The Highland Fling – Tyndrum to Crianlarich

On a sunny day I took myself for a run on the section of the West Highland Way heading south from Tyndrum.

This is the reverse of the way the route is normally travelled.

On the way I tried out my new camera with some mixed results.  The following clips are unedited, apart from the Auchtertyre demon sheep.

The first mile was sunny with spectacular views. This is the last mile of the Highland Fling race. The only things disturbing the peace are my heavy footsteps

The next section is a pleasant run past the farm at Auchtertyre, on by the ruins of the church at St Fillans and down to the A82 road crossing. This video contains some high speed sheep

Across the road and into the forest is the undulating section to Bogle Glen known as the Rollercoaster.  18 minutes of heavy breathing as I tried to run all the way over some pretty steep hills. Confession – didn’t make it had to walk a few steps on the very last up! The scenery is nice and hopefully the soundtrack is reminiscent of the extended version of Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby 😉



The Highland Fling

On a sunny day I took myself for a run on the section of the West Highland Way from Tyndrum to Beinglas Farm.

This is the reverse of the way the route is normally travelled.

On the way I tried out my new camera

The infamous Cow Poo Alley was quite dry for a change

Down to the road crossing

Under the road and through the Cattle Creep

Running along Glen Falloch

This clip shows the approach to Derrydarroch Cottage from the North

Don’t Panic Mr Mainwaring

I have been feeling poorly these last few days.  Might have been man flu. Might have been jet lag, but running was either rubbish or didnt happen at all.

I had a reasonably good November/December where I ran every day for 32 days and started to build mileage sensibly, and even though a Christmas day flight with Champagne and Caviar scuppered this year’s Marcothon effort, I still managed to run a pretty solid time for the Boxing Day 10 miler in Hamilton, Ontario.

After that I swapped running for holidaying and only managed one run in the following week.

2015 arrived with a big fat zero in the training log and a big fat jump on the scales. I tried a run one day and managed all of 2 horrible miles on aching legs, and with that abject failure my running career was over. At least according to Private Fraser bouncing around in my head yelling “We’re Doomed! Doomed I tell ye!”

Fast forward a couple of days and feeling a wee bit brighter I jumped on the treadmill after work for the scheduled Yasso 800 session fully expecting another fail. The first few minutes of the very slow warm up were yucky and I nearly chucked it. Legs weren’t working properly at all, but slowly minute after minute they warmed up until there was no more room for excuses, time to hit the first interval. It was so hard! By the time I reached the end of the interval I thought my legs were going to fall off. The second interval  was nearly as bad. Somehow, as if by magic, the third interval wasn’t too bad at all and the fourth was actually relatively easy. And so it continued.

Maybe I will still be able to run this year after all.

Lesson learned?

1. You don’t lose fitness overnight so don’t panic about missing a few days

2. Don’t stop just because it doesn’t feel good. Ease into it slowly and if you keep going fitness will prevail.

3. Intervals 3 and 4 are always easier than 1 and 2. Remember this fact.

4. If you know all of the above don’t be a drama queen just because things aren’t quite going to plan

In praise of the mythical old guy

There is a vibrant and burgeoning ultra running community in Scotland at the moment. Races like the Highland Fling have become ridiculously popular and are introducing lots of new runners to the sport. Some of these are enthused by all of the good things which go with ultra trail running, some are intrigued by the severity of the challenge and some are drawn by the facebook driven fear of missing out.

Race records are being broken. The front is getting faster, the back is getting slower and the middle is getting fatter.

In all walks of life, it used to be that you had to serve your time. It didn’t matter whether you were the office junior who  made the tea or the apprentice sparkie. You watched, listened and learned how to behave.  You might not agree with them, or have the experience to understand why the were there, but you picked up the rules. Eventually when you had served your time you got the chance to change the rules. Even in the early days of the internet, in the pre Facebook world, when Forums and Newsgroups were the order of the day, the first rule in Emily Postnet’s book of Nettiquette was be a lurker.  Watch, listen and learn how the community operates, who the players are, who speaks sense and who doesn’t, and then when you are confident that you won’t be making an arse of yourself, contribute and say your piece.

It is great to see so many people enthused about running long distances on the trails. Lots will do it once, some will do it several times, a few will do it lots.

With so many new people coming into the sport, where do you look for support or advice when everyone else is also a newcomer. What happens to the traditions, culture and ethos of the sport?

