One sign of a habit is doing the same thing over and over again. That seems to be the case for me when it comes to the Marcothon. Last year I shared about my adapted version of it ( Modified Marcothon Madness ). My idea of ‘modified’ was to run every day in November instead of December. Also to have a higher distance goal than the prescribed 4.8km/ day. I started November with the plan of averaging 7.5km each day. That plan changed. Taking my own advice from last year I knew that consistency from the start would be the key if I was to keep up that average distance. Upping the daily distance average means I have to think of more than getting out and running each day. More time is needed to do runs and more thought as to where to go to keep things interesting.
Seven thoughts that come to mind…
Consistent daily running always requires discipline. Doing it for a month has meant I have lived with a mental as well as physical stress throughout the time. A plus is that towards the end of the month a habit starts to form. It becomes a bit easier especially towards end of the month. The prospect of finishing is sweet.
Be prepared to live with fatigue for a month. Normally I run 3, maybe 4, times a week. To switch to run every day takes a toll on the body. Felt all the more as the monthly distance builds. Adequate sleep and rest are vital to avoid compromising my immune system. Listen to the language of the body.
Certain things are worth doing for their own sake. On the surface it is neither a productive or useful activity. For me this is a tonic at this time of year in the northern hemisphere. The daylight hours are noticeably shorter and it is all too tempting to stay indoors.
Weather is not an issue. Just what to wear. One thing Scotland in November does not lack are variable conditions. Accept the encroaching dark and embrace whatever sunlight there is. Endure the wet, the cold and the wind.
Some days a run before breakfast is a good option – it is done for the day. However it is in the dark. Also means getting up early which affects the need for rest and sleep. Some variety and compromise is required for 30 consecutive daily runs. My preferred option is to run on trails. Doing this all the time is unrealistic. Sometimes it will be on tarmac.
Accept some days are going to be hard. Not every run is enjoyable. Body and mind rebel. Best not to dwell on it. Only makes it worse. It is soon over.
Beware of new and quirky goals starting to form. As said I started Nov with a 7.5 km average. I achieved this last year but with difficulty as was not regularly monitoring my distance. This year with help of spreadsheet I could keep tabs on how I was doing each day. By mid- Nov I was nearer 8km/ day so decided that was my new goal. In the last week of Nov. My thinking was to go for 8.5km / day average. It might not sound like much but each 0.5km extra per day translated to 15km over the month. Another thought that crept in and became a ‘late in the month’ extra goal. Why not add height/ climbing goals as well as distance and daily ones. Why bother some might think. Anyhow in the end I achieved 175m / day. Not much but had an added training benefit.
A photo journey of Day 30run
For those interested in some stats.
Now that it is over I relish a break. Will be cheering on all those of you who do the Marcothon in December.
2022 for me is proving a bit of an experiment in outdoor living in Scotland. The first was a wild camping experience in a one man tent in May (see Big Day (and Night) In the Mountains ). This was followed in August by a night in a bivouac (‘bivvy bag’) on another mountainside. My regular trail running pal Cammie had instigated these trips. Please know that I love my creature comforts. Sleeping overnight in the wild is not something I dream about. That said I have slowly warmed, emotionally and physically, to the experiences.
Buoyed by his success Cammie (‘C’) suggested a further mini expedition. This time it was a two night hiking / trail run trip to a remote bothy in the Scottish Highlands. It sounded a lot more civilised than sleeping on the ground outside. Bothies are basic shelters, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge. They are found in remote mountainous areas of Scotland and the UK. The Mountain Bothies Association do a great job maintaining many of them with a network of volunteers. Despite living a good chunk of my life in Scotland I have never stayed in a bothy.
“There is no financial transaction involved, only a reciprocal exchange of goodwill. Bothies demand that you be self-reliant, respect the building and possibly share a space with strangers. In return you get free shelter, the opportunity to wake up in magnificent wild surroundings, and the potential for rewarding encounters with like-minded people. Not exactly glamping, then – but approached with respect and an open mind, a special bothy experience can be far more memorable.”
Armed with the requisite ‘open mind’ I agreed to try out the bothy life. In summary the plan was to drive to Bridge of Gaur at the western end of Loch Rannoch. Then hike in to Ben Alder bothy with our food and gear. The next day we would leave most of our gear in the bothy and spend the day trail running/ hiking Ben Alder and surrounding area.
