I first rode the West Highland Way in one direction about 13 years ago with my wife and a couple of mates. It stretched over three days and included lots of eating, drinking and even some skinny dipping in Loch Lomond. Tackling the trail alongside Loch Lomond was a particular highlight after having too many Stellas in the Drovers Inn. Fast forward ten years and after starting to get involved in the endurance racing and riding scene; I decided to have a go at riding the Way in one day. It was early April and the Highland sections of the trail were still covered in ice and snow. It was a fantastic day, with amazing riding and scenery and I completed the ride in about 13 ½ hours – not bad for a first effort!
Since that attempt I knew I had to return to have a crack at the one way record. I then heard about Rob Lee’s attempt at doing the double and the seed was sewn – I needed to have a go at this. The only issue was when I would fit it in.
At the end of 2011, I decided I would have a go at it sometime in 2012. By competing in the Strathpuffer at the start of the year, followed by the 24 hour Solo World Championships in Italy in May, I knew I would be in good shape for an attempt in the autumn. September is probably the best time of year to attempt the double. No risk of ice and snow, the WHW walkers are starting to dwindle, only 10 hours of darkness and the midges should not be too bad.
A number of well respected and talented endurance riders have attempted the double and not completed it. None of these failed attempts were due to a lack of fitness or strength, it seemed to just come down to issues over planning, mechanicals or just bad luck. I therefore knew I needed to plan the attempt in intricate detail to improve my chances of success. So bike choice, support, route finding, start time and split times were all assessed in a lot of detail. With regards to fitness, this had been good throughout the year, so through the summer I just needed to build on it.
My final plan was to use two bikes; one fully rigid lightweight bike with minimal gears for ease of carryover the Loch Lomond section (An On-One Ti Inbred 29er) and one super fast trail bike with front suspension for the highland sections (An On-One Lurcher 29er). I would start at 8am, which would hopefully mean I would get to Fort William before nightfall and then hopefully get to the return section of Loch Lomond at first light. As part of my last block of training I rode the Way in one direction, which allowed me to remember the route and all its difficult bits, as well as test my split times.
So all the training was done and the tedious planning complete, now it was time to just get on with it. The weather report was meant to be good for the first 12 hours but not very nice after that – hey ho, once you’re wet, you’re wet!
After a few photos looking fresh and well prepared, I was on my way. The first section is generally fast hard-pack trail which winds through Mugdock Park and alongside the Campsie Fells, before heading off towards the south of Loch Lomond and Conic Hill. Conic Hill is the first big climb of the route and requires a bit of walking near the top, but this is rewarded with great views of Loch Lomond and a steep and rocky downhill into Balmaha to get the blood pumping.
So, first section done, all is well and now to crack on with the notorious Loch Lomond section. This section runs for about 20 miles along the east shore of Loch Lomond with very varied terrain. A lot of the southern part is along undulating singletrack, which in parts is fast and great fun. However, the further north you get the more the trail is broken up by rocky outcrops, tree routes and man-made drainage channels. Along the northern part of the Loch, there is section of about five miles that in most places is unrideable and you need to carry or lift your bike along a lot of it. Having rode this section recently, I was mentally better prepared and I seemed to sail through this section without too much trouble and completed it nearly an hour quicker than expected.
Along this section, I bumped into another rider called Ben, who was also attempting the double that weekend. Ben was happy and strong when we bumped into each other. We had quick chat and wished each other luck before we continued at our own individual paces.
Moving on from Loch Lomond, the trail then starts to rise into the highlands passing via Crianlarich, Tyndrum and the Bridge of Orchy. The trail along these sections varies from twisty singletrack in forests to wide, rocky bridleways. All are great trails to ride and all contain lots of short sharp inclines or long grinding climbs. I was now about eight hours into the ride and feeling great. I was ahead of schedule and the weather was being kind except from the odd spot of rain. I was thoroughly enjoying myself! Enjoying just riding my bike in the mountains, not having to stress about someone overtaking me or trying to hunt down the person ahead. I wanted to complete this ride as fast as I could but the main challenge was just to complete it. I realised this was the reason why I was enjoying myself so much, knowing I didn’t have to worry about every second. It made me remember the reason why I ride bikes, which has got a little lost over the last few years.
As you move further north the scenery becomes more dramatic and as you climb higher more mountains start to come into view giving you the feeling of being completely exposed to the elements. The climbs also become bigger and longer. First over Rannoch Moor and then the drop into Glencoe, which in my opinion is the most incredible vista of the whole route? Kicking out of Glencoe is the Devil’s Staircase, which is great to come down but the climb up is a real leg burner and a lot of walking. I got over the top quicker than expected, which is the highest part of the route, and headed into Kinlochleven. This trail is amazing and definitely rewards those who do the hike up the staircase. It consists of winding singletrack with regular rock fields and finishes with a steep downhill on fire track into the town.
I was still ahead of schedule with an eye on trying to beat the one way record, which I think was set by Rab Wardell and in his own words is 12 hours ‘ish’. However, sense prevailed after a reminder from my support that I still had a long way to go. So I eased up a little on the climbs and tried to conserve energy.
The last section up out of Kinlochleven is another hike and then a ride across the tops, through Glen Nevis and into Fort William. It had now gone dark and the rain and wind had arrived. I had expected it earlier in the day, so to ride nearly 12 hours in the dry was a blessing.
I arrived in Fort William at 12 hours 30 minutes, which had beaten my previous one way time by 11 minutes! I just hoped that achieving this time wasn’t going to affect my return leg too much. However, I was still feeling great and a tin of full fat rice pudding sorted out my hunger. Food of the gods…
So, now to turn round and do it all again – in the dark!
