Gumption in the Forest?

A new day

Whilst in Sweden visiting family my wife planned to visit a relative in another town, Ulricehamn. It is situated at the north end of Åsunden lake, about 100km east of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. The idea popped into my head that rather than jump in the car what about running there instead and then get a lift back. 

Up to the day before my plan had been to follow part of Sjuhäradsrundan, the cycle route along the disused railway. However it would mainly be covered in tarmac. I didn’t like what would effectively be a road run. A last minute suggestion persuaded me to instead join part of Sjuhäradsleden, a long-distance forest trail. It would make it easier on my feet but not for navigation. I have got lost in the forests of Sweden several times before. It was difficult to ascertain the distance on this new route but it looked like marathon distance which turned out to be right. 

So last Monday at 0630 I set off from where we were staying in the forest. Initially on a gravel road to Gånghester, a village on outskirts of Borås town. Plan was to join the former railway track there and then link in with the forestry trail from Dalsjöfors.

A short way into run I passed a place where several years ago I bumped into 2 elks whilst rounding the corner. All 3 of us were equally surprised. Despite them being strongly associated with Sweden they are elusive creatures and I have only seen a few times. On that occasion I carefully backed away. They are big and not to be messed with. Had I been running a few weeks later in October the elk hunting season begins. Then it wouldn’t be elks but people to watch out for. It is not advisable to enter deep forest when groups of hunters are out and about.

On this occasion I was thinking not so much of elks but more of elk fleas (‘älgloppa’). They are hard to get rid off once on your skin but thankfully don’t bite. Same can’t be said about the ticks. Nasty, infectious bites with even nastier potential disease. Plenty of them especially in long grass. In this there was some similarity to Scotland! 

Known to me as elk corner.

On the former rail track from Gånghester to Dalsjöfors I met a few early morning cyclists on their way to work. Also a guy running much faster than I at about 10 km/hour pace pushing a child’s buggy. I was not going to be tempted to keep up and kept to my modest 8km/hr as he moved ahead.

Runner and buggy receding into distance.

Arriving Dalsjöfors instructions from family were ‘turn right and join the forest trail when you see Toarps State church up on hill to the left‘. I couldn’t see church for trees but thankfully saw the sign. Interesting that all over rural Europe directions to finding your way are often given in relation to the church of a village or town. Maybe a message there. Eventually after gaining some height I did see the church.

Toarps church peeking through the trees

The route I was now on was Sjuhäradsleden which I would follow all the way to Ulricehamn. Where I joined it was well marked and was so for most of journey. An orange diamond or painted line seen clearly on trees, poles etc. The only gripe I have with Swedish orientation signs are that there are often markings 50m or so after a fork in the trail, rarely at the fork itself. For me, it can mean carefully checking some way up each arm of the fork. However I think Swedes know what they are doing as orienteering is very popular with all ages in Sweden. They are very good at it. On second thoughts maybe looking some distance ahead rather than focussing close at hand gives better awareness of where you are. There might be a life lesson there. You the reader can decide.

Spot the sign!

Terrain was frequently changing from gravelled roads to thick forest. The latter required concentration and awareness of where I was. Also the occasional meadow but the overall sense was of trees everywhere. At more open farm steadings the route would often deviate from the farm road to make a detour into a field. I guess the farmer wanted privacy. That said one landowner told me enthusiastically that I go through her house front gate as that was the route.

Field detour

A few times the trail was ‘booby trapped’ with electric fences requiring an inelegant sliding along the ground. I guess the safety of grazing animals takes priority over the ease with which two legged travellers can pass through.

Over, in-between or under?

Mostly it was quiet and at times even felt lonely. For about 25km think I only met one person and quite a number of contented horses and sheep.

The final 10km or so of the route felt hard. Few pictures of this last section, too pre-occupied. I was getting weary and adopting a run-walk strategy. The forest terrain was more difficult to traverse, the trail underfoot becoming fainter and mixing with other tracks. However what made it most difficult was that suddenly the trail stopped being marked. No more welcome orange diamonds or lines giving reassurance of progress. I now had to follow the map downloaded the night before and which I had not studied. Ended up getting lost.

This is what lost looks like!

When lost on a trail my usual experience is of mild panic and a sense of wasted time and energy. I blindly strike out in whatever direction seems best. This time I decided to be calm, go slowly and patiently retrace my steps back to where I last knew where I was. No second guessing my location and trying to make up time with ‘shortcuts’. 

