would be into Glen Nevis late in the evening this was the last time I’d have crew until Fort Augustus in the morning. I had a drop-bag waiting for me at South Laggan some 30+ miles away so I ate another can of beans and sausage, more watermelon, and did a big restock of my pack to take me through the night before heading off on my way munching on another bag of crisps.
CP9 Kinlochleven – CP11 Braveheart Car Park (13.5 miles)
The first mile up through the forest is a big climb, although like the Devil’s Staircase it felt like it went quite quickly and before too long I popped out onto a wide track – another section of old military road – which would take me all the way to Lundavra. Even though it should have been quite runnable, I did quite a lot of walking on this section (saving myself for the nice, runnable first half of the Great Glen!). Although the rain had gone off and it was actually quite a nice evening there was still a lot of standing water on the path and I was trying my best to keep my feet dry. It seemed like a long time before I got to Lundavra, where I was expecting there to be a checkpoint. No sign of it! I was in a phone signal black-spot again so I continued on the WHW until I crested a ridge and was able to check the race tracker – and the Lundavra checkpoint had mysteriously disappeared! Fortunately I wasn’t in need of anything, so no great loss to me, but it made the combined section to Glen Nevis quite a long one! Somewhere along this section was the Bon Jovi moment (“Woah, we’re half way there!” 🎵) but I don’t remember it. Quite sensibly I wasn’t thinking about how far there was still to go!
Between Lundavra and Glen Nevis is several miles of undulating single-track path. I didn’t have a good mental map of the area so it was hard to judge progress. I was definitely going in the right direction, just slowly! As it was now well into the evening I was a bit dozy, so took another caffiene gel to keep me going. After what seemed far longer than it actually was, I reached the forestry road that led down into Glen Nevis. I forced myself into a decent running pace for the last two miles down the glen. Maybe half a mile before the turning for the CP I caught up with two walkers (I thought), one wearing a dryrobe but as I passed them I realised one of them was Calum! Later I found out that he’d got really cold and phoned his crew to come out and walk him in, leaving Kev to go on ahead.
At the CP, Calum’s crew (thanks 🙏) had been given a cup-a-soup for me by Julie and I was just drinking it as Calum came in and climbed straight into his van to warm up. Kev was taking a decent length break with with his crew and I realised this might be my chance to get a lead… time to make a move!
CP11 Braveheart CP – CP12 Clunes (13.5 miles)
It was just getting dark so I put my head torch on as I headed down the Glen Nevis road, passing a very slow hiker who was looking forward to finishing the WHW. I had another 70-something miles to go! I’d like to say I put the hammer down, but all I could muster was a bit of a running interspersed with fast walking. I had just crossed the river Lochy on the “Road to the Isles” when Kev set off in pursuit, with Calum not that far behind him. I had turned a 15 minute deficit into a 25 minute lead, but the chase was well and truly on! Up the locks of Neptune’s staircase and I was on the Great Glen Way proper. At this point I had planned to get some decent running in, but it wasn’t happening and the next few miles felt like the hardest yet.
The rain was lashing down and all I could see in the beam of torch light was gravel path, rain reflecting the light, hedges to my right and the blackness of the canal to my left. I stopped briefly to pull on full waterproofs and ploughed on. It felt like I was in a little bubble of monotony, making no progress and for the second time in the race, the sleep monster paid a visit. Another caffeine gel didn’t make any difference and I found myself micro-napping again. It felt like Kev was catching me and I was only a couple of miles along the canal but I simply had to sleep. I set my phone alarm for 10 minutes and curled up right there on the towpath, fast asleep. I woke on the alarm, suddenly alert again. I had half expected to be woken by Kev, but I could see on the tracker that he was still just at Neptune’s staircase.
I headed off again and the rain began to slacken off but soon I was back into battle with the sleep monster. I tried a bunch of different tactics to stay awake, first talking to myself, then singing random lyrics of songs that popped into my head. Probably a good thing there was no-one else out and about at midnight on a rainy Friday night! I tuned into a Radio 5 late night chat show for a bit, and even caught some of Glastonbury on BBC Sounds. Behind me, things had changed as Kev had decided to quit and turned back to the start of the GGW race at Corpach, but Calum was moving well again and maybe 2 or 3 miles behind at most. Eventually, I made it off the interminable canal path and crossed at the bridge at Gairlochy where there were a couple of marshals and Bill re-painting arrows on the road as they had been washed away by the rain. At least it shows the washable paint worked!
After a very short bit of road, the GGW turns back into a more interesting trail but now I was in the woods I first had to stop to “make a deposit”. The next few miles weave in and out of the woods and around the headland – I imagine there would be a quite a good view down Loch Lochy in daylight! At this point the front-runners of the Great Glen Ultra started to come past. It was quite nice to see some other people and though I was mainly walking it was nice to cheer them by and also get some encouragement as most of them were aware that there were a few hardy souls out there who had 100 miles in the bag already. A couple of miles of road led to the next CP at Clunes and I arrived there at 3am, but not before another 5 minute roadside nap!
