17
Jun 2005

West Highland Way in a day

I did one of the most memorable rides of my life last week – the West Highland Way in a day. While this is hardly a ground-breaking achievement, it meant a lot to me on a few different levels. When I was fifteen, I read an article in a bike magazine about three folk who rode the Way in a day and I instantly wanted to do it. Actually, I wanted to do it solo and unsupported because, like ascents in climbing, I think bike rides can be done in varying levels of style and on your own is definitely ‘good style’. I also really wanted to see how I dealt with doing big rides on my own. Although I was probably fit enough back then, I didn’t get round to doing it but it managed to lodge itself deep in my head, surfacing every chance it got. After falling out of biking and through climbing, I crashed into kiting and stopped hard. Last year I found myself back on a bike and trying to get some general fitness together when a familiar old thought made its presence felt. What better target to aim for than the West Highland Way? The route I’ve thought about more than any other just happened to be a perfect test of my general recovery and fitness.

I really started to get hyped a day or two before and didn’t really get much sleep. On the day I got up at 02:15 and drove to Milngavie. After scoffing some cereal in the carpark I got cracking at 04:30. I had read a few bits and pieces about bikes on the first half of the way that varied from “pointless” to “You will have major problems on a bike.”. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was mostly quite good fun and involved none of the anti-bike gates that I had expected (there were gates, but they were all just normal gates!). I love riding my bike early in the morning and the empty fast tracks for the first fifteen miles were a great warm-up. After not too long I came to Conic Hill, the first climb of the ride. There was a little light rain and a bit of walking involved (it would be an extremely tough climb even if I wasn’t trying to save my legs), but I still got to Balmaha way faster than I expected. The speed wasn’t to last much longer though and I soon started to find some pokey bits of singletrack on the way to Rowardennan, which were easy enough since I was fresh but they all ate away energy and time. It would be easy to skip these parts and just head along the lochside road, but that would be a bit lame and some of them are nice riding. After a puncture and a break for some more food, I made a charge for the north end of Loch Lomond, desperate to get that section over with.

It started off well enough, with easy fireroad and some fun cruising on singletrack until the posh looking Inversnaid Hotel. After the hotel, things started to get tougher. There were some big boulders to carry over at Rob Roy’s Cave, but they were simple enough and I started to think this entire section of path was going to be easy. But I was wrong. The next few miles are the hardest of the Way – the trail is much too technical to ride, with lots of carrying over annoying boulders and roots. I actually didn’t find it as irritating as it could have been and I was probably better prepared for it than most people (I’ve done plenty of long carrys – like along Loch Maree – and this one is pretty short in comparison), but it sapped a lot of energy and really slowed me down – definitely not one for the Glentress generation! I also got ‘The Scrunch’ on my bad ankle twice in just 500m, which was damn sore. The whole section along Loch Lomondside would be much faster to run and I was glad to get onto rideable trail again on the way to Tyndrum.

From here the ride started to get much more interesting to me as I started to explore the psychology of long rides. I began to feel some tiredness, the whole thing seemed like a bit of a mission and I still wasn’t even halfway. Getting to Tyndrum was further than I expected. Although the trail was good and I managed to find some legs, I hadn’t looked at the map very much and had assumed that it was just a few miles past the end of the loch. I arrived at Tyndrum tired and feeling like the end was far away, even though I was now on familiar ground. Although the first half hadn’t involved as much nastiness as I was expecting, it had still taken a fair bit longer than I had hoped and with hindsight I realise that it is harder than the top half. It’s amazing what a quarter of an hour off, a can of coke, a pork pie, a Mars bar and phone call to your parents can do for your spirits though and I headed off into the headwind towards Bridge of Orchy with renewed confidence, enthusiasm and legs.

I motored past Bridge of Orchy and was soon onto ‘the cobbles’, which were much smoother than I remembered, but went on for longer. Out on the moor I got hit suddenly with a bout of tiredness and my morale soon dropped. I still felt positive enough, but there were still thirty hilly miles to go and this was the first place that I realised the route wasn’t going to give up without a fight. It dawned on me that success on longer routes depends on a bunch of things. Firstly you need to realise that there are highs and lows for a ride, periods where confidence and legs are strong even when you feel tired and times where you can’t seem to pedal and the end seems far away. Once you’ve accepted this, the trick lies in keeping the highs going as long as possible and trying to minimise the lows. It becomes a bit of a game and working out what works is great fun in a kind of introspective way.