A two night trip in an isolated ‘off grid’ place (no internet or mobile phone connections) requires a bit of planning. What food and gear to take as everything had to be carried in? There would be no corner shop! This included firewood to use in the bothy. Was glad C was carrying that! For the day in the hills we would leave our bedding and most of the food back at the bothy.
And so earlier this month we motored to a place just outside Bridge of Gaur. From there we hiked in the 14 km to the bothy.
Probably more than half of the way was good forest road which allowed for a good, marching pace. The wooded areas did not give a lot of perspective but the expanse of the area we were in really opened up on the shores of Loch Ericht.
There we had a fantastic vista of this long loch and the surrounding mountains which stretch all the way to Dalwhinnie. Our track took us along the western side of the loch. Seeing a cut out model of a deer reminded us that it was the stalking season. We had informed the landowner we would be in the area. Hopefully our silhouettes would not be mistaken!
After a while the easy path disappeared. The last third of so of the route was very boggy and often with no visible trail at all. We were compensated with beautiful Scots pine forest scenery and dead pine remains on the shoreline.
In late afternoon we reached our destination beside Loch Ericht. A stream was conveniently located nearby to meet our water and washing needs. Weather was dry and quite warm. C suggested we go for a dip in the cool waters of the loch. I must admit my mind was more on brewing tea or coffee. Surprisingly I actually did immerse myself for a second or two.
There were 3 rooms and the only other occupants were two American women. They had come overnight by train on the London sleeper to Corrour station and walked 6 hours to the bothy. Imagine the contrast of embarking at a busy London station to then step off into the highest and most remote train station in the UK. They worked for the world’s largest search engine beginning with G. It seemed somewhat ironic that they delighted in coming to this remote place devoid of internet or mobile phone. We shared the firewood we (actually Cammie) had brought in with what they had foraged.
The bothy had small windows making the inside dim for over an hour before sunset. It’s easy to forget that most Scottish homes 60+ years ago were like that. Outside the night sky was stunning. A true dark sky area.
Our food was more modern. Dehydrated meals that only needed hot water from a small primus stove was the staple of the food we had brought. Eating it out of a bag though was more primitive.
Was surprising at how many things previous visitors had brought. An assortment of dusty pots, pans, candles, shovels, even a chair and some clothing. There were fireplaces in two of the rooms. The rest of the building was locked for the use of the estate (the landowner). There was also a guest book. It was fascinating to discover entries for 2022 on almost every weekend and many weekdays. As we were sleeping on the floor the first night I took special note of the entry about being aware of rodents.
The next morning we set off for our day in the hills. With most of our gear left at the bothy it would be a mixture of hiking and running.
Shortly after starting we visited Prince Charlie’s cave. If interested in this legendary Scottish figure just google ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. He certainly lived in a lot of caves as there are plenty named after him.
Once on top of Beinn Bheouil there was contact on Cammie’s phone so borrowed it to call my wife. Cammie moved off whilst I talked and after the call he had disappeared! I wandered off where I thought he was but no sign of him. After about half an hour I heard C shouting. He had seen me in the valley below. I was lost but now found. Another thing that was lost were my gloves. Was too embarrassed to tell C as I often drop my gloves whilst running/ hiking.
Leaving Beinn Bheouil we continued northwards descending as far as the Culra bothy where we had lunch. Due to asbestos people are not allowed to stay there except in emergencies. However the door was wide open. Quite a large building that could maybe accommodate 20 or more.
We then headed southwards up the long valley between the Ben Alder massif and Aonach Beag. To summit Ben Alder we then made a very steep ascent to the left at the head of the valley. The big surprise is that eventually you arrive at a huge plateau. The top is just a little mound in the far distance, not some majestic peak.
Got back to bothy about 5pm and after a hot drink enjoyed more rehydrated food from a bag. C did not seem too keen on swimming again and he would get no encouragement from me. We then set to and lit the fire with remaining wood. As with the previous night there were other guests. This time two men and a woman arriving by kayak. The retirees had canoed for 6 or so hours from the north end of Loch Ericht, near Dalwhinnie. We assumed that they would occupy the other end of the bothy. Instead they set up tents outside! Then they came in and lit a separate fire in the other room where they ate a warm meal. Apparently they found the bothy too stuffy to sleep in. It takes all sorts to make a world.
