Travel: Swiftly through paradise

The West Highland Way can be run as well as walked - but the true joy is to take it slowly.
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The Independent Culture
You take the fast road; I'll take the slow. The West Highland Way is a popular long-distance footpath. Today, it is also a racetrack that makes a marathon look like a jog round the block.

For Terry Marsh, writer of definitive walking guides, the best part of the 95-mile West Highland Way is the 941/2 miles in the middle. He would forgo the first few yards, which take the walker through a supermarket car park on the outskirts of Glasgow, and the last few yards on Fort William's grey streets. "But plonk me down anywhere else on the Way and I'd be happy," he says.

No other long-distance path in Britain can rival the West Highland Way's variety of terrain and historical associations. It moves from pastoral lowland, along the bonnie wooded banks of Loch Lomond, across bleak Rannoch Moor to the Pass of Glencoe - scene of the massacre of the clan MacDonald in 1692 - and finally through true Highland country, over the Devil's Staircase and to the foot of Ben Nevis itself.

Part of the Way is on remote military roads built to suppress the Jacobites, part on old tracks used by drovers taking upland sheep and cattle to market, and part on rough woodland or moorland paths. This richness of experience, and the neatness with which it fits into a week's holiday, has made the West Highland Way Britain's most popular long-distance route. Every year 15,000 people walk it from end to end.

Steven Westwood, the path manager, explains: "Pressure-pads buried at five key points record the number of walkers pretty accurately. On busy days we can plot a wave of people moving along Loch Lomond."

For Terry Marsh, the Way is best appreciated slowly. Ideally it should last more than the usual week, with perhaps a day off en route. "The longer you take, the more you'll enjoy it," he says. But there is a radically different approach. At 3am today, 60 of Britain's most hardened "ultra" athletes set out to run the whole of the West Highland Way within 24 hours. The record is under 17 hours.

Their task is equivalent to completing more than three London marathons in succession, while climbing Ben Nevis twice in the process. "Each runner will consume 35,000 calories, more than most of us expend in a week. It's equal in energy to 7lb of fat," says Dr Roger Eston, lecturer in human physiology at Bangor University. The 40 or so runners who endure to the end will be sore for a week.

What makes them do it? For Adrian Stott, aged 43, running the course for the fourth time, the experience is oddly on a par with yoga and meditation. "There is obviously incredible elation at the finish. But it is also a humbling experience," he says. "It is as if there is a hidden force driving you on." For those who prefer a more relaxed pace on what they hope will be a sunny June day, the way is set with flowers: late bluebells along Loch Lomond, and on Rannoch Moor the yellow stars of the bog asphodel, bell heather, and perhaps the first signs of the purple marsh orchid. Across Glen Falloch south of Crianlarich are ancient Scots pine, remnants of the giant forest that once cloaked most of Caledonia, and the fresh green of new birch and rowan.

From the bare hills above Bridge at Orchy, a walker may be lucky and see golden eagles taking flight. Along Loch Lomond there is a chance of spotting feral goats and perhaps one of the shy pine martens that have recently returned to the area. North of the loch, red deer are common, though in this calving season they prefer the high ground.

Running the course against the clock, there can surely be little chance of taking this in, not least because (even so close to the longest day) some of the route will be run in darkness. But, Adrian Stott argues, not all is lost on the ultra-athlete. "The point is not to switch off, but to switch into the wonder," he says. "You try to stay focused as much as you can. And at times you can appreciate incredible beauty, such as the play of intense evening light on the mountains."

There are others, such as David Rogers who completed the course last year, who remember nothing but the torture of climbing 10-ft deer fences and being force-fed bananas, while looking no farther ahead than the next yard of rough ground.

Of the different Highland ways, you take the fast road, and I'll take the slow.

Highland Hikes

FOR BASIC information on the West Highland Way send an sae to Loch Lomond Park Authority, Old Station, Balloch G83 8SS. The 100-page West Highland Way by Terry Marsh (Cicerone Press, pounds 6.99) is one of several comprehensive guides to the route.

The problems of walking the Way in late spring and summer include pressure on limited accommodation. May is the busiest month. But rooms can be booked, and the difficulty is reduced by starting the walk mid-week. There are often long spells of fine weather in October.

Bus and train routes run reasonably close to the Way at several points, so the walk can easily be done in stages.

Pack-carrying services will ferry rucksacks from one overnight stop to the next. For pounds 28 per bag, Travel-Lite (0141-956 7890) will cover the whole walk.

Among those organisations providing guided walks off the West Highland Way are Scottish Youth Hostels, 01786 891301, whose price of pounds 325 includes all accommodation, food and carriage of heavy bags.