Under the Radar Races: West Highland Way Race

AJW examines the West Highland Way Race, and iconic, long-lasting ultramarathon in Scotland.

By on June 7, 2024 | Comments

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This article is the sixth in an 11-part series in AJW’s Taproom celebrating under-the-radar races.]

Taking place each year toward the end of June in the Scottish Highlands, the West Highland Way Race is an iconic, long-lasting ultramarathon.

The West Highland Way Trail, which gives the race its name, opened in 1980, and the first race took place in June of 1985. Two Scottish runners, Duncan Watson and Bobby Shields, ran the first edition of the race as a cheeky head-to-head challenge and covered the nearly 90 miles of the course in 17:48. They finished together.

West Highland Way runner

The 95-mile West Highland Way Race is an iconic ultramarathon that started in 1985. All photos courtesy of West Highland Way Race.

The following year, Watson and Shields invited a few other runners to join them in the fun. Over the next few years, the race established itself in the region, and participation grew. However, permitting challenges and a lack of strong leadership in the 1990s put the race under pressure, and by 1999, the race was in danger of being canceled.

Dario Melaragni and Stan Milne, two runners who had completed the race several times around then, decided the event was too important to fail and took over the directorship in 2000. Throughout the 2000s, the race grew under their leadership, and by 2010, it was routinely attracting over 100 runners each year. Today, the race is capped at 300 runners and fills to capacity every year.

In its current form, the West Highland Way Trail runs for 95 miles and has more than 14,000 feet of elevation gain. Aside from a few miles of road, the event is held entirely on trail. The event has a few unique aspects, including a 1 a.m. start and some long stretches between checkpoints, including one over 20 miles.

As with many historical ultras, several people have double-digit finishes at the West Highland Way. After the 2023 race, Neil MacRitchie and Fiona Rennie both have 17 finishes, and Adrian Stott, Jim Drummond, and the late Tony Thistlethwaite all have 15 finishes.

West Highland Way race start

The 1 a.m. start is just one thing that makes the event unique.

The race is currently directed by Ian Beattie, a multi-time West Highland Way Race finisher. Beattie is supported by a devoted all-volunteer team and keeps the race entirely non-profit, as it has been since the beginning.

The team is quite proud of the “family feel” of the event, which begins at packet pickup on the afternoon before the start and concludes with the prize-giving ceremony after the last finisher has crossed the line. Each finisher receives a handsome hand-carved crystal goblet to commemorate their achievement.

Prize giving at West Highland Way Race

The prize-giving ceremony at West Highland Way Race doesn’t start until every runner has crossed the finish line.

Reads the race website: “The race makes no claims to be the toughest, hardest, or most scenic race on the planet. The organizing team simply seeks, 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.”

West Highland Way prize goblet

Each finisher receives a hand-carved crystal goblet.

The 2024 race is full, but registration for the 2025 event opens on November 1, 2024, for anyone wanting to join this unique challenge.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Belhaven Brewery in Dunbar, Scotland. Belhaven Scottish Ale is a deep, dark, malty beer that weighs in at 5.2% ABV. A smooth, syrupy Scottish Ale, Belhaven would be a perfect pint to savor after finishing the West Highland Way Race.

Call for Comments

  • Have you had a chance to check out the West Highland Way Race?
  • What do you look for when choosing races to run?
Scottish Highlands scenery at West Highland Way Race

The West Highland Way highlights some of the best scenery of the Scottish Highlands.

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.