As we settled for the night a couple with a labrador came in. I had seen their head torch lights on the hillside about 15 minutes earlier whilst outside. We assumed they would relish coming in from the cold. Not at all, they were just passing by! They asked if any of us had lost gloves. The lady had found gloves on top of Beinn Mheouil and they decided to stop off at the bothy to see if anyone had lost them! Very surprised and sheepishly I admitted they were mine. They were lost and now they were found. Amazing kindness. Talk about going the extra mile. Once their mission was accomplished they then set off into the cold, dark night. They were camping a mile away beside the loch and assured us their dog would keep them warm. Why did those around us find tents so attractive?
On our final day we left after breakfast for the hike back to the car. We returned roughly the same route as we had come in.
And so we said goodbye to the big, open skies. Was grateful for lovely autumnal weather which made for a more gentle experience. The few people we met were certainly inspiring. My short experience of bothy life leaves me feeling the attraction is not so much about the rigours of staying in such places. It seems more about a quest for solitude, about getting away from it all. A love for the simple things in life. About being immersed in the grandeur of nature and companionship without the world’s distractions. All that I understand as am sure most who read this do also. There is definitely a place for bothies in 2022!
For about 12 years now I have recruited the help of others to support me in various long distance running efforts. To date I have never been a support runner for someone else. So when a friend Cammie Kennedy whom I regularly run with in the hills asked for help this was a chance to change that. Cammie hopes to do the Charlie Ramsay Round (CRR) this summer.
“The Ramsay Round, also known as the Charlie Ramsay Round, is a long distance hill running challenge near Fort William, Scotland. The route is a circuit of 58 miles (93 kilometres), taking in 24 summits with a total climb of around 28,500 feet (8,700 metres). Ben Nevis, Great Britain‘s highest peak, is included in the route along with 22 other Munros… The aim is for participants to complete the route, on foot, within 24 hours. Runners must start and finish at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, and may run the route in either a clockwise or anticlockwise direction”.
Note for non-Scottish readers – a ‘Munro’ is a mountain in Scotland greater than 3,000 feet. Most of the Munros on the round have hard to pronounce names if you are not a Gaelic speaker.
Much of the CRR is remote and hard to access. Quite a bit is unmarked over bog and boulder strewn terrain. Contenders need to work out the best lines up and down the mountains if they are going to go fast. Cammie (herein known as C) is planning on a clockwise route. There are really only 2 access points for support help. This splits the run into 3 sections. Originally I was to help him on the mid section and in August 2020 did a practice run with him covering that. You can read of that here. However since then plan has changed and now am supporting on the last section, involving the last 11 of the 24 summits.
A word about running support. Idea is that C doesn’t carry anything other than some drink, phone and a special GPS tracker linked to emergency services. I needed to carry clothing, food/ drink and any other gear he requires as well as my personal gear/ food etc. On his actual attempt he will have 3 support runners (incl. me) for the 3 sections as well as a couple providing logistics/ transport for the rest of us.
This week in order to familiarise myself with the route and for C to plan his strategy we spent 2 days exploring this last section from transition point at Loch Eilde Mor to the finish at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel outside Fort William. Depending on how things went C had in mind 3 possible places for us for overnight campsites.
A word about camping in the wild. I am someone who likes my creature comforts and have to say was not looking forward to this part of the survey. Camping experiences from earlier days have generally been memorable for their mishaps and misery. Unsurprisingly it has not been a pastime pursued in later life. As a student I took an Asian friend camping. My thought was it would be a good way for him to see Scotland. Our cooking gas canister exploded while we were in the 2 man tent on a hillside. My reaction was to immediately leap out of tent. I got away relatively easy with singed eyebrows and burnt hair. Remember the amusement of fellow students at the surprised looking facial expression I had in the weeks following. My friend however was paralysed with shock and remained longer in the flames and suffered more severe burns. Anyhow I digress.