CP12 Clunes – CP13 South Laggan (7.5 miles)
I was way slower than planned, now two hours behind schedule but still in the lead and though I was all-round tired I didn’t have any major issues, so there was nothing for it but to push on to the next CP, where I would have a drop bag waiting. In hindsight it might have been a good idea to have one at Clunes just to give me a boost. I had hoped there might be something available at the CP, but none of the GGU runners had left anything. Pretty much the whole of this section is wide forestry tracks along the side of Loch Lochy. It was pretty slow going and as I plodded along I was aware Calum was gradually closing on me, but I was still really dozy and stopped for two further on-trail naps. On one of them I was woken by one of the GGU runners, to check I was OK! I got straight up and kept pace with him for a while (thanks!), which was a good distraction.
Dawn broke about half-way along this section, but it didn’t do much to wake me up. At least there was a big zig-zag climb to focus on as the path had recently been diverted to bypass a hydro scheme. Once at the top I was able to pick up a little bit more of a pace on the gradual downhill to South Laggan. No more proper naps allowed, but I was still micro-napping on my feet. On several occasions I lost more than a few seconds and woke up slightly disoriented. At one point I woke having fallen face first into a bush at the side of the trail. I was looking forward to the CP, but the name is deceptive as it was not at South Laggan but actually a mile and a half further on, just past North Laggan… not what I needed as I was running very low on supplies!
It was great to finally round the corner and see the CP crew there with a chair ready for me. Calum was still only about 30 mins behind me at this point but I needed a decent break. I changed into a fresh pair of socks and applied some KT tape to the balls of my feet, which were starting to feel a bit tenderised. In my drop-bag I had a pot of fruit salad, some powder to make up some more energy drink and a few bits to eat during the next section. I was really hungry though and was able to scran a few bits from the CP van too (thanks again!) In all, I stopped for about 15 mins and it was good to take the weight off my feet and have someone to talk to. I’d lost about another hour and a half on this section – the schedule was well and truly out of the window now 🤣
CP13 South Laggan – CP14 Fort Augustus (13 miles)
I headed off feeling rejuvinated, with the sun rising in the sky on what was set to be a nice day. Lots of nice trail on the next section, a mile or so less than expected due to the location of the previous CP, plus I could look forward to seeing Julie again! One advantage of being behind schedule – if I had been on time she wasn’t planning to be there and I wouldn’t have had any crew until the next CP at Invermoriston! I made decent progress up and over the hill to Invergarry, although I had to stop to apply some more KT tape as my left achilles had started complaining – oddly enough this was not the same tendonitis that I had had for the month leading up to the race 🤷♂️. It was only a few miles over to Invergarry, then back up into the woods. I was still moving quite slowly but enjoying myself and feeling very relaxed. I could see that Calum had stopped for a long break (90 mins in total) at Laggan so the pressure was off and I guess I dawdled a bit as a result!
Reaching the canal again at Bridge of Oich the weather changed a bit and there were several short, sharp showers which necessitated quickly putting my jacket on, but then taking it off in between as it was hot in the sun! My ankle was bothering me quite a lot by this point and although the towpath was dead flat and runnable, I wasn’t running. It was only 4 miles but once again, seemed to take a long time! Julie found the perfect motivation but messaging me a picture of a sausage sandwich, and came out half a mile from the checkpoint to deliver it (nicely returning the favour for my bacon sandwich delivery on the KACR 😎).
At the CP, I had just sat down when the wind whipped up, and cold rain started bucketing down! Fortunately, Julie and Rhona had a complete restock of my pack ready and I gobbled some food while I was there too. No more watermelon sadly – apparently they had discovered it was in fact mouldy (after feeding it to me for most of the day)… maybe that was the reason for my frequent toilet stops! Sitting still and the sudden change weather had caused me to get quite cold all of a sudden, so I didn’t stop long, putting my jacket back on and getting moving to keep warm. I wasn’t moving well though and it felt like a long way to “death march” to the finish!
CP14 Fort Augustus – CP15 Invermoriston (7.5 miles)
After a mile on the streets of Fort Augustus, the GGW enters a really nice forest section, and after a short distance splits into a low and high route. Of course, we were taking the high route! This climbed steeply up and soon broke out above the treeline onto a good path over open hillside. It was slow going, but at least climbing I felt I had an excuse to go slowly whereas on the flat sections my ankle was hurting quite a lot. The path topped out at around 1000ft and there were spectacular view up and down Loch Ness on what had become a warm and bright summer morning. I didn’t stop long though and forced myself to run the downhills, even though balls of my feet were starting to get pretty sore (although in their defence, they had just covered 130 miles)!
