The Wet Highland Way Race

No, the title isn’t a typo! This all took place a very, very long time ago, way back in May in fact, but I’ve just been far too busy since then to get around to telling you all about it until now, so anyway, here goes:

San sent me this picture. Looks like Glen Trieg to me.
Either this wasn't the same day or he was in a completely
different race to the one I was in!

Rich Rothwell rode the West highland Way last year and having survived it intact decided that it would be a good idea to inflict it on the rest of us. Invitations went out to a number of riders and there was the usual bravado of people saying how much fun it sounded but as the allotted day approached the numbers dwindled as people realised what they were actually about to let themselves in for.

It was forecast to be the hottest day of the year so far, pretty much everywhere except for a bit of the West Coast of Scotland north of Glasgow, you know, the bit where the West Highland Way is. We knew it would be wet, we didn’t realise just how wet!

Ten brave souls turned up to tackle the route. The event was supposed to start at 6am but a few riders had grasped the size of the task ahead and elected to give themselves a headstart in order to stand a chance of making it to Fort William before nightfall. They set off anywhere between 4am and 5:30am.

It was dry at the start

So seven riders gathered in the centre of Milngavie for the main start. It had rained overnight but wasn’t actually doing it as we set off. We headed north out of the town and into Mugdock, enjoying the easy rolling paths and not enjoying the endless succession of gates. In fact we were enjoying the fast sections so much that no-one was really paying that much attention to where we were going, until we reached the village of Drymen. Yes, I know Drymen isn’t on the WHW.

We paused for a navigation break. This wasn’t easy, Rich had assured us that the WHW was all very neatly signposted and we would therefore not need any maps, so we only had one between the whole group of us. We were off to one side of the one map we did have and John’s GPS had no signal. We eventually worked out where we were and were able to rejoin the route without too much fuss and set off toward Conic Hill.

It was here that my troubles began. Having only seen the northern end of the route, the area around Kinlochleven and the Devil’s Staircase, I had been wondering about the suitability of my XC race bikes and, being unwilling to risk them the week before I set off to Italy for the European 24hr, had decided to hire something a bit beefier. I was therefore riding an Orange Five. I had been for a few laps of the car park the day before to set the bike up, just the basics like shock pressures and swapping to my own pedals. However, the ascent of Conic Hill is a little more arduous than a few laps of the car park and as soon as I tried to put any significant power down my gears started jumping all over the place. I had to stop to fiddle with them and the others all took the opportunity to disappear off into the distance.

A couple of minutes later the chase was back on. I made up a fair bit of ground and I rounded the hill and the summit came into view. I caught sight of four of the others on the final section with their bikes over their shoulders.

I managed to stay on the bike a little longer than they had, closing the gap slightly. Being a fell runner I closed it more when I did eventually have to get off and run and was almost on their tail as we crested the hill and remounted. I had been going less than a minute when I heard the pinging sound of a chain on the spokes and did that special lurch forward to smash my knee on the bars that accompanies a snapped chain. Fixing it cost about five minutes and the others were long gone by the time I got going again. My gears still didn’t feel quite right though, and also sounded a little peculiar. Probably just an unfamiliar bike, I couldn’t see anything wrong.

There was a lovely swoopy section of trail somewhere near the south end of Loch Lomond, the water visible through the trees. It was a lot of fun, all short sharp rises and falls, lots of fast corners and a few bridges dotted here and there. Most of the bridges were pretty straightforward but there was one which had some bigger steps up to it than the others and also some bigger steps off it, with John standing on them waving his arms at me.

I came to a stop and joined John in trying to pick up a fellow rider. He had obviously hit the steps at some speed, performed a frontal dismount and then applied the helmet brake to stop himself when he landed quite a distance from bridge. He didn’t seem too badly hurt but I think it was that kind of crash where one daren’t move afterwards in case it turns out that something is actually broken and trying to move will just highlight this and make it hurt.

Once we had established that he was just shaken and not injured I left them trying to fix his bike.