On 1st May after a first early breakfast left home to Fort William and met up with C at 0830. Left his car at Glen Nevis youth hostel. Next up was a 2nd breakfast at a well known chain beginning with M. Then we motored to Kinlochleven. Left car there and at 0940 began a 7km hike up to the transition point where I would meet him ‘on the day’. At last the actual support route was starting!
A word about maps. On paper or screen many of these grand mountains seem less than a km apart. Do not be deceived, a km can involve same effort as 10km elsewhere! It is a priviledge to visit such places of rugged beauty. However they demand respect and care.
At last at 1120 we began what would be the section I would be supporting C on. It starts with a long, slow slog up to Sgurr Eilde Mor.
With camping gear and food we were each carrying 8-10 kg. With these loads and the terrain it meant that much of the time we were just trying to fast walk with the occasional run.
We then made a long descent where discussion centred around what was the best line to take and where to cross the stream in the valley below. C was trying to follow the line taken by the CRR record holder, Finlay Wild. Theory being if he was the fastest he must be taking the shortest lines between peaks.
Then we ascended to reach a lochan (little lake) midway between Binnein Beag and Binnein Mor. They were the next 2 peaks on the list. Filled up with water from a stream. I was using purification tablets which may or may not have been necessary. There C left me with his gear as Binnein Beag was an out and back. He would do this on his own, and then return back to an agreed rendezvous point where I was waiting. I noticed almost immediately how chill it got hanging around. Need to layer up immediately when not moving. C was quick, only 30 mins. I think shedding a 10kg pack meant he felt like he was floating.
We then ascended Binnein Mor. Still quite a lot of snow around and we aimed for the least snowed area. However when we reached snow level I found it a bit steep for me with no crampons. C carried on. I decided to go a long way around on ridge where there was no snow. Eventually we met up again on the summit.
Next up was the unpronounceable Na Gruigaichean. Reached by following a trail along a long ridge. After that next on the list was An Gearanach. Another out and back where I would wait for him. However C having done this mountain twice before decided not to do. So we climbed the next one Stob Coire a Chairn. By this point my memory is finding it hard to distinguish each top. Just awed by the ever changing vista of these grand mountains. We also ascended several tops that C would say were not classified as Munros.
And so to the second last peak of the day, Am Bodach. Whether it had been a long day or not the ascent I found gruelling. It was only afterwards we discovered I could have taken a route avoiding the summit and rejoined him on his descent. Plan to do this on his actual CRR attempt.
As we approached the last peak of the day Sgurr an Lubhair we also saw C’s last out and back for the day, Sgurr a Mhaim. We were at right angles to the long ridge that led to it. Known as the Devil’s Ridge it looked both imposing and an awful long way. The time was after 1800 and we both had the same thought. Why doesn’t he just do it early the next morning? Instead let’s do Sgurr an Lubhair and find our campsite for the night. Absolutely no objections to that!
C had loaned me a 1 man tent and he was bivouacing (basically sleeping in a bag). Despite him showing me twice how to set up tent I struggled. I find the whole process fiddly, a bit like trying to untangle nylon fishing line. Being weary and chilled probably also didn’t help. Sheepishly I asked for C’s help.
The highlight was the long anticipated hot meal. Add boiled water to a bag of dehydrated food and wait 15 mins. Voila! A warm, nourishing chicken tikka with rice. Definitely the creature comfort highlight of the day. Add a miniature bottle of wine and some tea and it sounds quite luxurious. In reality the mist was descending and it felt quite desolate with a chill in the air. Sitting outside on stones I was starting to exaggerate in my mind how comfortable the tent would be. However first things first. C wanted to play cards! Now if it had been round a campfire I might have been excited. This felt a bit like an unnecessary continuation of what most of the day had been, a physical and mental challenge. In a true spirit of the support runner, I obliged. So we played ‘bothy’ cards. Even let him win (only kidding). Bothy is the name for a, usually remote and simple, shelter in Scotland. Walkers and climbers can use for free. It was an unasked for education in the variety and locations of bothies throughout Scotland. Glad he won first time and didn’t want to play more! As the sun set we were blessed with a beautiful pink glow on the hills
Unloading all the contents of my rucksack into the tent I then entered my ‘world’ for the night. The main feeling was the cold and just how little room there was to move around. Background noises were the gentle sounds of nature. The gurgling little stream we were beside and the occasional honking sound of the ptarmigan. A surprise was good WiFi reception. Had a rather surreal time listening for a while to choral worship music from Ireland. Truly the phone is another world in your hand.
