I have often thought idly about doing this. It's easy to do sat on a warm sofa with a cuppa, and even easier with 3 pints of bravery juice inside you. But let me give it a bit of context. The West Highland Way is 95 miles. That's a long run on a nice long summer day when you've trained all year and have a following wind. In Winter it is cold and wet at best. Often it is very f@£king cold and icy. It's dark most of the time. I had also decided that as I wasn't going to set any records that I could try and set 'a first'. I was going to try a solo, unsupported run. Two little words. Solo (def. a thing done by one person unaccompanied) and unsupported (def. done without help). I thought I knew what they meant; I do now!
I didn't really have a choice of dates, so although I looked at weather, it didn't really matter. I couldn't do it sooner and if I didn't do it then I wouldn't get another chance for a year at least. You may have worked out that this left about 3 weeks to train. The first 2 were Christmas, so that went well, then it was taper time. I had some confidence in my residual endurance and I hadn't been totally inactive. I had eaten a lot though.
So on Tuesday 11 Jan 16 after a day at work and several nights of not enough sleep, I was on the last train to Fort William. The rain hit the windows, then snow fell as we climbed higher. I had planned to sleep on the train but was too excited/daunted. I was also being eyed suspiciously by the German couple sat opposite and the bearded alcoholic at the end of the carriage. I however, looked perfectly normal in Lycra tights and stuffing a full fruit cake into my mouth. Climbing off in Fort William felt very lonely. It was after 10pm and raining lightly. Just above freezing, I wrapped up and walked to the Lochaber Leisure Centre. At the start of a race there is a huge buzz, crowds of people, nervous chatter, people tending to your needs. Here there was an old lady waiting for the last bus home, an empty car park, and the prospect of 95 very cold miles ahead. But the rain had stopped and the sky had cleared. The temperature was falling fast and was forecast to be about minus 10 at the top of the Devil's Staircase where I expected to be in about 4-5 hours time.
I was wearing tights (normal for a Tuesday night), Injinji toe socks, an Under Armour cold gear base layer, tech t-shirt, sealskinz gloves, Montane Prism jacket, a beanie, and I had a buff and ski goggles round my neck. "Ski goggles?!", I hear you cry. Well, when the illustrious Paul Giblin did a (record) Winter WHW in similar conditions, his eyeballs froze.
Within a mile at the Braveheart car park I stopped to take the jacket off. Ben Nevis loomed white in front and I stood a little too long sorting my stuff out and thinking poetic thoughts. The cold bit almost instantly and I set off up the fire road. It was beautiful and still with a million stars as my ceiling for the night. I soon hit snow patches and as I trotted down the single track I was thinking that 24 hours (a very loose target time) was quite conservative. On that warm Summers Day it probably would be. The only sign of human life from here to Kinlochleven was a light at each of the farms near Lundavra. The first ice was over the Lairig Mor. It was slightly slowing but I could avoid the worst by picking a decent line. No need for Kahtoohlas just yet. The ice was on my mind dropping to Kinlochleven and I knew that a fall could be potentially dangerous with self-help being my primary option, so I stayed slow. Kinlochleven was tucked up in bed. Not even a drunk stumbling out of the pub. No bustling checkpoint, but no fannying about either!
I planned a water refill at the bridge half way up the climb. It's a long climb, much longer than anything going south to north, and it went on. It started to snow and it got very icy. Luckily, the burns were still flowing as I was relying on Tailwind powdered food and that needs water. So if I couldn't get water I'd die of thirst and hunger! On the unsupported bit, I had planned to use water from streams and outdoor taps and use 3 food (powder) caches (Pre-placed at Bridge of Orchy, Derrydarroch and Balmaha). No indoor shelter or purchased food were allowed, nor were running companions. The frequent (hourly) water stops had to be well drilled. Pack off, jacket on, gloves off, bottles open, powder in, water in, top on, jacket off, pack on, gloves on, thaw fingers.
The twinkling lights of Kinlochleven disappeared and were replaced by blackness. There was no moon and now it clouded and snowed. So much so that I thought navigation may become an issue (not normally a problem on the WHW). By the top it was really Arctic but I sat for a minute to drink it all in. I may well never be in a situation like that again, 600m up, utterly alone in the dark, minus 10 in deep snow sculpted by roaring winds. It was too cold to stop long and besides, it wasn't getting me nearer to Milngavie and I didn't intend having 2 sleepless nights! The spikes were on but the descent was still slow. It was here that I first realised a fundamental difference of a winter WHW; the bits where you normally make up time are much slower, and the bits that are normally slow are still slow. Except cow poo alley, but that is a few hundred metres out of 95 miles.
The run parallel to the A82 felt 'civilised' as the odd lorry crawled over the snowbound road, then a couple of snowploughs. I wondered what they'd think of a head torch bobbing about in the hills at 0300 on a Wednesday morning.
Kingshouse was the next metropolis I reached. No sign of life whatsoever, so I went round the back to use the tap. It felt like a 5 star stopover because as well as a tap they had an outdoor light. Worried that I might go soft amongst such luxury, I struck out for Rannoch Moor.
One of the golden rules of ultra running is not to try nutrition out 'on the day'. I've never tried tailwind before. In my defence, this wasn't a race, but I can't honestly say it was a training run either.. I was getting a bit worried; I had measured out just enough for 60g of carbs per hour but felt hungry. I did have a bit of emergency solid food but couldn't very well touch that just yet. I decided to trust it and kidded myself that if I had to find my own food I could stalk then wrestle a deer for sustenance.