I had to stop again shortly afterwards as I got my first pinch flat on a rock, I put my 26” tube into the 650B tyre, got the gas out and hoped for the best.

There were some more lovely swoopy sections along the bank of the loch, overtaking the ferry which I could see over to my left, but very shortly I was slowed to a crawl. The section along the north part of the loch took hours and hours and hours. The rain had set in by this stage, proper heavy rain. They do say that if you don’t like the Scottish weather you should just give it five minutes, and sure enough every five minutes it did change, going from heavy rain to very heavy rain, and then five minutes later from very heavy rain to very, very heavy rain and continuing like this for most of the rest of the day.

The hardest aspect of this section was of course the boulders. I had been told that a bit of the route may be unridable, but there were miles and miles of it, just relentless huge boulders to climb over, with no grip from the wet rock for the metal cleats on the bottom of my shoes while attempting to drag a pretty heavy bike behind me as best I could.

For some reason my front tyre took the opportunity to explode somewhere along there. I have no idea why, the bike was on my shoulder so nowhere near any rocks to pinch on. Also, a bang that loud that close to one’s ear does make you jump a little... It wasn’t even the one I had fixed earlier so I can’t blame the cold gas doing funny things to the rubber as can happen occasionally. I paused to fix it while under the relative shade the trees offered from the rain. Unfortunately as soon as I became a stationary target I was very easy pickings for the seven million midges which were also sheltering under that particular tree.

The route continued along passing Rob Roy’s famous cave which, being in a race, I didn’t take the opportunity to explore. I should have realised, given the fact that Robert the Bruce had also hidden in it and no-one had managed to find him there despite looking very hard, that it would probably be quite difficult to get to, and so it had proved. It also turned out to be just as difficult to get away from as I continued north along the banks of the loch. Had I not been lugging a bike along behind me getting into the water and swimming may have been the quicker option, and with the rain now at very, very, very heavy probably not that much wetter.

Another one of San's pictures.
Wonder if anyone rode those steps?

It was an enormous relief to reach the end of the loch and to be able to remount the bike and ride it rather than carry, or more usually, drag it. It was less good to be out of the shelter of the trees and out into the full force of the rain.

I made very good progress for quite a while, I had to keep riding fast to stand a chance of keeping any heat in me at all. I even managed to catch and pass two of the earlier starters, which was a bit of a psychological boost. An even bigger one was meeting a couple of bikers and some walkers chatting at a gate. The bikers were going the other way, north to south, and were attempting to ride the whole of the route in two days. This impressed the walkers enormously. I just smiled, said good morning and carried on.

The next big milestone was Tyndrum. This was excellent news as it meant that I had passed halfway but was even better news in that I could buy food there. I went into the little shop and got as much flapjack as I could carry and then came out to find Paul just pulling up in the support truck. I pulled on a dry base layer and some new gloves, refilled my bottle with Accelerade and set off again into the downpour.

The gears on my bike were still skipping and so I decided to sit down and figure out what the problem was once and for all. It actually turned out to be very simple, the lower jockey wheel on the rear mech had a ‘fat’ side and a ‘thin’ side and had been put in back to front, something which was very quickly resolved once it had been spotted. It had however taken me the best part of eight hours to find it, most of which involved constantly twiddling the barrel adjusters, which unsurprisingly had failed to help. I had noticed early on that the cable end was all frayed and straggly and would therefore be almost impossible to adjust, removing the bolt holding it to the mech would just cause it to unravel itself. This is the problem with using someone else’s bike, you never find the problems until it is too late.

There were two others which I had little option but to ignore. When I had first picked the bike up I had detected a very slight movement at the rear end, which felt very much like a worn shock bushing, hardly a major issue and one which I was prepared to just forget about. This actually turned out not be a shock bushing at all but instead the whole main pivot coming lose, leading to a rather disconcerting side to side movement of the rear wheel. Even more annoying was the rear shifter, most of the time this was fine but sometimes I would press the lever and it would fail to return and have to be pulled back manually, which was a real pain in the bottom if I was trying to change lots of gears all at once. This particular shifter, I forget what kind it was, wouldn’t do multiple shifts like the XTR units on my own bikes, changing eight gears at once at the bottom of a steep climb would be a trial of patience if I had to reset the level manually after each change.