Sleeping bag was warm everywhere except for head and shoulders. I had changed into dry clothes but needed more heat. Was very grateful for the chemical hand warmers I had brought. Clutched them for most of night. Unsuccessfully willing the heat from my hands to flow to head and shoulders. My super lightweight air filled ground mat was extremely slippy and hard to keep sleeping bag on. As said earlier my camping experience has not been marked by particularly happy memories. Finally got some fitful sleep and was glad when 0520 came. Time to rise! C was already up and after a brief greeting he left before his breakfast to do Sgurr a Mhaim, the Munro he missed the night before.
In the meantime I devoured 2 left over tuna sandwiches from day before. Also boiled up water for 2 teas and a coffee and cooked breakfast.
Shortly after that C returned. Seemed energised from his first peak of the day. While he had his breakfast I packed my gear, eager to work up some heat from exertion. There was a pervading chill in the air so it was nice to set off at 0740 in the morning mist for Stob Ban. It’s profile was intimidating when seen the night before. Most of the route involved traversing well to the left of the vertigo inducing ridge.
After Stob Ban only one Munro left. Involved a long and relatively gentle ridge ascent to Mullach nan Coirean. The mist came and went for much of the time. Sometimes Ben Nevis would loom over the whole marvellous range.
It was now a long descent to Glen Nevis. Down, and down, to the road that led back to the youth hostel. Our adventure ended as it began with another calorie filled refuel in a well known fast food restaurant.
It is an honour to be asked to help. When the time comes I hope to be of support in his epic challenge.
They say getting to the start line is half the battle. In these pandemic times especially so as nothing could be taken for granted. Added to that about 10 days before I experienced back pain. I could walk but not run so it really played on me whether I could take part. Now think it was more of a sprain from over enthusiastic core exercises. It eventually healed a few days beforehand.
Night before had a fitful sleep and rose at 5am. Elisabeth was going to be my support driving me to Fort William and then seeing me at various points throughout the many hours that followed. Her effort was heroic in the circumstances and involved just as much endurance. Over the time she ended up running 31km and drove hundreds of kms to support me in this effort. As the official support due to restrictions was very limited it is a fact I could not have done it without her.
Had my usual breakfast and we left house at 7am for a pleasant trip north in good weather. Upon arrival in Fort William got registered at Claggan football ground, about 600m from the start. Dropped off my 7 ‘drop bags’ and a ‘safety rucksack’ (mentioned later). These would be taken to the checkpoints en route. So far so good. What was new was signing a disclaimer form.
There were 120 starting. In addition there were a handful of ‘crazy’ folks doing extreme things (more on that later). The rest of us were a mixture of ‘seasoned’, those completely new and those in between. Everyone probably a bit unbalanced.
Made our way to the rather inauspicious start sign for the West Highland Way (WHW) at the edge of a busy little roundabout. More commonly the finish as we were going in opposite direction. 11am was approaching but we were told that the 3 buses from Milngavie had arrived late so would start at 1110.
What was ahead was more of an odyssey than a journey. Such a kaleidoscope of feelings and thoughts experienced that no one thing could define it. It was (according to my watch) about 207,000 steps. Some of them easy and light and many hard. Live in the moment, don’t think of how far or how long you must endure. My thinking is if I can take the next step, time always passes with no effort required from me. According to the laws of physics time + steps = distance!
The adventure began as promised at 1110. The first few km followed the road beside the River Nevis. Just before we turned off into the trail and forest of Glen Nevis 13 of our number took a left. They were first going up Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, before later rejoining the West Highland Way.
Going up the edge of the Glen is a long climb. Not so steep but long enough that it’s a waste of precious energy trying to move too fast. It was only the start. My GPS watch on record would only do a max. of 10-12 hours so would only use for certain segments, if at all. Main concern was keeping my heart rate as low as possible. Preferably around 127bpm. It was nice at this time to exchange pleasantries with fellow participants. Some might say competitors but unless you are at an elite level everyone else is there to get to the finish and help each other as and when. I did of course have my usual personal challenge with spreadsheet of where I hoped to be and when.
