Highland flings: Paul Giblin and the West Highland Way race

It was in the autumn of 1980 that the West Highland Way (WHW) was opened. It is Scotland’s first and foremost long-distance walking trail. The 95-mile route, connecting Milngavie to the mountain town of Fort William, weaves through the Highlands on cattle paths, ancient cobblestone roads and exposed mountain trails. It is well known that, where there’s a will there’s a way but, as ultra running has proven, where there’s a way there’s also some primal will to run its entire length, non-stop and in the company of other like-minded souls. So it was, that in 1985 the West Highland Way race came to be.

“I’d first heard of it in 2011 as I prepped for my early ultra races,” says Paul Giblin, WHW reigning champion, two-time winner and course record holder. The Glasgow-based runner, who at that time was just finding his ultra-running feet in shorter races, knew he had found the challenge he was looking for. “The minute I heard about it I knew I’d do it,” he says. Although he had won only the third ultra he had entered, Giblin’s initial plan was to spend a year training and racing to prepare for the significant step up in distance that he would encounter on the West Highland Way. Fate, and the race organisers, had other ideas. “When I won my first ultra, the organisers said they could have a chat about getting me a late entry to the race,” he says. Just five weeks later he stood on the start line staring into the unknown – almost 100 miles and 15,000ft of brutal ascents and descents between him and the finish at Fort William. “As you can imagine it was a very steep learning curve,” he says ruefully.

Giblin was only an eight-year-old in 1985 when a relatively unknown runner, Duncan Watson, rather audaciously threw down the gauntlet to his more esteemed rival, Bobby Shields. The premise was simple: a head-to-head footrace along the whole of the West Highland Way. With the challenge duly accepted, both runners went at it, until the last third of the race. It was then that a mutual respect and, most likely, their survival instincts, kicked in and the pair ran together and arrived at the finish side by side, 17 hours and 48 minutes after setting off.

Running long distances, without sleep, plays havoc with the brain. It is something that Giblin learned during his baptism of fire in 2011, “It was my first experience of losing my head altogether: proper hallucinations, seeing things, and people, on the trail that clearly weren’t there,” he says, before adding: “The most worrying thing, looking back, was that at the time you feel like you’re fully in control of what’s happening.” Luckily, he was lucid enough to realise he had taken a wrong turn and recovered to manage fifth place, an amazing result for a WHW rookie, especially considering that he had only started running less than three years previously.

“Out of nowhere I felt the need to get fit. I don’t know if it was an age thing or if I was just bored with the way my life was going,” he says, remembering his initial decision to hit the gym. The treadmill led to some actual, “real wind-in-your-face, running” and, before long, the running bug had sunk in its teeth. “Pushing myself to get fitter and fitter became a focus and, inevitably, led me to want to run further and faster,” he says. How far and how fast, he had no idea of at that stage, but the West Highland Way would turn out to be his beloved testing ground.

Giblin returned to the start line in Milngavie in 2012 a more-experienced and prepared competitor. It showed. He took second place and turned a lot of heads. He then went one better at last year’s race, “It was pretty special. No one expected me to win and certainly not to crack the course record,” he says with a smile. “I knew I could, and the thought of the guys behind me saying, ‘he’ll never keep that pace up’ helped me to push harder than I’d originally planned.” Arriving back this year as champion brought a new kind of pressure, “There were expectations: I was the target and there was a lot of chat about the really fast guys that were competing this time.” One of those guys was Robbie Britton, the UK ultra runner of the year. True to form, Britton blasted into an early lead. If Giblin was going to retain his title, he was going to have to do something special.

“It was near halfway and we finally made eye contact across a field,” says Giblin, recounting his reeling in of Britton, before adding, “There’s that moment of dread if it’s you that’s been caught and a huge moment of opportunity if you’re the hunter. At that moment I knew I’d get past him.” Pass him he did, it was the last he saw of him and when Giblin crossed the line in 14 hours and 20 minutes he had become the first person to run the race in less than fifteen hours.

Since then it has been back to reality, and work, for Giblin, and as a member of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games committee, that means lots of work, “I manage the Digital Media team; with only a few weeks to go it’s a stressful but exciting place to be. No time off though and long days,” he says. The future, however, looks calmer, “After the Games I’m retiring to the hills, growing a longer beard and I’ll live off berries and twigs. Can’t wait.”

Read more about Paul Giblin on his website, pyllon.com and for information about the West Highland Way race visit westhighlandwayrace.org

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