My first run with the Westies hill running club
An account my first time running with the legendary Westies (Westerlands) Hill Running Club, based in the west of Scotland. I had been meaning to join them for a training run for years, on the recommendation of many friends, and I chose a wet but thankfully warm-ish Wednesday evening run of The Cobbler as my inaugural outing.
The start didn’t bode well
I had misjudged the traffic between my home and Arrochar and I was late. I rushed to put money in the machine at the car park (it’s free after 6pm, which made me smile) and as I dashed back to my campervan to collect my running pack, I caught sight of a group of runners, all slivers in lycra and small shorts.
They looked young, too. Fresh-out-of-uni young.
I was flustered and feeling rather intimidated as I quickly sorted my kit, my back to the whippets and my focus on what spare layers to take and where to stash the jelly babies.
I heard light feet dance behind me as the group set off. I grabbed my pack and rushed to join the back of the group of 12 or so runners. Annoyingly, I heard the sound of water sloshing loudly in my hydration bladder. (Why had I not sorted all my stuff before I set off from home?)
“No time to sort. Just run to keep up,” I thought. The front-runners had already disappeared whippet-like up the path that zigzags its way to the high glen of two Munros, Beinn Narnain and Beinn Ime, as well as The Cobbler.
I reminded myself that I knew the way so even if I ended up on my own I’d be fine.
The water whooshed around in my pack and drowned my thoughts for a while – and I realised then that I was not alone.
Running at a similar pace was a man who told me he was “taking it easy this evening”. He had run a marathon in the Trossachs at the weekend and he knew he would be training on tired legs.
I took comfort from this. I remembered I’d run 20 miles on Saturday, my furthest ever in training, and thought that perhaps it was fine to be taking up the rear of this Westies training pack.
But I still fretted. Had I been foolish to pick a run to summit of 884m Ben Arthur (The Cobbler) as my first outing with the Westies? Had the wet weather put off other “more average” runners? Would anyone wait for me?
Things started to improve
After a quick chat with Marathon Man, I pushed on a bit, calmed my thoughts and settled into my own pace. I was relieved that I was still jogging uphill (and had not been spotted walking) as I approached the rest of the runners, who had stopped at the bench at the top of the first steep section to allow for a re-group.
I quickly sorted the hydration bladder to stop the sloshing and listened to the friendly banter around me. Many of these runners were young, slim and clearly very fit but the chat was the same as it would be among any running club.
There was talk of races done, races planned, holidays where running or cycling featured highly, job frustrations and the joy of being out on the trail on a Wednesday evening when many other people would be slumped in front of the TV eating biscuits.
The higher we ran the better I felt
With the group back together (amazingly I was not the last runner up the first section), we set off again to climb the second part of the winding path. Niall, who had corresponded with me by email when I enquired about joining a Westies run, seemed happy to run at my pace and chat.
It turned out he was part way through a week of running a total ascent of 6000m. I felt dizzy just thinking about that. He explained he was preparing for the Glen Coe Skyline race. “Oh, amazing” I said. In my head I was thinking, “What am I doing here with this bunch of elite runners?”
Niall was welcome company, however, and we settled into my pace of running then walking the steep sections. The slivers in lycra and small shorts had wisped off up the slope already. I couldn’t even hear their chat because they were so far ahead.
Gratifyingly, I noticed that one of the young women (sorry, I do not remember names) was not so far ahead by now. My walking seemed to keep pace with her jogging uphill and when she finally gave into a walk, too, she also joined our conversation.
It was her first Westies run and although she looked very fit and around half my age, she also revealed nerves about a training run to the top of a Corbett on a week day evening.
Her anxiety was due to a recently broken wrist (incurred just five weeks previously while learning to paraglide!) and feeling unfit because she had spent a month cycling around Norway rather than focusing on running.
She seemed to be coping well and I enjoyed hearing more about Norway and her recent move to Glasgow for work.
The beautiful Arrochar glen
We regrouped again at the start of the wide glen, where there’s a first glimpse of the unmistakable rocky outline of The Cobbler. The whippets had hardly broken sweat. They were all smiles and perpetual motion, even when at a standstill. That sounds odd, I know, but the group appeared to be bouncing gently on fairy-light feet, ready for the off again.
It was decided that a few runners who were now further back would run as a small group and the rest of us would head on.
The terrain was better now. The path offers a gentler ascent through the glen and I chatted for a while with another woman, also young and very slim. If she had told me she was an elite hill runner it would not have surprised me. She was so wonderfully light on her feet and relaxed.
