The idea and the planning had been going on for weeks. Where should i go for a test of distance and endurance, what would i need to take and logistics of getting there and back. I settled on making my way from Bridge of Orchy to Fort William. The reasons being that the train stopped at Bridge of Orchy at 08.15am the morning of Friday 21st June and left Fort William at 19.50 the same day. The train was the Caledonian sleeper service out of London so i had no need to worry about advance accommodation as i slept on the train in both directions. The only down side to the plan was the fact that i had 11 hours and 35 minutes to cover the distance. Having missed the train i would then be stuck 500 miles from home with no accommodation and having to re arrange travel back home, not to mention an upset wife and children!
I left home at 18.00 on the Thursday 20th June to get in to London for the sleeper service and made it to London Euston without any trouble and was an hour early for my train. After milling about and wasting some time it was time to board the train.
I was sharing a cabin with another traveler who was doing the 3 peaks challenge and on his way to Ben Nevis to meet up with his fellow climbers. After having something to eat and checking through my gear it was time to get some sleep.
I had a 7am alarm call and was greeted with a cup of coffee from the on board train host. I made sure i had a large breakfast consisting of porridge with granola topping, ready salted crisps, banana, an energy gel and about a pint of water. With an hour and a half to go until i got started it was enough time to let it all go down. After gazing out of the window and admiring the scenery for a while we were almost at Bridge of Orchy. I bid farewell to my fellow traveler and went and waited in the corridor ready to depart the train. Bridge of Orchy, i jumped out of the train and instantly headed in the wrong direction! Good start, after spinning 180 degrees and heading for the station exit i was on the road and away. The initial few hundred yards are a road way heading towards the trail of the West Highland Way.
Once across the bridge you head out on to a trail proper and begin a gradual climb through a pine forest. This eventually turns in to more open ground and after about 2 miles you come upon the Inveroran Hotel and take a left hand turn on to a tarmaced section of road where the next marker point to head towards is the forest lodge.
After working up a good sweat starting out on the climb up it was good to get on to the flatter road and try and calm down a bit and be mindful to take it easy, slow down and pace myself. Another mile or so along the road and the Forest Lodge came in to sight. There is a gateway to pass through at Forest Lodge and the problem from here was that the road turns back in to the original surface of cobbles. It was a firm surface to run on and not loose under foot but was lumpy and bumpy as you can imagine. I knew this was going to be a head down section as the next point to aim for was the Kingshouse Hotel about another 9 miles away. The path wound onwards and gently climbed as it went eventually passing Lochan Mhic, a small lake. Then way ahead i could see the A82 main road which i need to cross to get to the Kingshouse Hotel. I pressed on along the track and noticed that i had a very wet back and my legs were getting wet. I knew i was getting hot but something wasn’t right, i kept going and checking my watch i was about 45 minutes ahead of my planned schedule and thought i could afford myself 5 minutes to stop and buy a drink at the Hotel. I reached Black Rock Cottage and the A82 was right in front of me, down to the road, cross over and i was almost on top of the Kingshouse Hotel.
On reaching the Kingshouse Hotel i found out the cause of the wet back and legs. My water bladder had split and all my water was leaking out! I had lost about 1 litre over the last 12 miles, i decided to keep it, headed in to the Hotel and went to buy a can of coke to top up on. I had reached the Kingshouse Hotel in 2 hours 17 minutes and was doing well. After having a fight with my bag trying to find enough change the landlady told me i could have it for free. I thanked her and continued on my way. I drunk the coke and then made a start on my water before i lost all of that as well. The trail then continues along a steady rise heading towards the infamous Devil’s Staircase. The Buchaille Etive Mor was rising up like a giant pyramid from the edge of the A82 but was rapidly becoming covered by cloud and soon it began to rain. I pulled out my mac from my bag while trying to keep momentum and not stop completely. Now about 13 miles in and on a steady rise my legs were beginning to burn and i had to slow right down knowing i was only just over a third of the way along my entire planned route.
The way then continues and lowers slightly to briefly come back in to contact with the A82, this marks the start of the Devil’s Staircase. My god i had under estimated how tough this section was going to be! I was just approaching the 16 mile mark not quite the half way mark and my legs were so heavy and burning it brought me to a stand still. A mild panic washed over me, i checked my watch and i was still ahead of time but if this was how it was going to be i thought i may not make it. Rather than try and be a hero and jog up and kill myself it was time to be sensible and power walk.
Initially i kept coming to a halt so i took on a gel and had some more drink and eventually managed a steady pace and only stopped briefly a couple more times before making the summit. Was i glad that was over, i was now looking forward to the decent thinking it would be easier and i could make some more good time.