My strategy paid off and gradually I was ‘free’ of the last forested area. I now had the wider perspective of lush fields. A few more km of this and I was on a cycle path leading to Ulricehamn’s town centre and my destination.  

Cycle track into Ulricehamn.

42.3km, 640m climb, 693m descent. 6hrs 2mins.

West Highland Way Challenge Race 2021

Luss hills, west of Loch Lomond, during a recent training run.

Excited at the prospect that at 11am on Saturday 29th May I can hopefully once again run the West Highland Way. Organised by another group than I normally run with there are a number of differences to what I have been used to. This is partly due to Covid restrictions and will make it a different challenge. For starters, going in the opposite direction from usual, north to south, makes it almost like a different trail! Everything looks different. However distance is the same 153 km from Fort William, at the foot of UK’s highest mountain Ben Nevis, to Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow. About 4,800m ascent and descent. A little bit more climbing from north to south as Fort William is at sea level (a mere 40m more!). The day time start means just one night out on the trail instead of two. 

West Highland Way Route (north to south).

A significant difference is that no support crew are allowed meaning you carry more gear for safety. You rely on a network of drop bags with food and gear which you pick up at checkpoints. From Glencoe to Rowardennan you also have to carry a sleeping bag and survival bag for any eventuality during the night. During the later parts of the race it currently looks like there may be some provision for a single support runner to accompany. My tentative hope is to do the trail in around 30 hours meaning an arrival at Milngavie town hall late on Sunday 30th afternoon. Max allowed time is 35 hours (10pm). As with all other ultras I have done grateful as ever for Elisabeth being on call.

I have now completed my last big training run and plan is mainly to taper for next 3 weeks. Tapering is runners speak for basically taking it easy before a big race. Am under no illusions that it will be challenging but trusting that mind, body and spirit are in the right place on the day. It has been 21 months since I have done a similar 26 hour race in the Alps. I have got a bit older but no wiser. If you wish to know more about what’s involved see my previous post.

As I have done in the past I want to sponsor Starfish Asia who do such a great work in helping educate desperately poor children from the Christian community in Pakistan. Specifically I am raising funds to enable young people to study beyond Matriculation (aged 16). Scholarships range from £45-300 / year. This is a big challenge so to help them get further in education really opens up the job market and hence a chance to break the cycle of poverty that so many are stuck in. If you wish to sponsor online you can do so here.

Looking south down Loch Lomond.

Grand Tour of The Kilpatricks

8 hr 46 min.  41.43km. Height gain 1,642m. 

A friend Martin Reid mentioned several weeks ago if I was interested in an idea of his. It was to ‘summit’ every hill in the Kilparticks over 300m in one go. Must admit it was not something I had been dreaming about. In fact if honest it had never even occurred to me in my wildest dreams. However as mentioned in ‘Lockdown Escapism‘ you have to be inventive and creative in the current restrictions so I signed up for it. Now Martin is a man who loves bagging hills. He has done all the Munros* and is on his way to doing them for a second time. I therefore left him to plan the route and locate all the hills, itself quite an obsessive past time.

We set a date and a few days before he sent me the list of hills and in what order. Up to that point in the back of my mind I thought there might be 9 or 10 such. When his forensic list came to 19 it suddenly felt this was going to be a challenge and not just a quirky thing to do. All these hills had names, many of them quite colourfully and we were aiming to set foot on some that were probably little loved and unknown but nevertheless had a name! Berry Bank and Brown Hill seemed realistic descriptions but Thief’s hill, Jesus Thimble and Doughnot hill leave much more to the imagination. Some were completely forested over making the actual summit hard to find. Others were flat, unmarked and featureless also making it debatable where the top is. We would also be guessing what would be best routes between hills as a good deal of the time there was no trail just wet bog or marsh. So overall distance and difficulty was also guesswork. I rather carelessly thought 6 hours would do it with no justification other than it sounded about right. 

So last Thursday we set off from Cochno car park at 0930 with me quite happy to trust Martin’s navigation skills. Many of the hills had trig points**, some had cairns and others had no indicators whatsoever. Although technically we were aiming to run, in actual fact much of the time when we were in boggy or wooded areas it was simply plodding through long grass. In order to get to the first and most eastern ‘peak’ we started out on a paved road before making a gradual climb to Jesus Thimble. Halfway to Birny hill (no. 2) we made a small detour to a cairn. It was below 300m but was there for a purpose. Great views sometimes trump ‘great’ height. After no. 3 we made our way round Burncrooks reservoir to head for the intriguingly named Thief’s hill (4) and a struggle to find where it was. I imagined with a name like that it would appear like a hideaway or defensive looking. Instead a featureless, flat plain with no ‘X’ marks the spot. 

