Three runners chose the longest night of the year to run the 96-mile West Highland Way from Fort William to Milngavie. Peter Hunter, Charles (Chuck) Gordon and Mark Keddie, all from Bearsden in East Dunbartonshire, took 30 hours and 52 minutes to complete their tough winter solstice challenge.
The idea for the run came about during a relaxed autumn run. The three friends had previously completed the West Highland Way Race more than 10 times between them. The official ultra running event, which has supported checkpoints, takes place each June close to the summer solstice.
Chuck said: “We were chatting about running plans for the year – and longer term – and we decided it would be a great end to 2018 to run the route in winter and on a day that few others would contemplate, or to date have managed to complete.
“The goal for the winter solstice run was simply to finish in less than 35 hours whatever the weather.”
Having caught the train to Fort William, the trio set out at 5pm on December 21 to run south back to Milngavie. They faced 23 hours of darkness and long periods of rain on the trail. They were also self-sufficient carrying all their kit, food and water, albeit the latter was replenished.
Chuck said: “People who attempt the winter West Highland Way run see it as an informal self-transcendence affair, traditionally attempted in reverse with the inevitable long darkness and variable weather.”
Winter run of the WHW
Chuck picks up the story of the run: “The street lights faded behind us as we left Fort William and ascended the forest track to the Larig Mhor and towards Kinlochleven, some 14 miles away. We had 12lb to 16lb of gear to carry and because of rain showers our feet were already wet.
“Kinlochleven came and went after the big grind out from sea level and we descended the Devil’s Staircase at midnight. The rain showers were heavy with big drops dancing across our head torch beams.
“Occasionally it cleared and we could see the blacks and greys of the Glencoe landscape silhouetted with a full new moon.
“The Rannoch Moor climb at 24 miles was long and arduous. The descent and run to Ba Bridge was majestic under a clearing sky and with the moon glowing through the high cloud. The moor, vast and water-logged, sparkled like a carpet before us and we made good time to Bridge of Orchy under shades of silver greys and the odd deer looking rather perplexed.
“For spells we ran with no torches in a place that felt so special and remote.
“Admin and a cook-out at Tyndrum was our reward at 0615hrs and we headed over the ‘roller coaster’ around Crainlarich. Finally the sun decided to rise and the early morning air felt damp and cool as we watched the lonely gritters working the A82 with their isolated lights.
“Tyndrum was cold but the daylight improved our morale. Beinn Glas campsite was a short stop before the technical 15-mile loch-side section of crazy paths, wet boardwalk and waterlogged beach. We moved purposefully but just a bit slower to Inversnaid at 60 miles, where another cook-out on the picnic tables in the rain felt like the best it was going to get.
“A quick reflection of our fortune and appreciation was had at the Dario Melaragni memorial post, erected in remembrance of a wonderful man who was the race organiser of the West Highland Way Race until his untimely passing in 2009.
“Rowardenan came in daylight just at 1540hrs and 69 miles. Most of the technical sections were now done. At this stage it felt very hard.
“Conic Hill came at 1830hrs and 75 miles. It was a painful step up and up between showers and cool winds to the summit. The full moon was up again.
“It was the second night and we were 18 miles from home. The islands of Loch Lomond appeared to float on a glassy black sheen of water beneath a full moon.
“We descended rapidly to Drymen, taking turns to be ‘point man’ and keep the pace. We felt like a midnight finish was on. My feet were on fire and my blisters were screaming. We laughed, swore and entered, at times, a ‘within oneself’ tunnel of determination.
“Thankfully there were no injuries; we were hurting ‘well’.
“We closed rank and pushed each other on, running alternative ‘point man’ through the valley floor of Strathblane. With bobbing torches, every step was a step closer.
“The rain was finally off and at 88 miles in we passed through the Beach Tree Inn gate, finding puddles to cool our feet. It was 2159hrs and there was no time to slow our pace.
“In a final push, we clambered up and out of the valley to Carbeth where we used the outside tap to rehydrate.
“It felt like we were all on an edge, both emotionally and physically. I was reminded of the quote by Nelson Mandela, ‘It always seems impossible until it is done.’
“Somehow, as we passed Milngavie Library, we suddenly picked up the pace. The street lights came into view and with head torches off we stepped out in exaltation, quickening the stride, feeling less pain and smiling.
“We even managed what felt like a light-of-foot shimmy down the precinct stairs and into the underpass. We closed in on the 96-mile target. Our journey of unsupported, self-reliance became a reality and we are some of the very few to have done a winter West Highland Way run.”
The after thoughts
For Mark, it was a journey of team work and friendship. He said: “When things got tough we reminded ourselves that no one forced us to be there.
“However, working as a team and looking out for each other kept morale strong when the darkness and rain felt never ending.”
Pete also praised for his friends. He said: “To achieve a goal like this you had to have people around you that you can fully trust. I had complete faith that Chuck and Mark would be at my back should the wheels come off.
“The memories of our journey – and our friendships – will last for a lifetime.”
WHW winter solstice split times
Depart Fort William at 1703, Kinlochleven 2122, Glencoe 0044, Bridge of Orchy 0418, Tyndrum 0613, Beinn Glas 1027, Inversnaid 1321, Rowardennan 1541, Balmaha 1829, Drymen 2114, Beech Tree 2159, Milngavie finish: 2352.
Total: 30 hrs 49 mins.
Also see Chuck’s blog.