In amidst all of the excitement and the population explosion, it is sometimes easy to forget that the ultra community has been going a long time.  It is a community based on respect, humility, hard work, a spirit of adventure and a real affinity for wild places.

As a relative newcomer myself, to the new ultra runners, I offer this advice:

If you want to be a good ultra runner, watch the old guys.

Run with your eyes, ears and your mind open. When you run past that old guy, do it without conceit because chances are that Old Guy (or Girl) has probably covered more miles than you can count and has had adventures of which you can only imagine. That same old guy is probably also the person who puts in countless hours in the background to make sure the race can take place and that you the energetic runner can be safe. That old guy might well be giving up his own race to help someone through. The old guy will have spent hours nursing beginners through training runs, teaching them how to survive and enjoy. The old guy will gently poke and prod online or with a well chosen private word help keep the masses moving forward within the ethos of the community.

Go to the pub and listen to the stories. You will hear tales of the old guys. You will know who they are because they will be referred to by just their first name. They might be called Stan, or Donald, or George,  or Murdo, or Ray or one of many others, but when you hear someone being referred to by one name then listen for you will learn.

The old guys are not boastful, there are too many tales to tell in one sitting and they have had too many misadventures to be arrogant. They don’t post every run on Facebook. Other people tell their tales. If you ask, they will share generously. If you approach quietly they will show you the ropes, if you respect the sport they will teach you the secrets and they will be there for you at 4am in the middle of nowhere when you are crying for your mummy.

As a relative newcomer to the ultra community I am still serving my apprenticeship. I am definitely not one the Old Guys yet, though maybe one day I will be.  I do count myself very fortunate to have learned some of the lore from a few of these old guys. They in turn tell tales of even older guys and of deeds and misdeeds in the past which laid the foundations for the sport as it is now, and without whom there would be no ultras to run.

These Old Guys are setting a really good example of how to train, compete, enjoy and nurture the sport.

The best thing the new runner could do is watch and follow that example.

One of the most satisfying sights for me is the new runner, who sits with a pint, wide-eyed and open-mouthed soaking up the stories and then over months and years grows into the community and finds they too can work their way up through the challenges.

Change is good. New blood is good. But here’s to the Old Guys who have seen it, done it and worn the damn t-shirt out.

Boston fragments

I found this post in my Drafts box. I never quite got round to finishing it and then it wasnt quite the right time to post it, so here it is unfinished

Friday was a solemn day.

Runners made their way to Boylston Street.

With a few days until race day it was the runners from 2013 who came first, proudly displaying 2013 on the blue and yellow jackets.   There was little noise as they sought out first the finish line and then both of the small memorials which marked the sites of the bombs. Fading strands of blue and yellow tied to a tree.  A 2013 finishers medal tied to a piece of wire.  Little bunches of flowers. The following day they were joined by a pair of running shoes. These were not formal grand gestures but very personal tokens placed by individuals.

IMG_0460The finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street is flanked by temporary grandstands.  To make your way to the race Expo you need to walk through a  passage behind them which is almost like walking through a church. The silence under the stands amplified the raw emotion on the street.  Waves of emotion were causing me to swallow hard and was relieved to see I was not alone as I glanced to see tears streaming down Helen’s face.

Quietly we walked to the Forum restaurant where Helen had stood for 6 hours until just before the bomb exploded there last year.

We were back.

We had made a promise to come back to Boston to play a part in standing up for the small sweaty corner of humanity that is the running community, and now we were standing on Boylston Street.
We had lunch in the Forum and chatted to a couple seated next to us who were not runners. They had been in the Forum last year when the bomb exploded and blew the windows in. They had come back from Kansas City to be in the same place and intended to watch the race from the Forum.

Throughout Friday the runners returned and as they returned there were many tears on Boylston Street but there was a real sense or determination to return and put things right.  It was important not just to the runners but to the city.  People welcomed the runners back with a sense of relief almost as if they were worried they might not come. Not just the city as an institution but the ordinary people: the airport security guard who looked you up and down, saw the 2013 and nodded and winked. The taxi driver who was eager to tell us that we can’t let them win.

