‘The Highlander’s Return’ – Preparation

A 325km off road adventure from Glasgow to Wester Ross, Scotland

23 – 29/30 Apr 2023

Red line = ‘The Highlander’s Return’ (very roughly drawn!)

A previous blog outlined the idea behind this big run/ fast hike. I use both terms to describe. In my heart I would love to ‘run’ all 325 km or so. For the organised ultra runs I have participated in previously that has been the priority though often you were reduced to walking. However I know in my head that in the Highlander’s Return running will only be for some of the time. This is not a race and the planned distances each day are self imposed. The fact remains that trying to do this in 7, maybe 8, days means a marathon a day in sometimes gruelling terrain. Whatever you call it it involves endurance. In the end I would like to enjoy the journey and have time to smell the proverbial roses and reflect along the way.

Gear and safety

I am new to the world of ultra light wild camping. Here lighter means more expensive! Otherwise the kit performs well and saving weight means more energy to move. I am starting to like my…

75g gas stove; 220g gas canister; 500g bivvy; 500g sleeping bag; 500g air bed

A recent trip trying out the cooking gear.

A key category of gear are safety items. Navigation apps and mobile phone for communication as well as a power bank. For second half of route old fashioned printed/ laminated maps and compass should electronic equipment fail. Something I have use of but hope to never use is a satellite GPS transponder and tracker for emergencies. Other items that will hopefully be redundant include a mountaineering cordellete (for crossing streams) and some first aid items. Above all for me a great reassurance is to have a travelling companion Cammie Kennedy with me in the second half of the route. Joining in the second half also means that he will be stronger and fresh where I will likely be feeling the effects of fatigue.

Food

At the most am hoping not to carry more than a few dehydrated meals with me. Rest of the time the plan is to buy food in stores or eat heartily in the few establishments along the way. Estimated daily calorific requirement about 4,000 cals. For fluids it will be water. Don’t want the weight of energy drink powder but am using isotonic drink tablets as well as tablets to purify water taken from streams. Also some emergency food consisting of gels and energy bars. Hot water for tea / coffee and rehydrating meals courtesy of my minimalist ‘kitchen’ set. 

Portable kitchen containing pot/mug, mitt(!), stove and gas canister.

Clothing

Mainly what I wear throughout the day. Change into dry base layers for end of day and sleeping. 

Altogether the plan is to carry no more than 7kg. 

Physical and psychological 

Have been maintaining my usual running pattern of 3-4 times per week. Find that that frequency works for me. At my age and stage of life I need to prioritise time to recover. A key element over the winter months is that usually I am in the hills twice a week. Living in Glasgow I am blessed with lots of destinations less than an hour away. In Scotland the winter conditions at 700-1,000 metres and mountain tops can be radically different from that at sea level so it is good preparation. My days of getting faster are unlikely but going up and down mountains also help to maintain strength in the legs. I am thankful for running buddy Cammie who pushes me beyond my comfort zone.

The mental side of things is the hardest to control. The other things I can do something about. 

Related blogs

The Highlander’s Return’ – One Week In April – This is the account of my journey 23 -29 Apr 2023.

‘The Highlander’s Return’ – Vision

‘The Highlander’s Return’ – Ready

As with previous endurance runs I want to fund raise for Starfish Asia. They help disadvantaged and impoverished children from mainly Christian families in Pakistan get an education. A solar panel system for an average school costs about £2,000. It would be great to raise enough for 1 school, but if 2 (£4,000) that would be fantastic. For most of the Starfish schools a lack of power is an increasing problem. Solar panels being installed would provide stable electricity, especially for lighting and fans during the summer. There is a dedicated fund-raising page set up with Starfish for this purpose. If you would like to help you can donate here

Modified Marcothon 2

Some views are worth the run.

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. 

A clear day in the Kilpatricks hills, late November.

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 30 run

For those interested in some stats.

Reliable shoes, socks and feet are much appreciated.

Now that it is over I relish a break. Will be cheering on all those of you who do the Marcothon in December. 

Elastic Band Training

Port visitors to the MV Logos

For 6 months when I first joined the MV Logos my work was in the deck department as an AB (‘able-bodied’) seaman. Then for almost a year I was a member of two consecutive training programmes each lasting 5-6 months. Long before the widespread use of computers the programme was known as IT (‘intensive training’). The idea was that a group of men (women in later programmes) would be stretched in a variety of spiritual, mental and physical ways. It involved committing to a variety of goals. Most of the time it meant for very full days trying to achieve these targets. The philosophy was that the experience would stretch us like elastic bands. Hopefully then when the course was over our capacity for all kinds of things would be enlarged as a result. Whether this proved to be so is open to discussion. A few faltered under the stress, as if the elastic had been stretched one time too many. 

So it was in April 1978 whilst vessel was in Singapore I began this course that would dominate my life for coming months. 

