Running the West Highland Way (reader feature)

Running on the West Highland Way

Ethics and philosophy lecturer Floris Mansvelt Beck came from Europe’s flattest country – the Netherlands – to test himself on the ups and downs of Scotland’s best-known long-distance trail, the West Highland Way. And the experience triggered a very personal, profound response. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did

Photograph by Mike van Berkel

If language is necessary, it is also limited. For logistical purposes it remains unbeatable: booking a plane ticket to Scotland, for instance, or making a reservation at a B&B in Milngavie, the starting point of the West Highland Way. Modern-day hunting and gathering, ditto. Step into a pub, order your “mac and cheese”, make small talk with a Swiss couple who, like you, are set to start out on Scotland’s favourite long-distance walk the next morning – though it may take some explaining that you are going to run it in four days, not walk it in the usual seven or eight. Progress from there, however, from the bare fact of running to the why of it, and you’re lost at sea, clinging to what’s left of your once-trusty vessel while your legs go numb at alarming speed. Running, probably like giving birth and walking on the moon, is one of those things you simply have to experience to truly understand. Any attempt at explanation is doomed to fail. Still, you can try. So try I will.

The worst of it is that most times you can’t even answer the question “why do you run?” yourself. Not now, at least, during the last 10k of the first day, on the winding path over Loch Lomond’s wooded shore, clinging to your running partner’s heels in the knowledge that if you let go, you will falter (and, worse, you will hate yourself for it). So you count your paces and hope for a hill. A walking hill, that is; steep enough so you’re allowed to walk up it. But earlier today you knew the answer. When you opened the gate – the first of an endless series of different gates used to keep grazers in while letting walkers through (leaning gates, gates with counterweights, gates with latches, gates with chains, wooden gates new and old, gates of corrugated steel and gates of spotless aluminium) – when you opened that first gate at the end of the wooded lane and saw the hills unroll before you, the winding path below, half an hour’s worth of gentle soaring to come, the friendly crunch of your running shoes on gravel and grass; then the question “why?” did not seem too difficult to answer. It did not even seem relevant.

Classic

The West Highland Way, I was a little disappointed to learn, is not an ancient trail linking Glasgow, in the south, to Fort William, deep in the Highlands. It was not worn into the earth by the feet of Highlanders travelling south to sell their wares, nor did the hooves of sheep or cattle herded to market carve it out from the hills. And it was never a covert trail used by clansmen to wage battle on the English, or each other. Actually, the Way is barely 30 years old, having opened in 1980. Linking existing trails to drovers’ roads and old military tracks, and following new paths where necessary, it turned out to be an instant classic. More than 30.000 hikers make the trip from Milngavie (pronounced Mull-guy) to Fort William (the preferred direction) each year, some spending as much as two weeks on the trail.

Buachaille Etive Mor juts out into Rannoch Moor below Glen Coe like some tectonic train run off its tracks

While the West Highland Way, then, is not a highway of old, there is plenty of old along the way. Padding your feet through the morning rain of the second day, following the rocky trail up, down, around and over mossy trees and gleaming boulders, careful not to slip in the mud or trip over stone, you recall that Rob Roy once hid here, in a cave tucked away on the rocky northern shores of Loch Lomond – the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, incidentally. The next day, rounding the promontory of Buachaille Etive Mor, jutting out into Rannoch Moor below Glen Coe like some tectonic train run off its tracks, you pass the site of the 1692 massacre of the clan MacDonald by fellow Scots in liege to the English king. And tomorrow, arriving in Fort William, you will remember how Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army laid siege to the fort for five weeks in 1746, failing ultimately to break its defences.

And that is just recounting the history committed to books, the history of men and kings. But it is the natural history of this place that is truly overwhelming; history that is more difficult to capture in words, be they spoken or written down. After two days of pastured valley floors, gentle rivers, and forested shores, interspersed with the odd bump of a hill, the third day finds us deep in the Highlands. It is on this third day also that we leave the West Highland Way proper for what is known as the West Highland Highway, though that name does not actually denote any particular trail. Rather, it designates any or all trails in the vicinity of the West Highland Way taking you straight over, instead of around, the many peaks of 3,000 feet or more (Munros, after the man who first listed them) that the original route passes by, while still heading in the same general direction. It is as we head away from the traffic of the West Highland Way, upwards into the hills, that this history starts to make itself felt.

Brilliance

We’ve left the main trail behind us. We fill up on water at a guest house by Loch Tulla – a silent black hole of a loch, sucking in darkness during the night and recalling the starless night sky during the day, beautiful in a mournful sort of way. We bid a hopeful farewell to the midges at the loch’s edge and set off on a cart track heading west. The Glasgow University Mountaineering Club’s Clashgour hut marks the trailhead, but the trail that follows could just as easily be a streambed. Running along its steep banks where possible, jumping from island to island where not, we head up to Stob Ghabhar.

As we climb higher the flow of water becomes a trickle. For a while we’re on a halfway decent path. Then the path unravels into myriad game trails, eventually fading out altogether in the grassy slopes of a gentle col. A gigantic stone amphitheatre materialises to our left. In the distance to our right, the windscreen of a lorry trundling along the A82 catches a lonely sunbeam, an isolated fleck of brilliance in the maroon shadows of Rannoch Moor 800 metres below. Turning towards the amphitheatre we plod on, in search of a way to the summit. A gravelly trail emerges at the base of the amphitheatre. As the trail steepens gravel gives way to loose rock, rocks grow into boulders, and soon we find ourselves climbing a winding staircase through a card house of stone. Using our arms as much for balance as to aid our overburdened legs, we gain the summit ridge, where it is green once again, and grassy and inviting. A perfect trail leads along the ridge’s crest to the summit. We run.

