The West Highland Way, Scotland’s most popular and successful long-distance trail, stretching from Milngavie, just north of Glasgow, to Fort William, in the Western Highlands, was officially opened on 6 October 1980. However, it took a few years for any Race to germinate.
The Early Years
Over time, Scottish clubs, including Shettleston, Clydesdale and Lochaber, challenged each other in low-key relay events over the trail. It seemed just a matter of time until some brave soul took on running the whole route in one go.
Step forward Duncan Watson (a not-so-well-known athlete), who somewhat cheekily challenged Bobby Shields (a man with many trophies to his name, including the famed Ben Nevis hill race) to a head-to-head ‘race’ along the Way.
On 22 June 1985, the two of them arrived at Milngavie railway station and set off for Fort William. At that time the route differed in several ways from what we have today. In particular, the section from Balmaha to Rowardennan was pretty much all along the road, and the final stretch from Lundavra to Fort William was all on the road. The actual mileage was, therefore, a bit less than today, with considerably less up and down along the journey. In some ways, it was easier than today’s route.
On the other hand, the route marking was not nearly as clear, and many stretches involved wading through deep mud and bog, especially from Beinglas Farm up to the forest above Crianlarich. The ascent of Conic Hill and the lower half of Glen Falloch were certainly not the manicured paths we now enjoy! In reality, the route was different in several respects rather than being much easier or harder.
Neither man gave an inch in this titanic struggle. As they started to cross Rannoch Moor after c 60 miles, they realised that, with this mindset, mutual destruction was the most likely outcome. So they pooled resources and continued to finish together in a time of 17 hours, and 48 minutes. A time still respectable by today’s standards.
The race was born!
In 1986, the two of them opened the race to some fellow runners – this time going from North to South, with Duncan as Race Director. He continued in this role up to and including 1989.
1987 saw a return to the South to North route, with 7 of the 11 runners completing the full distance.
The 1989 Race has gone into the history books as something of a “clash of the Titans” battle at the sharp end, with Dave Wallace completing the distance in an incredibly fast 15:26, just 6 minutes ahead of Mike Hartley. A report on this Race ~ the stuff of legend! ~ (along with many other Race write-ups over the years) can be found elsewhere on this website.
1989 also saw the first requirement for an official Scottish Athletics race permit. The race was starting to evolve away from its early days, back-of-an-envelope, “come along and run” informality.
Peter White took on the organisation in 1990, to be succeeded by Jim Stewart in 1991 when the trail was re-routed to (much more closely) follow the present line:- c 95 miles distance (including c 14,760 feet of ascent, and c 14,760 feet of descent) of which about 8 miles is on the road. Thus it is a bit longer than previously, and with considerably more up and down.
Through the 1990’s, the Race continued on an annual basis, with Jim doing a great job of keeping it going. He fondly recalls all the enjoyment of these races and his marvelling at Brian Davidson’s 200 miles per week training regime. (A regime not recommended for novices!) However, knowledge of the Race just tended to spread by word of mouth. Many of the early participants moved on to new adventures but were not replaced by new blood. The world did not know of the race’s existence and never quite reached critical mass insofar as the numbers participating were concerned. At the end of the 1990s, the event was seriously in danger of being discontinued due to lack of uptake and the gradually increasing burden of “safety requirements” and related responsibilities falling on the organisers’ shoulders.
However, two runners who had completed the race during the 1990s decided that this event was just too much of a classic to die out and go away. Step forward, Dario Melaragni and Stan Milne.
The Noughties, 2000 to 2009.
The year 2000 saw a major boost (and possibly the survival of the event) with the publicity surrounding fast wins by both the men (Wim Epskamp 16:26) and the ladies (Kate Jenkins 17:37). This, as much as anything, raised the profile of the race and brought it to a much wider audience.