An ingredient in the make up of the group was to make them as culturally challenging as possible. Plenty opportunity for misunderstandings and the need for frequent forgiveness! We were 10 young men from 10 countries and 4 continents. We had an older, more experienced and mature leader who graciously led this diverse group. The final ingredient in the mix was our accommodation. We were together in the bow (foc’sle) of the ship. Tiers of bunks fitted to the keel in a small triangular shaped cabin that came to a point at the bow. Each bunk had a curtain to provide some privacy. The confined area was made more claustrophobic with the ship’s anchor chain locker housed in the middle. Enclosed in a large box like structure most of the time the chains were a quiet but ominous presence that dominated our living space. Whenever the heavy anchor was dropped these large chains flew making a huge noise with bone jarring vibrations. Perhaps it was a misperception but it often seemed to me the ship arrived at anchor in ports early in the morning. Our dramatic living environment was further enhanced by being at the bow of a ship designed to slice through icy water. With its sharp bow the ship pitched severely in rough seas. You could literally be thrown in the air from your bed. The MV Logos had been designed to travel from Denmark to Greenland. She was originally known as the ‘Umanak’, after a town in Greenland.

Crowds visiting the MV Logos on board book exhibition

Days usually began about 6:00 am with morning exercises – a port run if in port or aerobics on the aft deck at sea. Whilst the rest of the crew might have time off in the evenings we were taking meetings, studying or doing jobs that no one else would do. Anytime our team could be called on to do whatever was needing done practically. The 15 hours / week goal of practical work were usually spent doing jobs unpopular with the rest of the crew. They included manually moving many tons of books around the cargo hold or setting up or taking down the on board book exhibition ‘tent’ on the foredeck. We were also employed using rags to remove grease from the engine room machinery. I remember once having to crawl into the water tanks to clean them. The tanks were located in the ship’s keel. Feeling that I could not back out was a fearful experience. To this day I have no interest in caving! 

Once a week we had to report ‘progress’ to our team leader on almost 30 different tasks. Long days were filled with trying to achieve these goals. This suited some temperaments more than others. I found it for the most part quite fulfilling. A few goals were only possible due to the unique opportunity a floating bookship afforded. We often had many thousands visit on board every week we were in a port.

Weekly ‘IT’ Report

We’d usually sleep relatively early at 10:30 -11:00 pm but once a week there was an extended time of prayer with the rest of the ship’s company. This went from 7pm till sometimes 2 or 3am or even later. It was mandatory for ‘IT’ people to always attend and stay to the end (one of our goals). The rest of the crew were more or less free to leave when they wished. Follow that with 1 or maybe 2 hours sleep before exercises and another long day. The training certainly lived up to its ‘intensive’ description. We did have to work as a team but there was also a lot of goals to be achieved individually. I suppose this led inevitably to competition between us. Despite our differing cultural and personality types we did form a bond between us and remain in touch with several to this day. 

A sad memory during this time of training was to lose one of our number. Abel, a Mexican, had gone swimming whilst we were in Taiwan and tragically drowned. I had just a few days before been talking with him. He in retrospect had seemed strangely at peace talking about the future in comparison to my uncertainty. In an amazing way several years later in 1985 I was again on board the LOGOS. This time it was in Abel’s homeland Mexico. His family visited the ship and sought me out as one of the few people that had known Abel just before he died. It was an honour to share with them my memories of Abel.

In September 1978 in Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia we completed the course. I was then ‘rewarded’ with an invite to lead the next group of volunteers in IT. I was honoured but also felt weary and a bit bruised by my own recent experience. My immediate future was uncertain and initially thought I should leave the ship and work with the mission in India. However, after some weeks break I agreed to take on this task. This time I was asked to lead 7 Indian men. If I wasn’t going to leave the ship and live in India, India was coming to me! Again this was thought to make for a challenging cultural mix – and that it certainly was. India is like a continent in itself and my companions came from a variety of urban and rural backgrounds speaking several languages of which English was only one. Six were from south India and one from the north. What we all had in common was our sense of calling as Christians to serve each other as well as reach out to the world around. The programme would try each of us in our commitment to this in the ensuing months. So we began the course in the beginning of Nov’ 1978 in Tuticorin, South India. We set sail with the rest of the ship’s crew on a 9 day voyage to the Middle East.

One of the ongoing challenges from early on was the aforementioned weekly extended prayer meeting nights. We were supposed to stay till the end. Occasionally I would do a midnight round up in our dormitory to waken those who had succumbed to sleep back to prayer. It is not something I am proud to recall and it certainly reflected my inexperience and immaturity. My hope is team members have forgiven me for these and other instances of poor leadership. Suffice to say I was out of my depth.

One of our number before he became a Christian had been in the habit of taking cold baths at 3:30 am. Thankfully he stopped the bathing. However he did not see any need to stop rising at that time, switch on his light and read his Bible for 2 – 3 hours. This had some considerable effect on the sleep patterns of the rest of the team. Once again addressing this issue challenged my leadership abilities or lack thereof! Nonetheless I had great respect for him and his deep hunger for the Bible. I remain in touch to this day.