I forced some more food down my throat and decided to push on to Glencoe and past the Kingshouse to the bottom of the Devil’s staircase. I found it a tough few miles – sore legs, sore knees, sore back – and arrived at the bottom of the climb feeling knackered. The sun was just dropping behind the hills but I took ten minutes to put on some more clothes, sit down and scoff as much food as I could. The little break had done the trick again and I set off up Devil’s staircase like a man possessed. At the top I reminded myself to take it easy on the downhill, but that didn’t last long. The track to Kinlochleven is still one of the best downhills I have ridden in Scotland, even when tired. Although there are a couple of very short ups, it’s an excellent long downhill, with contrasting rocky and mental fast halves, that spits you out right in the town. I didn’t really stop and decided just to batter on and finish the job. I pushed up the steep hill to the Lairig and got myself back on the bike. The last fifteen miles were some of the most rewarding I have done. I was very tired, but consistently surprised myself by finding the legs and motivation to keep going at (what felt like) a reasonable pace. I had been dreading this section before the day and even up until I got there but once I got on it, it wasn’t scary or hard and although I was completely wasted, I felt good (in a first three gears only sort of way!). I knew it was nearly over and I hit the final section of woods with a burst of energy. Although pedalling uphills felt desperate, I found I was somehow able to nearly run up them (!) and decided to try to hammer the last few miles as best I could in the failing light. After a decent burst and with just a few hundred metres of singletrack left it all started falling down! I felt the start of a bonk and I cursed myself for not eating since Glen Coe. I found a couple of eccles cakes and a Mars bar in my bag, which barely touched the sides and I carried on at a much more sensible pace.

Arriving at the end of the singletrack was a magical experience. The woods cleared, the lights of Fort William were not far away and Ben Nevis suddenly came into view on the right, looking beautiful in the dusk light. I took a moment to savour the situation and felt quite emotional. I’d just ridden the best part of a hundred miles off-road, a route I had dreamt of doing for the last ten years. I’d had a pretty shitty time with my back less than two years before and this was a major milestone in my recovery. I felt great – I had been riding my bike for 18.5 hours and I had made it – but I felt even greater because I had made it feeling so good. Not in the legs, they were blasted, but in the head. I had pushed myself much further than I had before and learnt so much about myself on the way. I was ecstatic, exhausted and hyper at the same time. I wanted to stay there forever, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the last special moment that I was going to get from sport so shot off down the fireroad, feeling every bit the smug bastard. I tried to let out a victory scream, but only managed a feeble squawk and decided just to leave it at that. I checked into a youth hostel and was mid-shower when I caught myself smiling broadly. Life can be so rewarding sometimes.

I woke surprisingly early and with a satisfyingly sore full body ache. I had time to kill and wandered Fort William in the sun, drank coffee, ate sausage rolls and caught myself doing that grinning thing a few times. I felt wasted like I had been clubbing, but had a brilliant warm glow rather than a sore head. The train ride back to Glasgow must be one of the best in the country and I was able to let my mind wander and daydream. I craftily managed to escape the conversation of some crazy old guy who was saying things like “Well, you know my views on the Jerry’s – bastards!” (No, I dont, and I don’t particuarly want to) and spent the rest of the journey looking at the lovely views of the hills and the girl at the other side of the carriage.

It’s been a week since that ride and I’m sort of sad that it’s over. I have already forgotten my ‘never again!’ vows and am starting to look for a new mission. I feel like I have some good base fitness now (which was the plan for all of this) and think that I’m ready to train properly, which is something I’m really excited about – riding fast is so much more fun! It feels so good to have some confidence in my fitness again and I can’t wait to improve it some more. Maybe I’ll go get involved in some chain-ganging or something…

Wow, what a long post – I guess it was a pretty long ride though!

Final note: if you’re going to ride the Way, try to pick a day where you haven’t got the runs. Parp!

30 comments

  1. Congratulations! That’s a great accomplishment and I can totally understand the whole ‘smiling’ thing. I hope I can get that feeling again soon. I am not quite up for 90+ miles (yet) but I hope to at least try Letchworth (upstate New York) before my second back surgery in September.

    The entire time I was reading I just kept wondering how you could do all that riding, (over what must be at least slightly bumpy terrain), and not have absolutely horrible back pain. I guess it is all about setting your pace and knowing your limits, which is so much easier to determine when you bike alone. First thing in the morning when there are less bugs, traffic, and people, is the best time to ride here, especially alone. It really clears my head and I can just not think about all those annoying things I have going on. Everything just feels and smells cleaner and less “populated”. Like when you are camping and it’s first thing in the morning and you wake up in your tent and you smell that dew-tree-grass-”non-smog” smell.
    So, before this comment gets longer than your post, it is very cool that you stuck with that goal for so long and I am really happy for you in that you finally did it.
    What’s next? I saw you were thinking about the American Southwest. I have not biked there but I have vacationed there a few times. Absolutely beautiful.