Dario became, effectively, “Mr West Highland Way Race” during ten years at the helm, up to and including 2009, in which the event changed out of all recognition from its early days ethos of “just turn up @ Milngavie and run to Fort William, the first to get there being the winner”. He designed the first Race website and was unstinting in encouraging new people to take up the challenge of doing the Race.
More participants, including many relatively “novice” runners, came on board, more formalised back-up support crews for runners, more organised checkpoints, mobile phone communications, first aiders, mountain rescue teams, Chris Ellis – the official ‘Race Doctor’, and much else besides, came into the equation. Dario took it all in his stride but did not take kindly to the title “Race Director”, preferring in his quiet and unassuming way to simply be ‘the co-ordinator’ of it all. Sadly, neither Dario nor Stan is still with us; but their memory certainly lives on, and all involved with the race are greatly indebted to them.
Following Dario’s sudden and untimely passing in July 2009, shortly after that year’s event, a small group led by Ian Beattie, all with several years of involvement with the race, in some capacity, took on keeping the race going.
The 2019 race marked ten years with Ian at the helm ~ ably assisted throughout by Sean Stone, Adrian Stott and others. Sean has now clocked over 20 years of involvement with the race, and Adrian has over 30 years as a runner, crew and organiser. John Kynaston master-minded the website updates & techie side of things, and Ross Lawrie the artistic and graphic design inspiration. Since John’s sad passing in 2020, John Munro has taken on the role of “Web Master” and, with his wife Helen, helped recruit and organise the many volunteers for race weekend. Keith Hughes has the task each November of vetting all entries before the ballot. Many others help out, and more than 100 volunteers are involved each year now.
2019 also saw Murdo McEwan and Alan Kay step down after ten years of involvement. Murdo was perhaps best known for handing out jelly babies at the 100k point, a part of the course now affectionately known as ‘Jelly Baby Hill’, although his work in reviewing all the entries was also significant. Alan looked after the Glencoe checkpoint. This latest 10-year period has seen an explosion of new ultra-distance events, around the world and a commensurate increase in numbers attracted to the sport. Who knows what the next ten years might bring?!
From a handful of runners in the early pioneer days to a few dozen runners starting each race in the early 2000s, and about half of them completing the distance, we now have well over 200 on the start line each year at Milngavie, with about 75% finishing.
Historically, due to ongoing path upgrades, there has been considerable debate about record times on the course. Jezz Bragg ran 15:44 in 2006, which shattered Wim Espkamp’s 2000 record on the post-1991 present-day route. Terry Conway lowered this further to 15:39, in 2012.
Dave Wallace’s 15:26 from 1989 remained the fastest recorded time.
These were both eclipsed by Paul Giblin’s 15:07:29 in 2013. The following year, in 2014, Paul ran faster again with an incredible 14:20:11 and improved on this again in 2015, bringing his record down to 14:14:44.
In doing so, he became the first person to win the race three years in a row. This 14:14:44 record was expected to stand for several years, but in 2017, Aberdeen’s Rob Sinclair (photo below) took the bull by the horns. Leading the rest of the field by 15 minutes at the first checkpoint at Balmaha, (20 miles) he extended his lead throughout the journey to finish in 13:41:08, over 3 hours ahead of the second-place finisher. Sub 15 hours would have been inconceivable just a few years previously!
2017 had seen a slight change in the route along Loch Lomondside, shortly after Rowardennan, with the new ‘low road’ replacing the previous ‘high road’. Which of these may be shorter / faster is still an ongoing runner debate. The 2019 race saw another route change, this time the traditional Lochaber Leisure Centre finish was replaced by the Nevis Centre, which also doubles up as the prize-giving/goblets ceremony venue. This adds around ½ a mile distance on tarmac, but provides much more of an “atmosphere” for folk finishing, especially for the last finishers, as the venue is then fast filling up in readiness for the imminent awards ceremony.