The climb out of Fort William is a very long grind and once at the top, it then undulates over the next six to eight miles. The legs felt OK and the usual back pain I suffer from was strangely absent. However, skirting through the undulating valley the rain and wind had whipped up quite a storm and I found myself starting to struggle. I was now 14 hours in and from previous experience is usually the time where my body starts to disagree with what I’m putting it through. I stopped, grabbed a gel, forced it down and cracked on into the headwind at what seemed like a snail’s pace. I pushed through and once the gel started to kick in I felt a little better. I made it through the valley and down the fantastic singletrack, switch back downhill into Kinlochleven.
I knew if I was going to complete this ride, I would have to continue to minimise my time at each check point or I would risk the lure of the warm support van. There had never been a decision to make in my mind, regarding support. To complete the ride in the quickest time possible and in the safest possible way, support was essential. And the guys, Jase ‘Terrahawk’ Miles and Rod ‘The Man in the Van’ Vann were doing a terrific job. Up to this point there had been no mechanicals and no moments of desperation from me that required there assistance. However, at each check point there warm words ‘Well go on, get on with it then’ and their amazing cuisine ‘Do you want another gel?’ were a real help.
The next climb out of Kinlochleven was the biggest climb on the ride. 1800 feet of lung busting, leg burning climbing. I knew there was a long way still to go after this climb, some 85 miles, but it would be the first bit of light from a long and very dark tunnel. If I can climb this, I have a real chance of completing!
I felt strong up the climb, although not fast, and was comfortable that my wobble over in Glen Nevis was behind me. The biggest challenge now would be to fight the tiredness and try to avoid crashing on the technical sections of the route. I approached Devil’s staircase knowing this could be one of those sections, particularly in the dark with terrible weather conditions. But I wasn’t going to let my apprehension spoil an amazing downhill. So arse over the back wheel, brakes off and here we go. It was amazing and really helped to re-energise me mentally. I pushed through Glencoe, picked up more food and headed off over Rannoch Moor.
The next few sections passed in a blur. The trail isn’t as technical, so the downhills were fast and the uphills were just a grind. The peace and tranquillity of the valley was beautiful. Knowing I was the only person out in this wilderness at this time, enjoying some of the best riding Scotland has to offer, was amazing. I had seen a lot of wildlife over the last 18 hours, which included red squirrels, wild mountain goats, various birds of prey and lots of deer. However, passing through the valley that night I heard some strange sounds of what I can only describe as unruly, neanderthal type beasts. The noises occurred at various intervals along the valley and at times it would seem the beasts were banging pots and pans, and I could have sworn they were shouting my name! To this day I have no idea what made these sounds but I wasn’t prepared to hang about and find out!
I pushed on through the night. I was tired but my body was working fine. My average speed started to dip, but this was expected. Mentally I was strong and I was psyching myself up for the return leg of Loch Lomond. I arrived at Loch Lomond just as daylight appeared, which was bang on plan. The rain and wind had continued all night but as day broke, the weather had blew over leaving a grey overcast start to the day.
I was now 22 hours in and knew if I could get through this next section, I was home and dry. So head down and off I went. As I entered the hike-a-bike section, I realised I had made my first real mistake on the ride. I had no caffeine drink or gels with me for this four hour section and the tiredness was starting to kick in. My legs started to feel heavy and I was tripping up and stumbling more than expected. But there was nothing I could do other than keep moving. I finally made it past Rob Roy’s Cave which marks the end of the scrambling section and this gave me a real lift. Being able to get back on the bike again and ride helped against the tiredness and I pushed hard on the uphills to get the adrenalin pumping.
This section was slow but four hours later I had completed it and popped out in Balmaha, to be greeted by the smiles of my wife and two daughters. This was just what I needed to help keep me focused for the last section and the sun had even come out! Just one last climb up Conic Hill, then a fast run back to Milngavie. I took off my waterproof and replaced it with a gillet and headed off on the last section – mistake number two! As I climbed Conic Hill, the sun was chased away by some more rain clouds and I was caught in a very heavy storm. The walkers on Conic Hill were suitably attired in full rain jackets, trousers and backpacks full of emergency kit, only to be passed by a bloke with half a jacket on carrying a bike – I got a few disapproving looks.
The storm had soaked me through and the wind made the temperature drop dramatically. I started to shiver and struggle to hold on to the bike. Even though I was so close to the end, I started to doubt that I would complete with worries about hypothermia passing through my head. I knew I needed to get off the top of the hill and into the lower sections as quick as I could. I used what energy I had left to push on and made it through to Drymen a shivering mess. I changed my top, exchanged pleasantries with Jase (see You Tube video!) then headed out on the last section. The big hills were all behind me and there was just fast trail ahead of me to take me to Milngavie. I knew I had done it. This gave me a boost of energy and I flew over the last twelve miles with a smile of my face.
As I entered a damp Milngavie, I was greeted with cheers from my support and my family – job done! I had completed it in 28hours and 59minutes.
What an experience. This is one of the most amazing long distance trails in the country and I had the pleasure of doing it twice in just over a day. Even though the weather over the second half of the ride had been bad, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the whole ride. I hope this blog provides inspiration to people to go and ride the ‘Way’, irrespective of how long you want to take to do it. Experiencing the scenery, the trails and meeting people along the route makes this a must do for everyone. I would suggest doing it over three days and then you can also enjoy the hostelries along the route.
Big thanks go to all the people who helped make this happen. On-One bikes for supplying two awesome bikes and various bit and bobs, USE Exposure for providing amazing lights that definitely limited the number of times I fell off in the night and Team JMC for support equipment and generally just being an ace team to be part of. Hugh thanks goes to Jase and Rod for their fantastic support and finally the biggest thanks to my family for putting up with this obsession and helping me achieve it.
Now time for cake!