Who knew that breaking my leg would turn me into a hiker? Well, that’s not totally true, but when you have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do a really unique walking adventure with your wife and her 79-years-young dad in Scotland, you take it. My father-in-law, who has spent the past 50 years exploring Scotland’s landscape via two wheels or by foot, came up with the plan to hike the West Highland Way, a 96-mile trail that runs from Milngavie, just north of Glasgow, to Fort William. Dave lived up to his nickname, The Plan Man, by organizing every single detail of a trip complicated by logistics, multiple hotels, and bag transfers. This adventure, which had been postponed for two years due to the pandemic, was one of those rare times in my athletic career when I substituted wheels for a pair of hiking boots, and boy am I glad I did.
Any good overseas trip is going to involve some endurance traveling skills and stamina, so it’s best to just take a deep breath, hydrate, eat snacks, and go with the flow as much as possible. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but our traveling experience was significantly enhanced because we flew Club World, basically first class, which meant that we got to hit all the plush airport lounges and have seats that reclined into beds. If you’re thinking about doing some international travel this year, I highly recommend that you avoid London’s Heathrow Airport, because it was here that we hit our first travel snag. Even though we landed in the same terminal as the one we were transferring to, a labyrinth of stairs, escalators, a tram ride, and a severely understaffed TSA process conspired to make us miss our connecting flight. Luckily, we got booked on a later one into Edinburgh and on the bright side, it gave me another opportunity to hit the VIP lounge for more free snacks.
We spent the next two days exploring the Dickensian streets of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, where history oozes from every nook and cranny in this storied city. On Saturday we took the train, which was only four blocks from our hotel, to Glasgow, Scotland’s most populous city. I was impressed with how quickly the cityscape of Edinburgh melted into verdant, rolling fields, where hedges and rock walls replaced fences. Upon our arrival we were whisked to our first night’s lodging in Balmaha, a quaint village that sits on the southern edge of Loch Lomond, considered the boundary between the lowlands of Central Scotland and the Highlands.
The West Highland Way runs 96 miles through beautiful rolling terrain.
What is the West Highland Way? The trail opened in 1980 and was Scotland’s first officially designated Long Distance Route, one which combined 96 miles of ancient roads - drover, military, and coach - and stretched from the Lowland city of Milngavie to the highland terminus of Fort William. It is traditionally hiked south to north and is said to see over 120,000 visitors per year, with nearly 37,000 of them doing the full hike. Having chosen to cut off some of the opening flatter miles meant that we weren’t doing the full pull, but we still got an amazingly full hiking experience that spanned eight days and over 80 miles.
I know my stage racing experience on a bike helped me with my endurance hiking adventure because many of the same packing, gear, and nutrition tricks & techniques translated well to hiking day after day. We followed a pretty consistent pattern of Hike, Eat, Sleep, Repeat. And Eat some more. Mornings were spent reshuffling and reorganizing gear, checking the weather, changing our clothing, and filling the tank on a traditional Scottish breakfast, which usually consisted of much of the following: toast, beans, fried haggis, potato hash, eggs, back bacon, potato scones, fried mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, Lorne sausage, black pudding, kippers, and porridge. We’d then spend the rest of the day, usually four to six hours, hiking endless miles of amazing trails and dirt roads, ending each day’s adventure at an inn or hotel, some more remote than others, and always with a celebratory pint or whisky.
Sharing a celebratory beverage after a long day of hiking.
Experiencing a landscape by foot, especially one as stunningly green as the Scottish Highlands, allows you to connect on a deeper level. It allows you to absorb more of the experience, the sights, the smells, the sensations, the ever-changing, fickle weather, and the varied topography. Each day was a moving meditation for me, a mind, body, emotional activity that was deeply grounding and fulfilling. We hiked through ancient ruins along Loch Lomond, through the moody and exposed landscape of Rannoch Moor, over the precipitous Devil’s Staircase, and along the shoulder of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland. Over the span of eight days we saw many of the same hikers, most of whom came from other parts of the world, so linguistic and cultural barriers got broken down by the shared trail experience. Silent nods became hellos, which often became trail conversations and led to a mutual respect for the shared experience.
Yuri, Vanessa, and Dave on the West Highland Way
After logging more hiking miles in eight days than I have in the past eight years, I proudly consider myself a hiker now and have very sore and tired legs to show for it. While my Kaiser PT may’ve cringed at the thought of me doing so much hiking, it probably was some of the best recovery therapy I could’ve done to strengthen my leg. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as I put one foot in front of the other, day after day. Here’s to sharing your passions with others, like Dave did with my wife and me, and to being open to trying new athletic endeavors, because you never know what you might enjoy if you don’t try it.