For the ladies at the sharp end, Kate Jenkins’ 17:37:48 record in 2000 was brought down by Lucy Colquhoun in 2007 to 17:16:20. A time that still stands. In 2016, for the first time, we had three ladies going sub 19 hours, all being in the top 10 finishers overall. The 2016 winning lady, Lizzie Wraith, with 17:42:27, moved to third lady on the all-time list.
The 2019 race saw first-time runner Siobhan Killingbeck come close to threatening Lucy’s record. On schedule at Kinlochleven (80 miles) but eventually finishing in 17:41:09, but still eclipsing Lizzie’s 2016 time.
Age group records.
Although, traditionally, the current race does not give individual age group prizes, James Stewart, the 2016 race winner, holds the Mens V40 record with 15:15:59, while the 2018 ladies winner, Nicola Adams-Hendry, has the women’s F40 record with 17:55:41.
Gareth Bryan-Jones became the first 70-year-old man to complete the race in 2013, with Marian McPhail becoming the first 60-year-old female to finish in 2015. Both of these times were eclipsed in 2016 by Rob Reid, a slightly older 70-year-old, and Norma Bone, 64 years young. The indefatigable Norma raised it again in 2017, 2018 and 2019 when she was 67, while Rob Reid returned and raised it for the men to 73 years.
Last year’s race in 2022 saw the popular Andy Cole return at 75 years young while completing his 10th West Highland Way race.
Honourable mentions should also go to Graham Arthur, who completed the 2018 race in 23:57:17 as the fastest 70-year-old to date and to Graeme Hall, who ran 22:03:29 in the 2023 race, to set a new Mens V60 time.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Mark Collins is the youngest finisher at 21 years from the 2007 race.
The 2020’s and the Pandemic.
The race was not held in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid Pandemic. 2020. The first lockdown, when we were all pretty much running around our neighbourhoods, saw an incredible take up for the Virtual West Highland Way organised at short notice. Over 2,000 runners took on completing 95 miles in 9 days in a minimum of 3 stages. The majority spread it out over a full nine days of training. Over 1500 runners repeated this in 2021. The success of the virtual events led the race to donate a considerable amount to good causes and with a crowdfunding campaign, also greatly contributed towards a replacement bridge washed away in winter storm floods. The John Kynaston Bridge, between Beinglass Farm and Derrydarroch, was inaugurated in the spring of 2022 in memory of our popular committee member.
2022 saw a return to the race proper. Rowan Boswood repeated his victory from 2019 in 15:09:49, just dipping under his previous effort of 15:15:42. Lynne Allen also achieved her second victory in 18:46:26, two minutes faster than her win in 2017.
Following the 2023 Race, over 1,600 people, affectionately known as ‘The Family”, have completed the race at least once. Neil MacRitchie and Fiona Rennie set a new record of 17 finishes each. Adrian Stott, Jim Drummond, and the late Tony Thistlethwaite each have 15 finishes.
Others with ten or more cherished finishers’ engraved crystal goblets to their names include Craig Hamilton, Alan Kay, Jim Robertson, Pauline Walker, Alyson MacPherson, John Vernon, Bob Allison, Keith Hughes, Ian Rae, Rosie Bell, Derek Morley, Martin Deans, Jody Young, Andy Cole and Neil Rutherford. Alan Kay, John Vernon, Jim Robertson, and Neil MacRitchie hold the distinction of each having completed 10 WHW races in a row, while Neil Rutherford has completed 10 in a row, all in under 24 hours!
The race makes no claims to be the toughest, hardest or most scenic race on the planet. The organising team simply seek, while trying to move with the times, to maintain what is a unique and iconic challenge on one of Britain’s original and most spectacular long-distance trails. Running the West Highland Way is achievable by anyone with a love of the outdoors who wants to experience Scotland at its finest. It has always been, and remains, a non-profit event run by volunteers.
This article was originally written by Murdo McEwan several years ago and updated in October 2023 by Adrian Stott.