We were starting to find a common problem in ascertaining which hill was which. Had it not been for Martin’s skills I would have got lost. Was also starting to wonder – it had taken 3 hours to do the first 4 hills. Although these had been far apart we still had 15 more to go. My time estimate was starting to look wildly optimistic. Sunset was 5:40pm. I began to think bringing my head torch as an afterthought had been a wise move. However the 3 Duncolm hills were quickly done so that was an encouragement. The forecast had been good but temperature most of day was not much above freezing and also wet and windy. Even had hailstones on a few occasions. The sun appeared a bit in the afternoon.

From Fynloch hill (no. 8) Meikle Saughen brae (9) looked a long way away over the bog. Amazing how distance in the hills often looks exaggerated. If not careful this perspective can lend itself to the impression that everything is harder than it actually is. What is on the horizon might in fact be only 20 mins. away. 10 and 11 were at the extremities from our start point so when that was done it felt we were turning a corner. Doughnot hill (12) is one of the more visited Kilpatrick hills. Reaching there also heralded sections with less bog and marsh. 13 and 14 I can’t recall much. Craigrestie (15) was difficult to find as it was in the woods and not at all apparent where it was. We had all but decided to give up when Martin reckoned on a way in. Upon reaching a particular tree he stopped and declared it Craigrestie. Who was I to argue. 

On to Berry Bank (16) where we got a great view of the 3 Duncolm hills lined up in the rare sunshine and which we had done earlier in day.

Then on to the popular Slacks and Cochno Hill (17 & 18). Midway between them at Greenside reservoir stopped to chat briefly with 2 young guys who were just setting out. They had walked from Glasgow and seemed not to be bothered that there was only about an hour of daylight left. Interesting how the hills can make people do things they may not be totally prepared and planned for (speaking to myself). Our last hill was ‘out of the way’ Craighurst (no. 19). It deserves a mention, mainly because it was the last, and not for any aesthetic or majestic impression made upon me. Was grateful to Martin for sharing some welcome biscuits as I had no food or drink left and was starting to feel a bit weary. 

Energised we descended to Jaw Reservoir where dusk was quite atmospheric. A clear sky with the moon over the water a good end to the day as we made the final descent down the muddy slopes to the car park. Thanks Martin for planning and navigating what was a memorable day.

*   A Munro is a Scottish hill or mountain over 3,000 feet (about 914 metres). There are 282.

** Trig points are concrete pillars placed at particular places usually the tops of hills or mountains. 

Lockdown Escapism

Fading winter sun over the Kilpatricks

One of the things I really like about running is for my two feet to take me to places that are wild and remote and with a certain degree of inhospitableness about it. The physical effort involved in getting there often brings me tranquility and the joy of being alive. 

There is an abundance of such places in Scotland but living in the city under current pandemic restrictions make having such experiences more challenging and creative. However within the rules this past year I have made a number of trips to the Kilpatrick hills on the north west shoulder of Glasgow. My route often involves an initial steep climb up the Kilpatrick Braes giving great views of the river Clyde and its estuary. Eventually you come to a plateau where you have miles of moorland and a few modest hills to explore and get lost in. Sometimes I go alone or with a companion. 

Recently I made such a trip solo. My natural sense of navigation is poor so when alone there is the distinct possibility that I would get lost especially in what was a snow covered featureless landscape. Also made the deliberate decision to go late in the day and only give myself enough time to return before dark if I ran steadily. In my case that means pushing myself. So taking head torch, phone and having my GPS watch would help if in any difficulties. Albeit a bit contrived this was my recipe for some wildness and a smattering of risk.  

Ascending to the snow line at the plateau the few walkers on the way up disappeared. It is interesting how most people you meet in the ‘great outdoors’ seem to be in a good mood and invariably greet you cheerfully. Seems that when people are  immersed in nature they look blessed. Might also be something to do with people feeling more relaxed or at play. I have relatives that are farmers and outdoors in beautiful surroundings all the time. I suspect they do not always relate to my city dweller outdoor ‘feel good’ moments.  

Be that as it may I was left alone in this wonderful sanctuary with the scrunch of snow underfoot. The sound a welcome backdrop to my thoughts as I headed towards Duncolm the highest hill in the Kilpatricks. Once there in the far distance I saw Ben Lomond like the Promised Land but currently out of bounds. After savouring this scene for a few moments I returned in the fading light to ‘civilisation’.