  2. Just got back yesterday form Scotland having completed the WHW on foot in five days. Spent most of those wishing i had the bike. The descent from the top of Devils Staircase was a killer on the knees but would have been awesome with some wheels. The track along the shore of Loch Lomand must have been tough going. Well done for doing it in a day. If i were to do it i think i’d give the first section (to Rowardennan) a miss.

    Nice blog.

    Michael, Cambridge.

  3. Meredith – (very) strangely my back didn’t hurt nearly as much as I expected. Normally when I do rides that are half the length or less my back is properly sore. Odd, but no complaints!

    I have had some numbness return to my lower back again which was scaring me for a while, but the doctor tells me that it’s not too surprising, especially as I get more active. I hope you’re recovering well. It’s a long drawn out process, but so satisfying when you feel like you’re making improvements. Hang in there.

    I really don’t know what’s next, although I don’t think I can afford to go to the states this year :(. I’m going to give up long routes for a wee bit, I fancy doing some racing again.

    Michael – unlike most people who I have read about that biked it in a day, I thought it was an excellent ride. Although you’re right, Loch Lomondside did drag on a bit.

  4. storming effort Mark, absolutely storming. I am impressed and awed. A long-standing challenge falls. Now, how about doing some of the remote epics? The Himalayan traverse? India to China, no time-limit, high passes only, no support.

  5. Nice one mate – super proad of you (if that doesn’t sound too camp). I wish I had the head to do it… I reckon that’s most of the battle if you’re pretty fit.

    Wicked post on it all too – I even got a little emotional reading it (in danger of sounding camp again) it even made me want to ride the top half again! I’ll just go check the train times ;)

  6. Congrats!, you finally did it, reckon you can shave a couple of hours of that time then ? :lol

  7. Brendan – the remote passes definitely appeal to me (and you too, I suspect). Logistics are the problem really. Can you think of anywhere that would be good for sometime around November-January? Somewhere remote, but preferably where the staple diet isn’t nuts and the weather isn’t crazy at that time.

    Stuart – thanks man, but you’re a poof! :P

    Dave – could definitely knock some time off. I actually thought about it for a while, but then I came to my senses! I’m going to let it lie.

  8. Why don’t I read this blog :/

    Anyhoos, great story and even better achievement. Don’t know what else to say tbh :)

    In certain ways it was also quite inspirational to read /me looks longingly at the Kona…

  9. Edit: I knew there was something else. I know the focus was riding an’ all but did you get any nice pics perchance?

  10. Chris Mackenzie

    Did the West Highland Way 3 weeks ago. It took me two days. I thought about trying it one day but decided to go for the 2 day option in case I couldn’t make it. It was a great adventure but the bit at the top of Loch Lomond was a bloody nightmare. Day 1 was Milngavie to Crianlarich and Day 2 was Crianlarich to Fort William. I finished the whole ride in 2 hours of darkness in the forest just before you get to Fort William. It reminded me of the Blair Witch Project. I did not know where I was riding at times. I also nearly got caught by a ranger twice (in Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy).

  11. Excellent blog. I realise this is almost 2 years after you did it, but I’ve been inspired by reading about your trip – I’m definitely going to give it a go this summer. I’m going to reccy the first half soon to see if I can get away with doing the trip on a cyclo cross bike – a bit easier to carry on those unridable sections – what do you think?

    Cheers, Ross

  12. Hi Ross,

    I would still ride a mountain bike. The carrying section isn’t really all that long (perhaps I made it sound worse than it is, although time can dim bad memories…). There are enough rough sections later on that I think you’ll be really glad you’re on a mountain bike.

    Having said that, I’d be interested to hear how you get on with a cyclo-cross bike. In fact, I’d be interested to hear how you get on anyway!

    Since I did it, someone created a website about riding the Way in a day, but I can’t find it now, perhaps it’s gone :(

    Have fun, it’s great.

  13. I think for the first run, I’ll take your advice and go with my stumpy hardtail. It’s pretty light anyway, and I think I’ll be grateful for the more comfortable ride after a full day in the saddle. I’ll let you know how I get on!

