The West Highland Way is a walking path in Scotland that is 96 miles long. We ran it in five days. It was great.
It turns out that you can pay a company to plan your trip, book your lodging, and move your luggage from cute tiny Scottish inn to cute tiny Scottish inn. We used Gemini Walks because our friends Hunter & Stephanie used them last year and had a great experience… also, they have a whole page on the website devoted to dogs of the Way.
Our trip was split roughly evenly over the five days with some days being a bit under 20 miles and some days being a bit over 20 miles. The length of each day depended more on the isolation of the route and the availability of lodging than on the difficulty of the running. The most technical and difficult terrain actually occurred on the longest day. Many people do it in eight to ten days so we were roughly covering two normal segments in one day. Just when I was feeling smug about going so fast, we got passed by a guy doing it in three days and carrying all his own camping gear while he ran — at least he took our photo for us before he blew past us down the hill and out of sight.
Traveling like this is wild. It allowed us to experience places that, while technically accessible by car or train, were not places we would ever consider going. In one “town,” the only things there were an inn, our B&B, and a campground. In another, the ONLY thing was the inn where we stayed (well, and sheep… many, many sheep).
Day 0 - Getting to the Start
Our flight from LAX to Glasgow (through Dublin) was a mess. Long story short, we got to (had to) spend the night in Dublin instead of Glasgow before going to the start. When we finally landed in Glasgow, we got a fancy but inexpensive bus to the city center, walked around for a few hours, had lunch, drank a pint, found the train station, and took a perfectly on-time but inexpensive train north to the suburb where the Way starts, Milngavie. It is pronounced “Mul-Guy” for some reason. That night, we had an amazing meal in an adorable and modern little restaurant. Scotland is not just haggis with neeps & tatties (whatever the hell those are).
Running out of town is fun and easy. We were amazed how quickly we felt like we were in the country. The trails were great and we had to constantly remind ourselves to slow down in anticipation of the many miles ahead. About seven miles in, we came upon the Glengoyne Distillery and simply had to go in since it is right off the path. We bought some whisky and came out of the shop to a few raindrops. This was the beginning of HOURS OF POURING RAIN. Thankfully, it was the first day so it was easy to keep our spirits up.
As the rain let up, we came upon a sign: LEFT 2.5 mile shortcut, RIGHT 3.75 miles over the big-ass hill. Of course we went right. We always choose right and it’s always the right choice.
We had no idea that this “hill” was a huge tourist attraction in one of the most popular national parks in Scotland. Just after we crested the summit, we saw a line of hikers stretching down into town and our progress slowed quite a bit while bobbing and weaving through the crowd. Popping out into the parking lot, our B&B was only one block away and across the road from the beautiful Loch Lomond. Our luggage had been delivered so we cleaned up, went in the HOT TUB, and tried to dry out our gear. An important tip, do not try to dry wet trail shoes with a hair dryer. The stench produced is both long lasting and powerful.
Almost the entire day was spent winding around the East shore of Loch Lomond. While it was stunningly beautiful and lush, it was also stunningly rocky and rooty. It was by far our slowest and most difficult day. We ran about seven easy miles then had two of the most technical and impossible miles of trail running I’ve ever done. We got to the point where we would celebrate ten feet of actual running. With about five miles left, we came upon a surprisingly fancy inn. Since we were hurting and frustrated, we pulling in and got half a pint of beer and some chips. That was a good decision as the last five miles went much more smoothly with a very slightly elevated blood alcohol level. Thankfully, the weather improved dramatically from the previous day and we only got wet during the last hour of running.
The tiny town of Inveraran consists of the B&B where we stayed, a campground with an amazing restaurant, and the Drovers Inn, which opened its doors in 1705 (JS Bach was 20 years old). Having a drink at a bar which has been there for more than 300 years was a great way to end a very tough day.
Sunshine! We had really planned for cool/chilly/rainy and we were continually surprised just how warm it was. The running was so much easier than the day before and we made good time on the old military roads and ancient grazing paths. The day passed quickly and we got to see lots of sheep, lots of flowers, a few cows, and a kilted man playing the bagpipes in the middle of nowhere for no reason we could discern.
We crossed the ancient Bridge of Orchy and arrived at the Inveroran hotel, the only thing in the town. It was great to walk ten feet from our room to dinner in the tiny dining room then ten more feet to the lounge where we drank wine and looked though old guestbooks from the last century. Just before turning in, we saw a printed weather report for the next day which called for “torrential downpours” and “periodic hail.” We decided to get an early start to try to get as far ahead of the coming tempest as possible.
We were ready for the weather. We started early, brought plenty of food, and had all our emergency gear packed. As we climbed out of the little valley where we spent the night, the landscape opened to, what we later learned was, the largest “wild” area in the UK. The Way lead through miles and miles of beautiful green rolling hills. We were on a mission to beat the storm and the trail was great quality so we made excellent time. This day was full of the most amazing sights. The mountains started getting tall and as we climbed up the last tough pass (up the Devil’s Staircase), we saw some rain moving toward us from the south. We stopped to eat and take a little rest and the sprinkles started. That lit a fire and we got the ridiculous idea that we could outrun the storm. Well, IT WORKED! The whole day, we only had about ten minutes of soft rain.
Since we moved so fast and left so early, we were two hours early to check in to our B&B so we went to a pub, sat in the sun, and ate delicious food. When were were debating a second pint, the promised torrential downpours arrived. We weathered the storm over another beer and averted our eyes from the poor walkers who had not arrived so early scrambling for cover. It was the best day!
This was supposed to be the easiest day. It was the shortest and we were almost done. The climb out of Kinlochleven taught us this assumption was incorrect. It was steep, the trail was easy to walk but far too loose and unstable to run, and the midges were out in force. We would alternate between slogging up the hill and sprinting away from the bugs. The first half of the day was pretty miserable. We did get to see a shepherd training sheepdogs though! After we took a little break to watch the pups, the running got much easier and we started to get excited to finish. We even took a short detour to see an iron-age fort at the top of a hill. The final push was all downhill and had some of our fastest miles of the whole trip. The last several miles were on pavement and felt really rough after the long downhill but we made it into town and ran all the way to the end. It was sunny when we finished.
101.5 total miles. 22:30 total time.
Through most of the run, we were surprised how easy it felt. There were hard miles for sure, but the entire journey was much easier than we had anticipated. 20 miles per day seemed like a lot on paper but there was no real pressure to hurry while we were running and the easy pace really helped with the distance. If we went too fast, we would both miss cool things on the way and get to our next town too early to get checked into our lodging. As far as the training went, we really weren’t running all that many miles leading up to our trip. I was in the mid 50s per week — this is much less than my normal marathon training cycle and it was much less intense. We were both really surprised how achievable this adventure was.
As we ate vegetarian haggis nachos (weird but good) in the Grog & Gruel Pub in Fort William on the night we finished, we were already planning our next similar adventure. Switzerland? The Andes? Norway? For us to be looking ahead only hours after finishing is a real testament to how fun it actually was. With a marathon or long trail race, I need at least a month to think another one is a really “fun” idea.
The day after finishing, we took the “Hogwarts Express” (actually called the Jacobite) to Mallaig, a costal town in the northwest. I only mention this because there at the Chlachain Inn, we had one of the best meals in my recent memory. The capstone of this lunch was a “burger” made with alternating slices of fried halloumi cheese and onion rings in a homemade roll. It was perfect.