Instead, Megan told me about her nerves for a forthcoming open water swim event in Loch Lomond. I empathised.
Seemingly seconds later I looked up and Megan had floated ahead and was closing in on the other featherweight speedies. They were MILES ahead!
By this point I didn’t mind that I could not run as fast. I didn’t think I was causing the rest of the group much hassle and I was not so far behind that they would be bored waiting for me to catch up. There were others who were running at a similar-ish pace, too, even if they were running on over-trained or over-raced legs.
I ran and listened to others happily chatting ahead and behind me. It is always good to meet new, like-minded people and the earlier feelings of being out of my depth receded.
Climbing The Cobbler
The group decision was to take the more northerly path to reach the top of The Cobbler. It’s a steep trail with numerous rocky steps and we quickly formed a long snake up the mountain slope.
Thankfully, most of the runners were run-hiking the path and I was able to stay with them. A few of the whippets had already floated up to a high bealach. I was impressed rather than frustrated. How amazing it would be to be so fit, fast, light – and young! I never will be now but I contented myself with thoughts of “not bad for age”!
The forecast rain was holding off and as we climbed we were treated to stunning views over the wider Arrochar Alps. I have been in the Alps so many times, in all kinds of weather and all seasons, and the views still take my breath away.
By the time I reached the top, several of the whippets had flown up to the top of the summit rock. I imagined some of these runners were also accomplished climbers and mountaineers, too.
The atmosphere had remained very cheerful and I enjoyed being part of a group of people who had been bothered to go out for a mountain run on a wet Wednesday evening. There was a sense of collective smug.
The descent: Slow and then faster
As we gathered ourselves for a group photo, the rain started. This made the rocks, grass and stone steps very slippery for the descent of The Cobbler. Of course, many of the runners were great descenders but after a couple of near tumbles I decided to take my time rather than feel pressured to go too fast.
I wasn’t the only one and again the group snaked out down the slope with everyone going at their own pace.
The rain was becoming heavier and I was thankful for my hooded waterproof jacket. What was not so helpful was my sports glasses. While the prescription lenses are light reactive they never become clear and I struggled to see clearly in the dim light of the rainy evening.
A quick regroup at the top of the glen allowed me the opportunity to run with the fasties at the front for a while. I am presuming that they had slowed a bit for a chat and I heard mention of the Jura hill race and the Ochil 2000. Jura is a place I am very keen to visit but I had imagined hiking the paps rather than running them!
I tagged on to the back of the small group for a while and tried to copy their beautiful way of running on oh-so-light and fluid feet.
Stopping to wipe rain from my specs, I watched as they sped into the distance. I didn’t mind because the path through the glen is relatively easy to descend and I enjoyed being able to focus on my own steps and the growing sense of achievement of having completed A RUN WITH THE WESTIES.
As the path began to zigzag steeply again, this time descending to the car park, I got chatting again with Marathon Man. It turns out he is as old as I am and we swapped stories of podiums in our new age group and how determined we are to live life to the full while we can.
If that sounds a bit pessimistic, it’s not. It’s simply that turning 50 has made us realise how wonderful it is to be fit (for age?!) and how much we still enjoy being out in the hills and mountains.
Having the fitness to be able to run The Cobbler – even if I couldn’t keep up with the some of the others – is incredibly uplifting.
As I rounded the final corners of the muscle-punishing path I felt good. In fact, I felt great. I’d finally made it out for a run with the Westies. I’d overcome my worries about fitness, the weather and meeting new people.
I had run a mountain on a night when many other people would think I was completely mad to be doing so. I had very much enjoyed being with the legendary Westies Hill Running Club.
Looking around the group at the finish and while everyone talked about the next run, I realised that people were not quite so young. As well as Marathon Man, there were a few others who looked to be closer to my age. Even the young ones appeared to be late 20s and early 30s rather than fresh-out-of-uni mid-20s.
On reflection, age doesn’t matter although I would suggest that fitness is important if you want to join a training run on The Cobbler. The Westies offer plenty of other hill training outings and to less committing hills. I am imagining that the Wednesday night groups are often larger and include a greater breadth of runners.
I’ll find out next Wednesday in the Kilpatricks. I wonder where they choose to run in my local hills.
- If you fancy running with the Westies, the first session is free. After that annual membership is £20 for the year. There is a lot that you get for your membership fee.