And then there were the daffodils. Wrapped in Boston blue ribbons, bright yellow daffodils lined the street.wpid-img_40652194179078.jpeg

Outside the church by the finish line, volunteers were handing out Boston scarves. Hand-knitted in their thousands throughout the USA  I received one made by Susan from the tiny town of Mt Desert in Maine.


Race day arrived, the yellow school buses headed for Hopkinton. As we arrived through the back streets of this most American town with its wooden houses and white picket fences, two old ladies, sat on a white painted porch, held up a banner saying  “Welcome Back”.  A little girl wrapped in her dressing gown, stood at the end of her driveway and waved a Stars and Stripes at the returning runners. It was only 7am.

Finally, high on emotion, a race was run.  Crowds cheered as never before in a heady mix of support and defiance.  Cheers, tears, kisses and fist pumps punctuated 26.2 miles of the very best in the human spirit. Boston was Strong, the runners came back.  Those with unfinished business turned Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston and finished the race.

IMG_0391 IMG_0390 066

A few days later, and 4000 miles to the west,  I was boarding the ferry to Alcatraz, proudly sporting my Boston Finsher’s shirt,  when I was approached by an older lady who shook my hand and in a broad Boston drawl said “Thank You”


The Year of the Ultra Runner

2014 was a funny old year. In my head it wasn’t a very good running year, probably because I didn’t get any faster. No PBs for me, and that worries me that old age is catching up, the nagging fear of getting worse before I have managed to get better.

Boylston Street – the holy grail of finishing lines

I had started the year coming back from a long lay off with a niggly achilles and with a desperate desire to make it back to Boston I trained very cautiously, managing mileage and intensity very carefully.  Because I wasn’t doing speed work I never lost any of my winter padding and never quite hit a decent racing weight all year.

Yet despite the perception of the year being little more than ok, there was still a lot of stuff done. It wasn’t a bad year, some of it was even done quite well, just not brilliantly.

So despite the ever shrinking goalposts narrowing with my body not quite living up to my aspirations, my racing year panned out like this

  • D33 – DNF my first ever
  • Boston marathon – a big deal for me to go back for my second Boston the year after the bombs
  • Big Sur marathon – surprisingly a couple of minutes faster than Boston 6 days before
    Boston 2 Big Sur. 2 marathons 6 days and 3000 miles apart
  • Cateran Trail 55 ultra –  my first ever running prize. First old git.
  • Great Glen Ultra – not a bad time for my first attempt at a long unsupported race
  • CCC – chewed me up and spat me back out, but I survived and finished feeling well.
  • Amsterdam marathon – 3:31 my fastest of the year but still a bit off where I want to be

All of those races were steady and unspectacular performances and I guess that was the big lesson of the year. For me to do well in ultra races I need to learn patience, humility and then some more patience! Slow down over the first half, and run with your head not your heart. Blood, guts and snotters might serve you well in a 10K or a half marathon, but in an Ultra it just makes the second half of your race a misery.

The other big lesson which was repeated throughout the year is that I will feel like crap at about 16 miles, then again at 26 and probably again at about 40. After that it seems to get easier. Just got to trust that if you keep moving forward your legs will come back and true to form I have finished every race strongly this year.

Great Glen Ultra fuelled by Scotch Pie and Macallan
Great Glen Ultra fuelled by Scotch Pie and Macallan

Despite having run a few ultras previously, I never ever considered myself to be an Ultra runner. I was your average plodding old man up for a challenge and getting by on pig headedness. I was envious of those lucky souls who could head out and seemingly effortlessly run for hours on end whereas I was always the one blowing out his backside. Yet somewhere between Great Glen and picking up the coveted Gilet in Chamonix, I reached the conclusion that maybe I was an ultra runner too.

Aside from racing, other lessons were to be learned over the course of the year. I was lucky enough to be a support runner for Amanda Hamilton in this year’s West Highland Way Race. Amanda had a brilliant performance and showed real mental toughness on that last section over the Lairig Mor in the dark. Being responsible for getting her there and having to think about every step in the process will undoubtedly help me the next time I have a bash at WHW for myself.

CCC finishers
CCC finishers – Ultra Runners All!

I even did something completely new –  I was the sweeper at both the Clyde Stride and Jedburgh ultras this year. Apart from being chuffed to be asked, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience on both occasions and being forced into not having any performance pressures was undoubtedly good for me and while I didnt quite learn to smell the roses, I did find that spending hours either in the company of, or searching for, the legend that is Ray McCurdy an interesting and enlightening experience. Rumour has it, I was even nice to the runners I was sweeping though of course I will deny that vehemently as slanderous. Throw in marshalling sessions at Glenmore 24, WHW, and Glen Ogle and I was involved in one way or other in most of the Scotish ultras this year.