Once over the initial climb out of the glen it was on to much more runnable undulations. Having run this route in opposite direction over the past 10 years it is amazing to see how the landscape has changed especially in this section to Lundavra (12.1km). There seems to have been a huge amount of ancient trees removed and can only assume it’s well managed. Anyhow after Lundavra the trail leads to the more open ‘big sky’ perspectives of the Lairig More. A long valley overseen by mountains which eventually leads to a long descent down to sea level again at Kinlochleven. I was feeling good. Noticed that the heat was proving more tiring than it had been on my recce run on this section 3 weeks ago. Then I had hailstones!
At one point I passed a man and woman and could see from their race no. that they were in the other category of extreme. Derek and Jo had set off from Aviemore on Friday afternoon on the East Highland Way and had now linked up with us on the WHW. It would be a whopping 288km. They were incredibly calm and collected, almost fresh, as if 150km was a warm up. These are unusual folks and for Derek this was ‘training’ for a 360km race in the Swiss Alps. Enjoyed a bit of chat and then moved ahead as they were moving at a highly disciplined but understandably slower rate. Heard later they made it to Milngavie in just under 55 hours.
Coming in to the Kinlochleven checkpoint (23.85km) it was great to see Elisabeth. I was on time, more or less to the minute, which was good. Others were not fairing so well. One poor man had broken his nose from an early fall and was bleeding a lot. He decided that he would carry on.
Due to pandemic situation all the checkpoints were in the open air. I think we were very fortunate that the hottest weather of the year had arrived.
Off now up a long, arduous climb. Most of us were still quite chatty but each was also adjusting to our own style of managing climbs and descents. This meant you kept seeing the same people many times as you passed them or were overtaken.
Finally arrived at the top of the disconcertingly named Devil’s Staircase where a fellow runner kindly offered to take a pic. of me with the imposing Glencoe valley in the background. Not sure if it was a smile or a grimace! In a strange coincidence in my recce here 3 weeks previously I had eaten a ‘Rocky Road’ biscuit in nearly same spot. Unbeknown to Elisabeth she had given me the exact same biscuit to take at Kinlochleven so I had the same thing again. Whimsically I began to wonder if ‘Rocky Road’ had a hidden layer of meaning as to what was in front of me.
There then followed a nice, runnable section downhill to Altnafeadh. Passed one guy who was suffering from cramp so gave him some salted liquorice. Then along the valley to the Glencoe Ski lodge (40km) and next checkpoint. Great to see Elisabeth who had been patiently waiting. Here race rules were to pick up a ‘safety rucksack’ consisting of a sleeping bag and survival bag. My already heavy rucksack now was 1 kg or so heavier and much bigger. However the reasoning for this was sound. As race was autonomous between checkpoints if you broke a leg or something during the night the drill was to use these to keep warm till you got rescued.
The other thing I took was running poles. I am sometimes ambivalent about them but find when you are very fatigued they are a help esp. on climbs. Not being a Scottish Athletics race their use is OK.
Managed a pot noodle. Fluid intake and carbohydrates are essential but I was eating very gingerly. I feared my old problem, nausea, was starting to appear.
Leaving Glencoe a bit refreshed I said goodbye to Elisabeth. She was going to head home for some much needed rest. Plan was she would meet me Loch Lomond side in the morning. It was not easy for her as she had to drive, try and cheer me up for a few moments at checkpoints and then wonder how I was doing through the night. Had agreed that I would text when I left certain places. There were a number of people who wanted to know how I would be doing so she had set up a temporary WhatsApp group to keep them in the loop. It simplified things for her just using one point of communication.
It was now on to the old, cobbled military road and Rannoch Moor. A place of stark beauty in the early evening.
The day had been hot, in fact the hottest so far this year, so was not used to it. The field was well stretched out now but there were several people that I passed or was passed by and had chats with. Otherwise was getting very quiet as walkers or campers on the WHW had arrived where they were going to be for the night. My legs and feet were fine but was starting to get that familiar feeling of nausea and dizziness building up. I could only trust that it would not get worse.