  14. Hi Mark. Yesterday was the day and I gave it a really good bash. My wife, Summer drove the way on the road and gave me support and sustainance on the way. I know you did it unsupported, but Summer was fantastic and made the whole thing a team effort.

    The first part was a doddle and I made it to Balmaha in good spirits having started at 0430. The next section to Rowardennan was fine, but sapped more energy than I thought it would, especially as I got a pinch puncture going over one of the thousands of stone water ways that cross the paths – damn them! I also had a pretty bad crash and tumbled over the handlebars, so I had a stop to strighten the bike and myself out, during which I lost half my body weight to midges.

    What everyone says about the north end of the loch is true in spades – for me it was pretty much unrideable. I found a good way to carry my bike and hoofed it to the Drovers, but it sapped a lot of energy and morale. Nothing a baked potato and haggis didn’t sort out, though.

    The next section through Crianlarich up to Tyndrum was fairly easy riding, but it is a fairly constant climb, with some steepish descents thrown in for good measure. Much needed coffee and cake at the Green Wellie, and then flew down the good track to Bridge of Orchy. The climb out of Bridge of Orchy was the best of the day, and spat me out at the foot of the Black Mount after the descent. This section was fine, a long gradual climb followed by a rocky descent to the Kings House Hotel.

    By now it was 7pm. I was feeling pretty good, but I was beginning to feel a little for my support crew! I felt I could carry on and finish the final 20 miles, and make it probably by around 10pm, but then we would have got to Fort Bill without the chance of a meal in a resteraunt, and I though Summer deserved that at the very least, so I canned it there.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the day, but I would say to most people, unless you are pathalogically (pun intended!) determined to stick to the route, should get the ferry from Inversnaid and cycle up the road to the Drovers before rejoining the way. I did the route to ride my bike, but the Inversnaid to Inverannan section stopped me doing just that, and I reckon I would have made it in time to Fort Bill for my chicken Bhuna had I jumped on the boat that was waiting at the Inversnaid Hotel when I arrived there.

    Do I regret not finishing it off? A little, but some things in life are more important. I had a great day, rode and epic ride and finnished it off with a meal with my favourite person – what could be better?

    By the way, I did the ride on my hardtail. With some of the rockier sections, it felt like I was riding a bike with square wheels! Definately not one for the cross bike!

  15. Neat write-up Ross (sorry my blog software mangled the paragraphs!) – thanks a lot for posting it here. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who found the north end of the loch tough. It sounds like you had a great day, you’ve brought back loads of memories for me and I’m suitably jealous (I’ve hardly done anything this year).

    If you’ve not done the rest of the Way – from Glencoe to Fort William – before, you should definitely try to get it done since it’s a great ride in itself.

    Also, I’d love to hear of any other similar rides you’ve thought of – I’m starting to investigate what can be done around the Cape Wrath trail – http://www.capewrathtrail.co.uk/ (although I suspect there is a lot of walking/carrying).

  16. I like the sound of that! I’d like to take a closer look at the route though to see if it is rideable. Might be one for a special bike – any excuse to buy a new one. Perhaps a no-sus mtb – ultralight and easy to carry.

    I’ve struggled over mountains before with 70+lbs on my back, and the norht end of Loch Lomond was nothing compared to that, but on a day when you are against the clock, and the light, it just slows you down, and sucks a little of the joy out of it.

    I know what you mean about the staircase and the last section from Kinlochleven – to be honest, I haven’t stopped thinking about getting back to do the whole thing since I finished on Saturday! I may give give it a bash in late August, but this time, I might get a mate to meet me at Inversnaid so that he can take the bike over the Loch up to the Drovers while I jog it up the northern end.

    I did this ride for the sake of the challenge (inspired by your blog) but also as preperation for the 3 peaks cyclo cross race this winter. I’m also doing the Merida MTB marathon in Selkirk next month. But, for the “just ’cause it’s there” factor, there’s nothing to beat The Way! Let me know if you’d be up for it in late August!

  17. Hey Mark, I just thought I’d let you know that I did a section of the Cowal Way, starting in Ardgarten last week. A lot of fire track in it, and some unrideable sections over the mountain passes – glad I did it on my cyclocross bike!! Not quite as epic as the WHW, but a challenge in its own right!

  18. Thanks for pointing out the Cowal Way to me! That’s something else for the ticklist. I’m still trying to find the time to do anything at all this year (must take some days off next week, I think). I’ve still got the Minigaig/Feshie/Tilt loop to do – have you done it?