The other problem with stopping to mend stuff was that I got very cold very quickly. I tried to pick the pace up in an attempt to get to get some heat back into my body, but this failed, partly because I was quite tired and struggled to go much faster and partly because any attempts to go faster just made the windchill even worse.

Anyone spot where we got lost?

I had to have a brief stop in the pub at Inveroran to ask directions, the trail crossed a road with the pub on the corner but the signs were hidden by the weather. It really was very tempting to just sit there and order a beer and some hot food but I forced myself out into the cold again and set off over the hill. Had I been able to see anything this would have been one of the most spectacular sections of the whole ride. I have been running on the south side of Glen Coe before and so had a rough idea of where I was, it was a very welcome sight to see the back of the Three Sisters looming up at me out of the murk and even more welcome to see the Kings House Inn appear at the side of the road. I found out later that two more of my competitors had dropped out here, most of the others having called it a day at Tyndrum. I had a brief pause in the meagre shelter offered by one of the doorways, had I gone inside I would probably not have emerged again. I ate the last of my food and sent a text message to Paul “At Kingshouse. Pressing on to the finish” I got one word back from him “Legend”

The climb up from The Kings House was probably the toughest part of the whole event. The trail zigzagged up the side of the mountain, riding into the wind was really, really hard. There was the wind itself trying to push me back down, but it was also driving the rain hard into my face, it was actually very painful to look forward to where I was going. I think there was probably some hail in there too. Then I would get to a switchback, turn the corner and shoot off like a scalded cat, the fact that it was quite steeply uphill making no difference at all as I hurtled towards the next corner propelled along by a force nine tailwind, but once round that I would have to battle once more into the elements.

The relentless rain was really starting to mount up along here, the water flowing on the surface of the trails was four or five inches deep, it was actually quite surreal. Eventually cresting the hill I then had to descend the Devil’s Staircase, normally a real hoot to ride but it was a headwind section this time and so very, very slow, despite being quite steeply downhill. The river crossing near the top was actually quite scary. I came to a halt just before it and looked at it, it was fast flowing, quite deep and a lot wider than normal, not a good combination. I put the bike down and set off on foot to look for a better crossing point. Nothing was obvious, so I returned to the bike and walked it into the river, leaning against it on my left, trying to use it to help stop myself getting swept away. I could feel the force of the water pushing hard against me as I waded through it but made it to the other side unscathed. I could barely feel the water itself though, I was so cold and wet already that being thigh-deep in a river was barely noticeable.

There were innumerable smaller streams on the way down, some bigger than others, but the water was flowing so fast and the rain was battering into my face so hard that I had no chance to see what the bottoms were like and so I was just barrelling into the them and hoping for the best. I had one or two interesting moments on some of the larger submerged rocks but got away with it.

I resisted the temptation of the cafe in Kinlochleven, it had occurred to me that if I was to stand any chance at all of making it to Fort Bill before nightfall I really would have to press on. I had a decent light, an Exposure Joystick, which was perfect for a trip like this in almost every respect, enough light to see by at speed on these trails but it doesn’t weigh a ton when being carried around in daylight for 12hrs before you really need it and it has about 3hrs of battery life on full whack, which would have been plenty. In fact, the only thing I can think of which was wrong with it was that it was in the tool box in my van in Milngavie, about 85 miles away.

The trail from Kinlochleven to Fort Bill was a lot longer than I remembered it being, I had last ridden it the other way around in the 2012 Tour of Ben Nevis, which had been a lovely warm sunny day. It was of course much less sunny this time and the trail looked very much like a river, there was an impressive amount of water flowing along it. There was an even more impressive amount of water still falling from the sky.