Arrived in Inveroran (54km), a peaceful hamlet, and on to a tarmac road for a while. Confess to being a bit jealous of all the happy campers relaxing in the evening sunshine. I was starting to struggle. Left the road and then on over the hill and down to Bridge of Orchy (58.35km), the next checkpoint. As mentioned previously I had drop bags for each checkpoint, filled with foods I thought I might like. Unfortunately even the thought of eating was making me sick. That combined with the midges coming out in their millions. A small insect famous in West of Scotland for their bite and their abundance. All credit to those valiant volunteers sitting outside for many hours waiting for bedraggled runners to come in. I did manage before I left to wash my face in the toilets. If I couldn’t have any joy from food or drink at least cold water could be refreshing. It would be fair to say I was glad to leave at 2120. Only 5 mins later than my predicted time so despite how I was feeling progress had thus far been according to plan.
As I turned into the railway station underpass what should confront me but a swathe of luxury train carriages above. The well heeled occupants of “The Royal Scotsman and the Flying Scotsman” seemed to be settling down for the night in Bridge of Orchy station with accordion music. A surreal contrast to my circumstances as I set off.
It was now into the gathering shadows and time for using my torch. From previous experience the bobbing of the head torch would not help my dizziness or sickness. However little choice. My next milestone would be Tyndrum and got there about 2325. Few people around as I negotiated the route through the village, only a few late night revellers. I did meet another race participant who had got lost so was good to help. It was about 5km to the next checkpoint at Auchtertyre farm. Shortly out of Tyndrum and my turn to get lost, twice. At same time I had a bout of retching. Needed to keep sipping water as it was the only thing I could keep down. Clothing-wise I had now layered up. Despite the general mugginess of the night I knew in my condition that I could not keep my body temp. up with exercise alone. The volunteers on arrival at Auchtertyre (72.85km) were very attentive so had a very welcome sit down and tried sipping some hot tea and soup proferred. The next checkpoint was 21km away, at least 4 hours at my speed so main thing was to carry water. I was now 28mins behind my scheduled time. Not much in scheme of things.
It took an age to get to Glen Bogle above Crianlarich and by that time was experiencing micro sleeps as I moved. Was craving rest. In normal circumstances I would not do this on my own outside in middle of the night but thankfully ambient temp was warm. My strategy was to lie down in a prominent place so any fellow participants would see me, layer up with all the clothing I had and take max 10mins. The picnic bench at top of Bogle Glen came into sight, bliss. I lay down, strangely mesmerised by the tree branches overhead. Maybe it was my stress hormones but at 0200 the night was utterly quiet. Words can’t describe but I could ‘hear’ the silence and it was deafening. Strangely a guy then passed by and all he said was one word ‘hello’, nothing else. He looked like he was going through his own struggles.
Time to move on, still dog tired, but a little less dizzy. Keep sipping that water. The next checkpoint was Beinglas farm, north of Loch Lomond. By about 3am signs of a new day were appearing. Usually it is a harbinger of new energy and hope, the sun giving light and heat. However I still was feeling miserable and just focussed on staying awake and taking the next step. What I did sense was the overwhelming beauty at God’s creation of a new day. Practicalities were also pressing in. My mobile phone battery was low. Time to use my mobile battery charger.
A new day awakes.
In Beinglas (88.85km) I told the marshall my need to lie down for a bit. As we were outside he obligingly offered the passenger seat of his car where I had 10 mins. Managed to ingest a cup of diluted orange juice and it was off again. Some time after I caught up with Paddy whom I’d talked to earlier in the race. He was of similar age and experience of ultras as myself so we had been comparing notes.
He was also suffering from sickness but could only retch. Bizarrely we had this conversation about the merits of being sick as opposed to retching. For me being sick gave me a boost of energy and dizziness subsided. However after a time the fatigue always crept back with a vengeance. Enough of this for you the reader.
The bluebells in the hillsides both north and south of Inversnaid were glorious in the early light.
There is a very technical section of about 4km before you reach Inversnaid. Rocks and boulders taking up reserves of concentration and at times needing to use both hands and legs to traverse.