So actually, when you write it all down, maybe it wasn’t such a bad year after all. I got to do some big bucket list races, managed to give something back to the community and spent way too much time in the brilliant company of the usual suspects.

I might even have become an ultra runner somewhere along the way!

CCC 2014 Race Report

I could feel it coming and had to find somewhere quickly.

Unfortunately in a hot sweaty tent crammed with runners refuelling after already covering 55 mind blowingly brutal kilometers,  the organisers had obviously forgotten to set aside a throwing up corner. I made a dash for the exit with my mouth clenched firmly shut but only made it as far as the table where volunteers were serving up coke and fizzy water, before the noodle soup which had decided it was leaving my stomach found my mouth shut and took the high speed diversion out my nose and all down the front of my warm mid-layer shirt.  I made a second dash for the exit and found a convenient pile of wood chippings next to the timing mats at the entrance just as my stomach emptied for a second time.  Looking up, slightly dazed, and being careful not to cross the Out mat which would signal me leaving Champex, I noticed the people at the Retiral table eyeing me up.  Self-consciously, I wiped the worst of the puke off my shirt, got some more sparkling water poured into the folding cup attached to my backpack by a length of elastic,  switched on my head torch and headed into the darkness before I became too tempted by the Retiral desk or one of the officials took the decision for me.

Champex Lac sits halfway up one of the big climbs in the CCC and it had been a struggle to get there. As I left the aid station I passed the bus half full of runners for whom enough was enough. It looked warm and dry compared to the heavy rain lit up by my torch. For a moment I contemplated heading back to the tent and stopping, but gave myself a shake and thoughts of pulling out vanished. There were people waiting for me to finish and I didnt want to be on that bus.

The CCC or Courmayeur-Chamex-Chamonix to give it its full name, is a 101K race through the Alps.  It is part of the famous UTMB series of races and here I was, only half way through, travelling at a snails pace and about to head into the mountains in the dark. This was hard: 2 hours and 40 minutes to run 10K hard and it was about to get harder.


The day had started brightly enough. The trip to Courmayeur in Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel had been pretty smooth and I was grateful for the company of fellow Scot Carol Martin on this trip as I pondered the splendid symmetry of a drive under the mountain before running back over the top.  At Courmayeur we met up with Random Scottish Punters Terry, Silke and Malcolm who were all to run fantastic races. As the race started we were cheered on by epic cheer leaders George and Karen – George had somehow contrived to borrow the biggest cow bell you have ever seen and was swinging it lustily as only George can.

The climb out of Courmayeur is breathtaking in every sense of the word. The CCC route varies a little from UTMB at this point, CCC climbing higher over Tete de la Tranche. The first 500m or so of climbing was not too bad and once above the tree line the views over the Italian side of the Alps were stunning.  I kept an eye on the altimeter on my Garmin and it kept climbing.  After about 6500m I could really feel the air begin to thin.  The climb was at least as steep as anything you could encounter on our Munros back home in Scotland and every time you lifted your head you could see runners high above you. The scary part was if you lifted your head once more there were still runners even higher.  Eventually a little respite was gained from the climb as we reached a rather exposed col with big drops and big scenery on either side, but sure enough it steepened further before another lung busting climb to the top at just over 2500m. The first 10K had taken 2.5 hours and had climbed 1500m. It was going to be a long day.

Our bibs were scanned by some hardy volunteers right on top of the mountain and without much fanfare it was over the top and downhill to Refuge Bertone some 3 Kilometres away and 500 metres below. In my race plan I had intended climbing conservatively and then using the downhill to pick up some time. I had climbed well enough but by the time I readed the top I was really feeling the altitude and was struggling to run the downhill. My brain wasn’t sharp enough to process the rocky underfoot conditions and my legs were numb from the climb. As I lumbered gingerly down the 500m descent, I was quite intimidated by large number of runners who overtook me at breakneck pace throwing themselves down hill with what seemed to me like reckless abandon. By the time I made it down to Refuge Bertone the sun was splitting the sky and I realised I was sweating like I had never sweated before. I took my pack off and discovered it was soaked through. I refilled my bottles, grabbed some coke and coffee and removed  the t shirt I was wearing over my Helly Hansen base layer. At this point someone nudged me and my cup of coffee went all over my white shirt leaving a large mucky brown stain all over the front.  When I took off this shirt I realised it weighed a ton with sweat so rather than carry it in my pack for another 50 miles I ditched it, knowing that I had another long sleeve top in my bag as per the mandatory kit list.