After more than an hour of splashing along the riverbed I came to a trail junction. This was yet another place where I was really tempted to throw in the towel, and I could really, really have done with a towel. Heading left I knew would take me down to the tarmac road, the road we had ridden up at the start of the Ben Nevis race and the fast way into Fort William, no-one would ever know. However, I had come this far, I was going to finish it properly. I kept going towards Glen Nevis and into the gathering darkness.

Everyone else enjoying a post-race curry and looking concerned
about my whereabouts. The empty seat at the back right is mine

There is a problem with the approach to Glen Nevis. For several hours I had been riding along in the torrential rain, desperate for a bit of shelter as I ploughed on across open moorland. Now as it was getting dark I was finally entering the forest, getting some much needed respite from the downpour. However, dense woodland is not really the kind of shelter you want as dusk is falling. I could see next to nothing and my pace slowed even more, which did little to help with keeping warm.

It was properly dark before I rounded the last mountain and finally entered Glen Nevis itself. I could now see nothing at all beyond about three yards ahead, I was just riding and hoping for the best. A sign loomed at me out of the darkness indicating that the trail ahead was shut and that there was a diversion down the mountain to my right. I looked down, I couldn’t even see the trees, just blackness. If I attempted to ride that I would just hurt myself and so I decided to carry on along the closed off part of the trail, climbing over timber stacks and some very large forestry equipment as I went.

This eventually brought me out onto the tarmac road at the bottom of Glen Nevis. This had all kinds of lovely things to speed my progress, a nice even surface, drainage and best of all, street lights. I headed up the road and into Fort William town centre. I don’t know exactly where the end of the West Highland Way is but our unofficial finish line was Spice Tandori on the High Street. In my exhausted state I was completely unable to find it, but luckily Paul spotted me riding passed through the window and he came out to find me huddled in a shop doorway trying to get enough feeling back into my fingers to be able to phone him.

He carried me into the restaurant and sat me down in front of the table. A huge cheer went up from everyone else, the biggest cheer I have ever had for coming last at a race. A pint and a birriani appeared out of nowhere and were placed in front of me. Someone, I forget who but thank you very much, left briefly to retrieve some dry clothes for me from the bunkhouse. I couldn’t eat the curry as my hands were shaking far too much to be able to hold a fork. I had been OK while out on the bike but as soon as I stepped into a heated restaurant and sat down everything just gave up and stopped working, hands, feet, brain, everything. I abandoned it and went to get changed but this took ages as my fingers wouldn’t bend. I summoned help from the waitress as I mistook the alarm in the disable toilet for the light switch but once she had established that I wasn't hurt she left struggling to dress myself. I eventually managed to get enough clothes on to be allowed out in public again and so returned to the table to try to finish the curry.

Of those who had set off only three of us had managed to get all the way to Fort Bill, Rich Rothwell, Keith Forsyth and then myself. I was such a long way back that they were only going to give me another 30 minutes before they summoned mountain rescue to go out and find me.

Everyone had a story to tell, some had made it Tyndrum, some even as far as The Kings House. Some had pulled out with mechanical problems, some with injuries, I think John B takes the prize for the worst, the only one with a broken bone, and some had just completely lost the will to live. Paul and Pete had been fantastic all day helping out distressed riders and picking up those who had fallen by the wayside and ferrying them to the curry house.

Same time next year.

PS I would like to say a big thank-you to The Indian Fire Trail himself, Mr San Kapil for the photographs. He made it as far as Tydrum I believe, not quite sure how he got the one of Glen Treig, but given the weather in it he may have come back on a different day

PPS Since this event Keith has returned to the West Highland Way and set a new record for the double, there and back, by a very narrow margin of 14 minutes over Phil Simcock's previous best.


  1. Great read Andy

    Yes that picture was taken doing the Tour De Ben Nevis i never got that far on the WHW will start from Tyndrum next time ;-)


  2. Not Glen Etive then if was taken during the TDBN, didn't recognise it in the dry!
    How did the TDBN go this year?