From the summit the Way then leads down towards an old military road that leads in to the town of Kinlochleven. I started to descend what was quite a loose and rocky footpath and i felt my quads tighten up. Then i had my first cramp. My calf’s and hamstrings were holding up well and are quite strong but i’m not used to such steep descents and my quads were clearly too weak for the task. I was now 17 miles in and my legs kept locking up and i was in agony. I thought the military road would be flatter but it wasn’t and the decent continued and so did the cramp. Kinlochleven was going to be make or break. I was either going to quit and bail out at Kinlochleven and get the bus back to Fort William or i was going to continue at a far slower pace and stand a chance of missing the train.
I headed to a local shop to top up on drinks again and did some math about how much time i had. It was now 13.30 i was bang on the best schedule possible, i had set myself an absolute cut off of 15.00. If i had been that late it was a no go and i would have had to get the bus for fear of definitely missing the train home. But my legs were cramped badly, i was in agony but i was also dead on the best schedule possible and had about 6 hours to cover 15 miles to Fort William. Decision time. I had come for a test, i was willing to fail but failure would have been missing the train. Let’s do it! Onwards!
I knew the way out of Kinlochleven was another hugely steep climb. I had descended from 1790 feet to just 50 feet above sea level and now had to climb again. i needed to let my legs freshen up and regain themselves if i was to last so i started out on the steep climb and again i had waves of panic and i really felt like throwing in the towel and heading back for the bus. The daft thing that kept me going at that point was the fact it hurt less to climb up than it did to descend down! keep marching on. On reaching the top of the steep climb it again meets up with a military road. Although i had about 13 miles to go i knew i was on the home stretch, it made me feel so much better and once on to the road i managed between a shuffle jog and brisk walk if the legs started to cramp again. I had been passing people all the way along the route and it was good to have something to aim at ahead. This section was a little quieter.
A bit further along i checked my watch and the GPS had stopped working! The stopwatch was still running but i had no average pace time to see if i was moving quick enough. I could only do rough math from the elapsed time adding it to the time i started out and estimating what the time was. It packed up at 25.45 miles, the battery was indicating it was getting low so i can only think it is a power saving aspect of the watch.
I could see another group of walkers much further ahead and pushed hard to catch up with them. If nothing more at least i could get the time from them. On reaching them and finding out the time it was 15.20. A quick calculation, that gave me about 4 1/2 hours to cover around 8 miles. Come on! It had to be in the bag, no way was i going slower than 2 miles an hour. I was then in turn caught up by another walker, Stuart and his girlfriend he said he had seen me from miles off and had hell of a time trying to catch me. My slow down to get an accurate time from the walkers and discussing distance left had meant he managed to catch me. We were now coming to a split in the road that has two alternative routes back to Fort William.
On pointing Stuart in the direction of the official route i was able to start jogging again. It may have been more direct but flat it wasn’t! One steep climb mentally repeating “don’t run it hop and bounce, hop and bounce” trying to keep a momentum going led into another steep descent. It was absolute hell and my legs had had enough, they kept locking up and i was doing a weird stiff legged sideways crab like jog/skip. It may sound a bit stupid but i was so exhausted i was getting quite emotional and seriously thought i was going to collapse and be stuck there.
Then the best sight i could have seen to lift me up and get me to the end. Fort William. Looking at my watch and it was almost at 8 hours and 30 minutes, i had almost 3 hours to cover around 2 to 3 miles. Through all the pain, the cramp and the agony i knew then i had made it!
I can only imagine what the locals were thinking of this bedraggled, sweaty mess that was shuffling along towards the centre of town. When i started out i had bought my MP3 player thinking the long quite periods would get to me and i would use it to get by and help keep me going. I hadn’t used it once. My mind was so in the moment and concentrating on every footstep, how i was feeling, how far i had to go and doing mental calculations along the way i had no use for it. It had been me and nature, my brain and my body nothing more nothing less and i loved it.
It was the longest, hardest, most arduous, exhausting, painful, excruciating, amazing, fantastic and mind blowing experience i have put myself through in one day of my life. I made the 35 miles to Fort William in 9 hours 1 minute and 4 seconds and had 2 hours spare which i used to get a meal and a celebratory pint in my favourite pub in Fort William the Grog and Gruel. I had people who doubted i could do it in 11 and 1/2 hours, i even doubted myself physically but i knew mentally i was as tough as they come and i could push through pain that most people would fold and give in to. Would i do it again? definitely! but please give me some time to recover…and next time i’ll do it quicker! Now, time to sit down and dream up the next challenge.