There’s gym fit and there’s walking fit

To prepare for walking the West Highland Way, I went to the gym four or five times a week, beginning last fall. Sometimes I got on the machines and lifted free weights, following a program given to me by one of the trainers, Sara. Sometimes I attended 75-minute circuit classes. They can be brutal, especially when led by Sara who is about 30, slim, and a professional athlete.

The other gym regulars couldn’t understand why I was worried about walking the West Highland Way. “You’re in great shape!” They told me. “You won’t have any problem.” I was reassured when Sara told me I was physically capable of walking it. She gave me some exercises to improve my core and back strength, but otherwise told me I was good to go.

What she didn’t tell me is that there’s a difference between gym-fit and walking-fit. Even the most repugnant circuit exercise lasts only a minute and you might have to repeat it three times. The toughest track can go on for hours, which is what happened on Day 4.

Something magical happened on Day 5, which made the second half of the West Highland Way spectacular. The weather didn’t improve — at least not until the end. The track didn’t improve either; in fact, the last day was a bear and even longer than Day 4. What happened is probably something like an endorphin rush. I stopped noticing my sore feet and tired legs and started noticing the glorious landscape. As the movement of walking became familiar; my mind was free to take in my surroundings.

I don’t regret all those hours spent in the gym. If I hadn’t done that work, I’d have bonked. Like the couple who got into the B’n’B 6 hours later than us and were asking about train schedules the next morning. But a lesson learned: the only way to prepare for long distance walking is walking.

I’ll let Niall’s photographs tell the story of the second half of our trip with only brief explanations because that’s pretty much how I experienced it — wordlessly.

The boys discovered Munros: Scottish peaks over 3000 feet in height. Called Munros because they were first catalogued by Sir Hugh Munro in the 19th century, currently there are 282 of them. Climbing Munros is called “bagging” them. The boys bagged their first in Ben Lomond. From that point on, their conversation consisted primarily of identifying Munros, examining them for the best access routes, and debating whether various forms of assistance were cheating. The Munro photographed above is Benin (little Ben) Dubhchraig, adjacent to Ben Oss, which they also bagged. They waded through acres of bog, and once they got to the top they couldn’t see a thing for the mist, but their enthusiasm was not diminished.

Julian at the top of Ben Oss. It was a glorious sunny day below.

After we left Tyndrum, the home of Ben Oss, we walked toward Inveroran, where we stayed at another 300 year old hotel. This one was formerly a hunting and fishing lodge on the edge of Rannoch Moor. It also was in much better shape than the last one.

The following day we walked across Rannoch Moor to the Glencoe Ski Area. Niall’s camera was on the fritz, so I obliged with some ipad pictures.

From the Glencoe Ski Area, we were ferried to the village of Kinlochleven because the usual accommodation is being rebuilt. On a hill overlooking Loch Leven, Niall took this self-portrait of the artist as a young man.

The following morning our cheerful cabbie delivered us back to the Ski Area to resume the West Highland Way — no cheating! Niall took this photograph in the Glencoe Valley, just as we ascended the ominously named “Devil’s Staircase.” It wasn’t so bad as long as you took your time.

On the final day, we walked from Kinlochleven to Fort William. Along the way, Niall photographed this abandoned house.

It was a long day, and the track was rocky and difficult. But here we are at the end of the West Highland Way, all cleaned up and ready for our celebratory dinner.

I am now both gym-fit and walking-fit!



  1. Steve Cumming

    Are those gaiters? I think you are wearing gaiters.
    Such wonderful writing….you should take it up.

    1. Post
      Valerie Whiffen

      Those are gaiters! They work as well in bogs as they do for preventing snake bites! Perhaps even better…

      Thanks for liking the writing. It’s a blast and I am taking it up — more on that later when I see you in Vancouver.

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