There are human markers up here. Border posts of some kind, sticking crookedly out of the earth at odd intervals. The tattered remains of a fence lie near the amphitheatre’s rim, like laundry blown off a clothing line. Strange place for a fence. Perhaps a farmer was afraid for his sheep. But why herd them to the top of a Munro then? As we cross the summit an answer presents itself. On the far side lie lush meadows, receding in all directions like waves rolling off a sandy shore. The wind sends a ripple through the grass. A couple of deer stand still in the distance, pricking their ears, then bound off, white tails flashing. We pause a moment to rearrange for the descent. Then, like boats come low tide, we are drawn to sea.

Magnificent

We sail the currents downward, careful not to trust the grassy slopes, for they are deceiving. Tussocks of grass conceal holes in between, and under the grass lie stones, and water flows there. We each develop our own rhythm, drifting apart as we keep an eye on each other and on the terrain beneath our feet. Coming together again, we are swept on to a rib of the mountain, a broad landing strip in the sky whose steep sides we must find a way down if we are to reach the trail below. As we carefully pick our way down the steep slope, running no longer but using our ski poles to keep from slipping in the wet grass, my steady diet of power bars and sports gels finally catches up with me. My stomach cramping, I double over. As my vision grows dark at the edges and cold sweat starts pouring from my eyes, I am no longer sure that I am having fun.

It’s so beautiful you can hardly keep singing for fear of bursting into tears

The moment passes. The cramps subside, I find my way down the last of the slope and head down the trail to catch up with Mike, who has been suffering in his own way. For, more even than the trail on the other side of the mountain, this trail is and is not a trail. It’s a mudslide, a cattle pasture, and an estuary rolled into one, with the odd bridge thrown in for definition’s sake. I happen to like this sort of thing, and soon find myself cheerfully splashing downriver, marvelling at the beauty of submerged trees in stagnant pools and wondering whether the chrome sheen of the water is the result of minerals in the mud or of the high levels of sulfide in cow manure. Mike, on the other hand, does not like this sort of thing, and drops further and further behind. When he catches up he’s in a foul mood, and this dampens my spirits and makes me resentful. As the trail gets progressively better, our moods get progressively worse. When we near the trailhead we take a wrong turn. Mike halts suddenly. I bump into him. He shoves me away. We backtrack up the trail in angry silence. Then we find the correct turn-off, run the last several hundred metres to the road, eat something, change our socks, swap experiences of the trail above, laugh, and set out on the next 20k, which is uneventful, but for the beauty of sunlit rain at the top of the Devil’s Staircase, and the magnificent decent into the forested hills above Kinlochleven thereafter.

It’s a funny thing, these mood swings on a long day out. One moment you’re in a wooded knoll, singing Downbound Train in unison, soaking wet and cold from the rain, but it’s so beautiful you can hardly keep singing for fear of bursting into tears, the next you find yourself crawling into a hole with a sniper rifle. Then something happens, some hiker on the trail yells an encouragement at your back, or you pass a group of tourists sliding in the mud in their loafers, or you eat something (often, you eat something), but just as often something indiscernible just happens and out comes the sun and there’s a warm wind in your back and it’s all downhill from there. Your body is still plodding along the trail, but your mind is soaring high above it. What happened? A neurochemist would tell you endogenous opioid peptides had been released into your brain by the pituitary gland, along with a host of other chemicals, resulting in what is known as a runner’s high. While knowing that adds little to the experience, it does raise the following question. If someone were to succeed in synthesising that chemical substance – if, that is, the runner’s high became commercially available – would you buy it? I don’t think so. For one, for all of your modern conditioning there’s still a residual work ethic deep inside you, which dictates that you have to suffer a bit for your pleasures. But more importantly, it’s not just the high you like, but also the runner’s low, and everything in between. Above all, it’s the silent language of running that draws you into the hills.

We’re looking for the escape hatch, wishing to transcend everyday reality, trying to slip through the looking glass

On our last day out, hiking up Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak, we pass a lone climber in full mountain gear, rope slung round his shoulder, leaning on an ice axe every other step and taking slow breaths, alpine style. This would not be exceptional, were it not June, with hardly any snow left on the mountain, and were this not the main trail to the summit, which is ascended by many thousands of day-trippers every summer, an estimated 200 of whom we have met during the past hour, not a few of them wearing toe slippers. Running past him a short while later on our way down I cannot help chuckling, but I immediately correct myself. For there’s a bit of that lone climber, playing alpinist on the tourist trail up the Ben, in the runner I know myself to be. We’re both of us looking for the escape hatch, wishing to transcend everyday reality, trying to slip through the looking glass. He plays the alpinist, I play the runner, stripping off layers of civilisation as I layer breathable outerwear over polypropylene tights and pull on hi-tech trail shoes so I can get closer to nature. We’re both of us lost at sea, I muse, even as I coast down the mountain, grinning from ear to ear. That grin is still on my face as we pull into Fort William an hour later, our eyes bright, our spirits soaring.

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