While we were on vacation in the UK this August, Stephanie and I ran the whole West Highland Way in Scotland. We would do it again in a heartbeat.
The WHW is a 96-mile footpath that starts in the outskirts of Glasgow and travels north through the Scottish Highlands to Fort William. It’s a very popular path; Wikipedia says 15,000 people do the whole path each year. We passed people from a variety of countries who were backpacking or walking the path, but there were also many miles when we saw no one and seemed to have the entire Scottish countryside to ourselves.
Backpacking seems to be a popular means of traveling the WHW, but we stayed in accommodations in some of the small towns the path crossed. There are a number of baggage transfer services that will move your bags from one hotel/B&B/guesthouse to the next while you run or hike, and we took advantage of this so that we could carry as little as possible. (I carried a waist pack and water bottle each day, and Stephanie had a running backpack with a jacket, water, and a few snacks).
Our five-day itinerary required running an average of 19 miles each day. We were initially somewhat worried about this distance, but since we had all day to do it, it ended up being less strenuous than feared.
The days started off with a big breakfast (it was included in our accommodations, so you’d better believe we ate everything we could!), and we generally hit the trail between 9 AM and 10 AM. Typically we couldn’t check into our rooms at the end point until 2 PM or later, so there was no incentive to hurry.
We stopped to take lots of pictures, and we took it (very) easy on any tough parts. We weren’t willing to risk even a mildly twisted ankle given the mileage to be covered, so we walked any steep hills and/or rocky areas.
Most days this meant our average pace was around 10.5 minutes/mile. Our actual running time was usually around 3–4 hours per day, with another couple of hours stopping in interesting places, eating snacks, or talking to people.
In the afternoon we’d show up at our destination, check into our rooms where our luggage was waiting, and eat dinner as soon as it was available. I don’t think we ever said no to dessert!
The trail itself is great and fairly easy by Pacific Northwest standards (in comparison to running in the Gorge, for instance).
Probably half the length is single track dirt and gravel, very well maintained. There are perhaps four miles of country roads. Most of the rest is old military roads, which are closed to non-pedestrians and “paved” with big rocks (think Leif Erikson Drive in Forest Park, only a little rockier).
I ran in non-trail shoes, which worked fine, but in retrospect I wish I’d taken trail shoes because I think my feet would have felt a little less beat up.
There were rolling hills and a few sustained climbs, but it was never steep. Ninety-nine percent of the WHW is runnable. In fact, there’s an annual ultra race of the whole route, and the record times are around 14 hours.
The main reason to do the Way is the scenery, which is both varied and beautiful. Early on we passed through farm fields (including an incredible number of pedestrian gates to keep sheep from joining us on our journey), but by the end we went through some fairly remote and uninhabited areas.
That said, we were never actually far from civilization and especially since we were traveling light, it was a relief to know that people were usually only a couple of miles away. One day, we stopped and ate french fries and ice cream in the middle of our run, which is not something I have been able to do on a Pacific Northwest trail run!
Our weather was generally good. I think that we heard that that part of Scotland gets 280 days of rain a year, so you’re never safe. We only got actively rained on until our last day, and even then it was not enough to soak us.
Most days were cool (mid-50s) and misty. This meant we sometimes missed some of the more dramatic landscapes, but what we could see was still very pretty!
The main environmental obstacle was midges, which are nasty little biting flies that show up in swarms. We encountered these on our fourth day, and while we had an advantage over walkers in that the midges couldn’t get us while we were running, it made our rest breaks very brief by necessity!
Our accommodations varied in quality from “old but clean motel” to “nice bed & breakfast,” and the food was consistently excellent. We booked everything together (accommodations plus baggage transfer), but it would be straightforward to book it yourself as well. Making your reservations a few months in advance is necessary because some stops have only one or two accommodations available.
I would highly recommend the West Highland Way for running or walking. The trail is well marked and maintained, there are interesting people from all over the world on it, and the scenery is beautiful. One minute you can be chasing sheep across a hillside and the next you can be pursued by midges across a heathered moor.