The path pretty much contoured along the hillside for a few miles, before a short steep drop down towards Invermoriston, mirroring the climb up from Fort Augustus. The route doubles back on itself before dropping down onto a minor road into Invermoriston. Julie came out to meet me, and though she didn’t say so at the time thought I was looking pretty ropey, and had doubts I would finish! As well as a chance to sit down, refuel and replenish, the car park at Invermoriston also had a public loo, which I (of course) “made a visit” to. I didn’t even have to pay 50p as I managed to sneak through the barrier behind someone else… possibly the fastest I had moved for a while 🤣 Julie was also able to sort out my feet with some fresh (and better applied) KT tape and they felt much better as I left! Although the going had been slow, this was the first major climbing section since Glen Nevis, so I ‘only’ lost another 20 minutes on my schedule.
CP15 Invermoriston – CP16 Drumnadrochit (14 miles)
Straight out of Invermoriston, the climbing starts again, first on a zig-zag tarmac road where I was able to eat and check the race tracker. I was surprised to see that Calum (fresh from his rest at South Laggan), had clawed 45 minutes back on my on the previous section to Fort Augustus, and was making good time towards Invermoriston. The race was back on!
On the way up through the forest I was working hard and definitely moving faster than I had on the previous climbs. I did have to stop to put my jacket back on at one point as a short sharp shower rolled through, but it was better than getting wet and cold. Once over the top, the track pops out at a great viewpoint over Loch Ness and there is then 3 miles of gradual downhill single-track and I was flying (relatively), clocking 12 minute miles for the first time since Tyndrum – amazing what a bit of adrenaline can do! A faffy little wiggly section leads out to a car park at Grotaig, followed by 3 miles of undulating tarmac. Not fun, but at least I could keep up a good pace on it, and in some places the GGW ran along a footpath parallel to the road, which was better.
The road eventually turns downhill, giving a good couple of miles running into Drumnadrochit via a nice forest path which was soft underfoot with pine needles and leaves. Once it levelled out I was expecting to cross the river on the road bridge and the CP be pretty much there, but there was almost another mile to go until the Julie came in to sight! On previous stages I would have been walking these flat pavement sections, but now I was running! For the first time since Loch Lomond I was actually making up time on my schedule, running this section an hour faster than planned 😄
A relatively quick stop of only 10 minutes, although I ate some more sausage and beans, restocked for the last two sections and (partly) removed a tick from my leg, then I was on my way. One final big climb to do and all the hard sections would be done!
CP16 Drumnadrochit – CP17 Abriachan (7 miles)
I could see Calum had taken a longer break at Invermoriston, and was also going slower than I had up the hill so I was feeling a bit more confident again. I scoffed a bag of crisps on my way out of Drumnadrochit and then enjoyed some more good running down the road. Someone had said there was about 3 miles of road, but it was actually only a little more than a mile till the GGW turned off through a gate, round the back of a farm, and then up into the woods, via what seemed like a million gates that had to be unlatched and latched as I passed through – although it was probably only 4 or 5!
The climb up through the woods should have been quite pleasant, even enjoyable. The sun was out, it was the end of a warm afternoon and the light was filtering through the trees to the mossy forest floor – a lovely place to go for a walk. Maybe it was the time of day, or maybe the last 150 miles were catching up on me, but for the first time my mind just checked out and I started to get major visual hallucinations! First up, I could see a “Go-Ape” style high ropes course in the trees, with wires, platforms and ladders. No people oddly, but whenever I got close, it all just disappeared! The most disconcerting experience was on one particular mossy and rooty climb, the ground seemed to flow downhill towards me and pass by underneath my feet like a giant travelator. To top it off, at one point I spotted a pair of Nazgûl standing watching me from beside a tree-stump – which could have been scary but for the fact one was carrying a tennis racquet and the other had a bike 😂.
Fortunately I kept it together enough to escape the woods and came out on a wide forest road. Rising out of the woods it began to get cold in the wind and I had to put my jacket on again as I was too tired to move fast enough to generate much body heat. The trail continued to rise and eventually after a couple of miles arrived at the final CP at the trailhead car park of Abriachan. Getting close to the checkpoint gave me a boost and I was running quite well down the long straight towards the CP. Apparently the last of the GGU runners had just passed through, so the checkpoint crew were still there as well as Julie and the kids. They seemed to be having far too much fun as at least one of the crew was in a onesie and they had a princess theme, so I duly obliged by sitting on the “throne” (not a toilet but a camping chair) and donning a tiara for a photo! I’m pretty sure none of this was hallucinated! I didn’t stop long though as it was time to tackle the final leg.