Rannoch Moor was a mixed experience. The looming white mountains and endless sky were beautiful. Underfoot though I had a choice between ice which broke now and then, plunging my feet into icy water below, or uneven, hard snow requiring big steps and lots of trips and falls. If hell froze over, purgatory would look something like this. So a few times I lay painfully on the ground swearing at the night sky but getting going again before hypothermia set in.
My sub-standard preparation had not included any banking of sleep. Quite the opposite in fact. So only 30 miles in I was craving sleep and stumbling. Not good on a Summer evening when you have a support crew 5 miles away. Less so when it's minus 10 and you haven't seen a human soul in 30 miles. I did get a text from Murdo in response to a routine update and I realised that I was depriving him of sleep also. I felt a bit bad, but also like I had a little company (thanks Murdo). Anyway, I was dying to try out my 2 man emergency bothy so decided to have 40 winks. I was genuinely comfortable in there, validating my kit choice. I closed my eyes for 10 minutes then got up and re-packed quickly and got moving feeling much better. This part is normally very runnable but in these conditions I seemed to be making the progress of a toddler learning to walk. In the dark none of the landmarks gave any clues as to how much further it was to Forest Lodge. Finally, the first signs of dawn came as I started down to Victoria Bridge. The moor had put me back by an hour or so. The spikes came off on the road section. Inveroran was deserted but I saw the lights of a couple of vehicles leaving the Black Mount estate across Loch Tulla.
Jelly Baby Hill was quite a low and short hop, maybe 25 minutes to Bridge of Orchy? But covered in sheet ice it was more like the travellator. And that was just going up! After 2 painful falls the spikes were stretched back over Hokas. The reward was meeting deer skylined on the summit in the growing dawn. The back payment was teetering slowly down the treacherous descent to my first 'food' cache. It was still there! Hooray. I saw a couple of folk defrosting cars for the school run or work as I carried my bag of white powder suspiciously up to the hotel where I indulged in their outdoor tap.
Ben Dorain had a top of cloud and the Black Mount were pristine white in the morning sun. I bid "good morning" to a hiker and some workmen then set off from the station at a jog, loving the scenery. This happy state was maintained until I was above the railway North of Tyndrum. Again, a nice easy part of the trail was now as difficult as it could be. One icy plunge jarred my back leaving it in spasm as I got to Tyndrum. I thought my attempt was over but a call to Murdo put it in perspective. Keep going and see how you go, you can always get a train from Crianlarich. Ok then. It was lovely and sunny and seemed a shame to stop now.
I trotted the 4 miles to the 'roller coaster' and felt much better. On the roller coaster I met 2 young lads who were off to Inveroran for the night. They were Royal Marine cadets walking for charity and seemed surprised that snow and ice may be a problem further north. I suggested they bought hiking socks to go over their boots when they got to Tyndrum and in return they offered me solid food from military ration packs. Notwithstanding the challenge, I don't think 'biscuits brown' would sit well after many hours on a liquid diet!
Cow poo alley was marginally more pleasant in frozen state, and the cows looked confused seeing a runner in this weather. At least they hadn't mustered on the path as usual. The mice had found the one bit of solid food I left at Derrydarroch, but at least the powder seemed to be working better now. The emergency food was getting tempting but I resisted. Over the next miles my only human contact were 2 American hikers, proper southern Elmers with raccoon hats and stuff. They were fun and were a little surprised when they asked where I was staying the night.
Beinglas was deserted. I had seen so few people that I wondered if I may have missed Armageddon during my run and in fact I was the only one left? The mind plays tricks doing things like this. This was also a decision point. Whether to leave the relative safety of the railway and A82 and commit to the long and gnarly east shore of Loch Lomond. I felt ok and it was light, so with 'only' 40 miles to go I set off.
I soon reached Dario's post and posed for a selfie with the legend. As I did so the loch became enshrouded in mist and
the rain came. Cold, wet rain. You know the sort that gets everywhere and exploits any imperfection in your expensive 'waterproof' clothing? I wanted to get the technical section behind me in daylight. It actually seems less technical going south but there is always a but....clambering over it with 60 miles in the legs is about the most unpleasant thing a man can do to himself. I made it and got to the building site formerly known as the Inversnaid Hotel in the final minutes of daylight. It was throwing it down. I weaved through the departing workmen to get to the tap.
I sent Murdo a text, 'Inversnaid, 1633, gubbed'. He asked if I could rest anywhere and get myself sorted but it was too wet, getting colder again and going dark so I kept going. I actually managed a decent pace for 3 or 4 miles as light turned to dark and rain turned to snow.
Descending towards Rowardennan I jarred my back again and also had a niggle in my left leg. This slowed me so I put on more clothing, but eventually I couldn't move fast enough to keep warm. Since I started, hypothermia had only been minutes away. I had to make a fast decision. It was only 25 miles (and the easiest 25) to go after Rowardennan. With warm food and a change of clothes it would seem fine and I was calculating a finish before midnight. However, I was alone and had to think straight. I made the decision to stop and informed Murdo. I called my support then waited at the closed Rowardennan Hotel for my lift. It was cold, and I put on all my clothing and crawled into my emergency shelter in the porch. I sat there feeling quite comfortable but contemplating that it had been a day spent on the edge. There is little room for error in those circumstances, but it had been a great adventure and there was only a slight tinge of disappointment at not actually reaching Milngavie.