Arriving Inversnaid (98.85km) just before 0800 I lay down on the benches outside the hotel. Paddy was still with me but left early while I contended with, yet again, another bout of sickness. Eventually caught up with him and passed. Started to get messages from Elisabeth who said she was leaving home and going to head to Milarrochy, about 2km north of Balmaha and would run to meet me. However this was still some hours away and there was the checkpoint at Rowardennan to pass first. Before arrival Rowardennan caught up with another guy Kristopher whom I’d met earlier. Younger and suffering from foot blisters he was upbeat. My time in Rowardennan (109.85km) was short. I had given up on food and had not eaten anything that I could hold down for last 12 hours. I managed to nibble tiny amounts of crisps which gave some salt intake. Keep regularly sipping, not gulping, water. Planned target times were now slipping. It was no longer speed that was the challenge but plan B, just keep moving.
Being a Bank Holiday weekend as the day progressed it was getting busier with day trippers. What a contrast to the earlier sanctuary at the head of the loch!
Elisabeth accompanied me to Balmaha where she left and I started to climb Conic Hill. A strenuous 300m climb at any time. After 122km in 26 degrees heat and with no wind it became absolutely brutal. Was concerned that dehydration would mean I just did not have it in me to climb. Most of time I was leaning on my sticks to stop from falling and then move feet for a bit and then stop. Repeat. Slowly, ever so slowly, got to the top. Other competitors were equally shattered by the experience. All the while day trippers striding past us wondering what kind of race we were in.
Then a welcome decline coming off the hill. Had a nice cool down with stream water at the end of it. At this point I met another type of participant. A husband-wife team who were walking. They had started at 9am on the Saturday and were trying to maintain a constant pace. I was really impressed – to do that you virtually cannot stop at all. Don’t know if they made it but they were not aiming for a time, just to complete in their own time. I lay down on the trail for 5mins of instant sleep and felt refreshed.
After several km of the Garabhan forest the next checkpoint was at Drymen (133.85km). Only now could I entertain the thought of finishing. The race director, Jim, was there and asked me how was doing. Giving him my woes he said short term memory loss would occur Monday morning. Leaving at 1710 there was 20km to go and about 4 hours if I kept the pace. 2210 was cut off time.
Concerned for my condition Elisabeth had determined to try and meet me as much as possible this last stretch. She drove and ran to various points at Gartness, Beech Tree Inn and Carbeth to meet up with me for a few mins.
AT 8:56pm, 33 hours 46 mins. after leaving Fort William I arrived outside Milngavie town hall (approx. 153.85km) on a quiet Sunday evening. For once I was a ‘first’ as the oldest finisher! 64th out of 76 finishers (120 started).
Presented with a crystal goblet by marshall my main thought was at last I could sit down without thinking about moving. About an hour later my appetite started to recover and on my way to regaining the 2.5kg lost.
It is now 11 years since first taking up ultra running. As far as ultra races go I may or may not continue. Some reading this might wonder why put yourself through what seems painful and unnecessary suffering. I like my creature comforts as much as anyone and can assure you I try everything to make it easier. However after 20 such races my experience is that in every one the ‘wheels come off’ in different ways. You are left with one thing, endure. Through all these races Elisabeth has been, in one way or another, involved in supporting. She has encouraged me when assailed by self doubt. Thanks for being with me on both the inner and outer journeys.
Psalm 139 verse 14 declares we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully’ made. Fearful in that our lives are fragile, a gift and can be over in a moment. Wonderful in that we have been uniquely given physical, mental and spiritual resources beyond our understanding. The memory of pain or struggle fades away. It’s the finishing that enhances life, real life. Like the odyssey of our own lives we are each on a journey, but often caught up with present struggles. For me I live in hope of the ‘well done’ at the finish from Jesus, the Master endurer.
STARFISH ASIAFor a number of years I have chosen to do such challenges in aid of Starfish Asia. This run is no different. Specifically it is for the raising of scholarship funds for children of poor and marginalised Christian families in Pakistan who have completed school (16). Scholarships give the opportunity to gain vocational and educational qualifications. This gives the potential of better jobs so they and their family can escape the cycle of poverty. I have been greatly encouraged by the support and if you wish to donate please go to my fund-raising page here. It will remain open till end of June 2021. Thereafter you can go direct to Starfish Asia and find out more of their wonderful work.