CP17 Abriachan – Finish (10 miles)
I could see that I had pulled out another hour or so on Calum, and although I was about 3 hours behind my own original schedule I knew that barring a freak accident, I was going to finish first. Leaving the checkpoint at 7pm a 48 hour finish was out of the question but I set a goal to go under 49 hours to beat Keith’s time – something to keep me going.
Honestly there is not much to like about most of this section of the route. After a mile of nice forest single track I came out onto “The Dreaded Black Stuff” again. It was only about 3 miles long but gradually uphill and seemed interminable. Branching off onto a path, the gradual climbing continued and I was getting fed up waiting for the top. Eventually the path started to level out and gradually drop through a forestry plantation. There were still 6 miles to go at this point and even though I was running bits the distance seemed to pass so slowly, and the soles of my feet were feeling pretty tenderised on the hard stony path.
With about 4 miles to go I started to “smell the barn” and a switch flicked in my head – no matter how I was feeling, I was running it in! Shortly, the forest gave way to open woods, with glimpses through to Inverness and the finish. The path steepened downhill, and apart from a short section through a housing estate on the pavements it made for enjoyable running. On the next narrow path section, I caught up the GGU sweepers and the last two runners. We exchanged congratulations on our respective about-to-achievements and I motored on. One last housing estate and I was on the footpath by the river – less than a mile to go. Across the bridge over the canal and Julie, the kids and Spud were waiting for me. Through the underpass and in to the athletics centre and onto the track. The kids ran alongside me and from nowhere I turned on the jets! All of the tiredness, sore feet left me and I was flying, leaving the kids behind and hitting 6-minute mile pace as I rounded the far bend. Overwhelming feelings of both relief and achievement flooded over me as I pelted down the finishing straight and across the line, stopping my watch at 48:44:26 🎉🎉🎉
Quite a crowd had waited at the finish line, and it was great to sit down, get changed and let it all sink in! We didn’t hang around too long though, as we needed to get home and Julie had already done quite a shift driving around for the last 48 hours. We made a quick stop at McDonald’s and then headed down the A9 – despite my best efforts to stay awake I don’t think I lasted long 🙈. We hadn’t realised that there was a prizegiving on the Sunday, although there were no prizes to give out for BWOG anyway as Bill wasn’t sure any of us would complete it! In truth it was good to be back home in my own bed, and I don’t think I woke up till lunch time anyway.
Looking back now on the race, although there were only 3 runners, it really felt like a race for almost the whole distance, and I feel very satisfied that I was able to manage myself well enough to come away with the win. Congrats to Calum (finished about 5 hours later), and Kev (100 miles in 27 hours) on their achievements too! At one point on the trail before South Laggan, Calum was only 10 mins behind me and if he had caught me the result could have been very different.
A lot of things went to plan – apart from the second night, my pacing was pretty good. In hindsight I’d have allowed more time for the tricky path along Loch Lomond, and I should have planned for an extra drop bag at Clunes and/or Braveheart CP as the section from Kinlochleven to South Laggan with no resupply was a long, slow one. Having never gone through two nights before and setting a new distance PB I’m more than happy though, especially having discovered the joy of on-trail napping! No major foot or injury issues and after a couple weeks of recovery (including holiday to Orkney) and plenty of easy walking I was able to get back running again just fine.
I couldn’t have made it to the end though without the tireless support of Julie in particular and also the kids – best crew ever 🤩 In total I had only about 4 and a half hours of ‘non-moving time’, and given that at least an hour of that was spent sleeping, I was in and out of almost all the crewed checkpoints in 15 mins or less. The marshals at all of the other checkpoints were very helpful too – thanks for taking the time out to support us on this crazy adventure, and it was great to have so many people waiting to cheer me in at the finish too.
Since this was the first running of the event Bill had said the cut-offs were really a guideline, and although I finished within the 50 hour limit, I did miss the planned 4.30pm cut-off at Drumnadrochit. I think next year the start time is going to be 4pm on Thursday, giving an extra 5 hours – which seems about right. It would also mean more overlap with the GGU runners, and more chance the CPs would still be open when BWOG runners passed through – Fort Augustus, Invermoriston and Drumnadrochit were all gone when I got there.
Several people suggested my finish should be considered the new FKT, but the race route through Claggan meant missing out the first miles of the GGW and the finish is a little bit short of the end of the GGW too, so Keith can keep his FKT… but maybe changing the route to fit in the full GGW might be an option for the future?
Would I come back and run it again? Probably not as I don’t think I left much room for improvement (at least for me) and the only way is down from here 🥇 but it’s a great route and I look forward to dot-watching next year. But never say never… Maybe you fancy giving it a go yourself?
Thanks to everyone who took and shared photos during the event, I have shamelessly pinched them and shared here 🙏