  19. Never done it – is that in Perthsire?

  20. What did you see, not much I expect?

  21. Hey, once again I know it’s been a year since any post, and it’s been years since you first tackled it, but I’m leaving on Thursday to tackle the WHW on wheels. My mate and I are doing it over 2 days, and plan on completely self sustaining…so we’re bringing all our own food, and sleeping gear. Which means relatively heavy sacks. We’re torn between suffering the north of the Loch Lomond as we know it will be brutal, but there is something about doing the whole of the WHW…but with 10kg sacks on our backs it might just be completely mental. I did want to suggest that if you’re mad enough (we’re considering this) you could try the WHW again, then push on along the Great Glen Way from Fort Bill over to Inverness. It’s around 170 miles, and will obviously take a few days…but how many depends on you. We’re thinking next summer…but hey who knows! Thanks for the blog, very helpful…even all these years on!

  22. Hi Scott!

    Self-sustaining is nice style :)

    I’ve been interested recently in a couple of adventures like that myself, but am unsure how I would carry the extra weight. Do you just use a rucksack? Have you tried panniers? What about a trailer? Do you know what any of those options are like on singletrack – is it still fun?

    If I was you, I’d still go for the whole WHW. I’m not convinced it will be a nice carry though…

    Good luck – I’d love to hear how you get on.

  23. Well we did it over 2 days, about 21 hours of riding, but we missed the ferry from Inversnaid to Inverugle, and as a result we had an extra 2 hours to wait, so we could’ve done it in 19 hours. We did skip a couple of key bits, Connick hill, the North Section of Loch Lomond, and the big hill behind Bridge of Orchy that takes you down by the other pub/hotel. Next time I’d add the hills in, but still leave the north of Loch Lomond out. I just used my normal 70 liter rucksack, it weighed about 12kgs and with the right support it dispersed the weight fine. My mate had a load of ultralight gear, and his 20 liter pack weighed 8kgs, but his shoulders were a bit more sore than mine. However he was defo more manoueverable than me. I wouldn’t really change much as far as the pack goes, except where possible bring lighter gear. I’d say one of the worst bits was the push out of Kinlochleven, it was wet and steep, and went on forever. One of the best, the climb up Rannoch Moor. It was sunny so there were awesome views. We had a few mechanicals, and also a few stacks which led to some interesting bruises. All said and done it was awesome. We’ll be doing it, or something similar next year.

  24. Hey folks, nice blog Mark. Was wondering if you found that website you mentioned about doing the WHW in a day? I’m looking to have an attempt at there and back in a day in the next few weeks so just doing as much research as possible!

  25. Hi John,

    I’m afraid I still can’t find the website. I’m guessing it’s dead, but I can’t even see it on archive.org. Boo!

    Good luck with your ride, it sounds great! I’ll keep an eye on your blog to see how you get on.

  26. Hi .. i have been reading your most interesting blogs, a friend and i are planning to cycle the route some time in september, and we are currently talking about how to do it, by the sounds of things we would be better getting the Ferry across the loch instead of cycling/carrying up the north side of LL, but we have several friends and relatives who have walked the way.. and i think if we miss out parts we will be a target for the Purists…what would you carry in the way of spares for the bikes ?

    Richard

  27. I think it’s worth going along Loch Lomondside, but I am one of the purists! Spare parts wise, I just took the usual tools and such and three spare tubes, I think. Damn, these recent comments about this route are getting me fired up for planning a big ride next year. I’ll see what I can come up with…

  28. .. Thanks … I would like to go all the way round .. but dont really want to get stuck, as i mostly do roadwork but on a Mountain bike as i like forest tracks and hill roads too.. did 36 miles last night in 2.5 hours. we are betting excited about it.

    Richard

  29. HI. Ive been thinking bout doing this for a while. I Ive ridden BMX since i was 14 moving onto downhill in the las 2 years so am quite a dab hand on a bike. Reading the blog here though it seems that you guys are prety experienced with big long haul treks. Do you think the WHW would be suited for a first attempt at long journey? Im geared up for it but I dnt wanna shoot for the moon and miss u know? Cheers

  30. Hey Rob!

    I think it’s a good one for a first long trip. It’s still the longest I’ve ridden, but there are a fair few jumping off points along the way, at least compared to some of the highland routes.

    I did the top half with my mate Stuart before riding the whole thing, which gave me a good idea of the feel and I’d recommend getting a 50 miler in a wee while before too.

    It’s a great route – have fun and let us know how you get on!