Intense learning experiences I suppose have the potential to reap both positive and negative effects. To me the positives are the discipline and some habits that have been helpful in subsequent years. The negatives were a legalistic approach to goal orientation and time management. Trying to achieve things which may or may not be important. Nowadays you might call it a tickbox or checklist mentality. It took many years to return to a more normal and phlegmatic way of life. When restless and feeling guilt for no particular reason I need to remind myself God is not standing over me with a clipboard ticking off a ‘to do’ list.

It might sound that this was a year to forget. Yes it was not easy and some things were very tough. Yet it was also an experience for which I am thankful. Those I learned with became companions and brothers. We also laughed, we celebrated and we enjoyed each other’s company.

I also know that in God’s plan broken elastic bands can be tied together and reused. In fact that is His business…

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

Isaiah 42:3a NIVUK

The Metaphorical Trail Runner

‘Leaps and Bounds’ by Elisabeth Grant**

Long distance trail running has informed other areas of my life. It doesn’t apply just to running. The same can be said of many areas of human endeavour. They can teach us wider lessons than the activity itself.

Over the past 15 – 20 years I have read books on both the science and art of running and tried to put into practice various techniques. Some have stood the test of time and others have been discarded or superseded. Some have been inspirational and challenging. However probably the most influential voices for me in terms of running technique have been the writings of Phil Maffetone and in recent years ‘The Lost Art of Running‘ by movement coach Shane Benzie. Here are a few ways that over the years trail running has informed me about the art of living. Some thoughts may speak as much about my own age and stage of life. Please note in life as in running I am learning! I fall short physically and metaphorically.

Keep head upright and look ahead.

Too much looking at my feet or just one or 2 steps ahead gives poor posture. It also doesn’t inform where I am headed. Focusing on being in the mud or on how steep the trail is saps mental and physical energy.  

I easily ruminate and become absorbed in the difficulties of the present. Doing so stunts vision or nourishing hope of the future. At the same time it is important to be aware of what I need to do in the present. Life’s challenges are not meant to paralyse me to inaction. Seem to me they are an invitation to do something practically, mentally or relationally. 

Watch that step

Feet should land below centre of gravity. Make contact with the ground like a tripod – ball of big toe, just under little toe and the heel.

This gives good proprioception (maximum sense of where the foot is). Especially so if you have shoes with little or no cushioning. The ‘tripod’ is a good position for impact and loading. On tricky runs downhilł keep eyes several paces ahead. Use running poles downhill to have 4 points of impact and not 2. This means that slips are less likely to lead to falls. Put faith in my feet to find the right places. Foot/ eye and brain coordination is faster than my conscious awareness. 

Life needs to be grounded in reality. Easier said than done. However one aid is to acknowledge to myself how I feel about experiences. The good and the not so good. If I absorb the things that happen to me appropriately then I can be resilient. Not to get hung up by daily ups and downs but press ahead. 

The road ahead

Try to keep a cadence of 180 steps/ minute. If wish to go faster increase stride length and not step turnover. Similarly to go slower or climb uphill, shorten stride.

Research has shown a step frequency of 180 steps per minute is the most efficient use of energy. Feet should ‘kiss’ the ground and not thump it.  

Sticking to regular routines help me adjust to and absorb the changing challenges of daily life. In times of storm good, healthy habits weather well.  

For endurance, train according to heart beat, at a low aerobic rate.

Recording heart rate is the best single indicator of combined mental and physical stress. This form of ‘bio feedback’ is very helpful. It is insightful that a negative thought will within seconds increase my heart rate (HR) by 5-10 beats /minute. Cold weather with not enough upper body layers also greatly increases heart rate. The torso needs to be comfortably warm. Conversely wearing full body leggings when it’s not cold enough increases my HR. An incipient cold or infection will also raise HR above normal for activity. I should take it easy or stop running. Running can help to cope with other stresses in life but paradoxically there are also times when the best medicine is a gentle walk. 

I need objective feedback on my life. Another kind of ‘bio’ feedback. Honest friends can help. Wisdom gleaned from sources such as books, culture and art can also be helpful. As a Christian the Bible has become for me a ‘go to’ source of feedback on matters of the heart and life. 

Every once in a while take a mental scan from head to toe of how I feel. If something not right what can I do about it?

Is head upright? Am I looking ahead? Is head cold/ hot? Tension in neck? Shoulders and arms relaxed? Any lower back pains? Am I taking in and enjoying the landscape I am moving through? Does my HR reflect the degree of effort? If high, why? Consciously lower shoulders, elbows down at waist. Hands unclenched, fingers lightly touching each other. My legs are doing the running. The top part of my body should assist that. It’s a waste of energy being tense.

Travelling through life requires some reflection and self awareness. Problems and stress often come from my wrong attitude, a faulty posture, a lazy approach to life. There is usually something I can practically do? Are there also areas I need to be more relaxed about and not worry?   

Try and keep a relaxed facial expression and smile at people.

It amazes me how many runners have gaunt or expressionless faces. Some do not even acknowledge your presence as you meet them. Running should be fun. Some people really don’t look like they are enjoying themselves. It’s hard to have a high HR and a relaxed smile!

It takes effort to enjoy life as it is. Doing so is good for me and maybe also for those I meet.

** elisabethgrantart.com