The mandatory kit list is one of the unusual and scary features of UTMB. There is an exhaustive list of kit which includes things like spare warm mid layer (minimum 185g) and a personal cup. The kit is checked at registration in the sports hall in Chamonix pre race. When you register by showing your passport they look you up on the computer and then print out a personalised kit list. On the kit list are marked 4 random items which will be checked. I got Phone, Head Torches, Waterproof Jacket and warm hat. You then need to take your kit along with the list to a table where a volunteer checks your kit thoroughly. Both head torches had to be switched on to show they work and spare batteries for both had to be shown as well. The phone had to be shown working and the taped seams were were checked for integrity.  If everything is intact you can then progress to pick up your bib. If not, you need to go away, get the right gear and come back again.  Even more scary was the random kit check carried out pre race in Courmayeur. Race marshalls were selecting runners and going through a full kit check, having runners empty their packs and show all 20 or or so of the mandatory items of kit.  Even though my kit was correct I was extremely relieved to avoid the stress of a check.


The section from Bertone to Refuge Bonatti should be relatively straightforward but I continued to find it hard going.  By Refure Bonatti at 14 miles in I was suffering from horrible cramp in my gracilis which is the muscle which runs down the inside of your thigh. At Bonatti I swallowed a couple of packets of salt which seemed to ease the cramping. Another climb came next. Those little squiggles on the elevation map turned out to be pretty big ups and downs and still sweating profusely I made it into Arnuva which is the first of the cut off points.  I was relieved to see that I was in with a couple of hours to spare because I couldn’t have speeded up any if I needed to.   Next up was a big hard climb to the highest point of the course at Grand Col Ferret. Despite the steep and unrelenting climb, I found this much easier than the first.

Grand Col Ferret marked the arrival into Switzerland and the next section was a good run downhill through some pretty picture postcard villages with wooden flower decked houses before a brutal 500m climb up switchbacks to Champex and the aforementioned throwing up incident.

Champex to Trient was another huge climb up Bovine where the only sound you could hear was the odd cow bell clanging in the darkness. One of the things which characterised the climbs was the silence. Despite there being runners nearby almost all of the time, there was very little talking as people concentrated on slowly putting one foot in front of another. In the pouring rain the sight of steam rising from hooded bent over runners was somewhat Orwellian.  I had my first kit malfunction when my head torch started to fade rather too rapidly for my liking. I stopped at an impromptu aid station where two little girls were dishing out hot tea outside a farmhouse in the dark and pouring rain and put new batteries in my torch.  Again they didnt last long and so the descent to Trient was taken very carefully as I tried to stay close to other runners who seemed to be running with lights resembling car headlamps. Having struggled to refuel in Champex my body was running on empty by the time I made it to Trient and another welcome aid station.

At Trient I managed to eat several bowls of noodle soup, bread, sausage and cheese. I swapped head torches and was relieved to find my second torch was working properly offering a bright beam and set off for Vallorcine only 11K away in quite good spirits.  By now my Garmin had packed in, but I didn’t mind as I had consciously decided not to bother with a charger,  and as it was only 11K it shouldnt take too long. Wrong! A combination of a steep climb over Catogne at 2009m followed by a 800m slide downhill through wet mud meant the 11K took 2 hr 50 mins! At Vallorcine I took my time and fuelled up once more.

The track out of Vallorcine looked runable but I must confess that I only ran small sections of it. Maybe I was mindful of the big climb to come or maybe I was just more secure power marching in the darkness, but in the distance I could see a line of lights perched precipitously on the steep outline of the climb from Col de Montets to Tete aux Vents. I kept reminding myself that this was the last climb and only 700m but you couldnt help but look at those torches and be awed by how steep and how high they went into the night sky.  The climb up from Col de Montets was horrible. Very steep and with some clambering,  I tucked in behind a lady who set a great slow but steady pace rather than the usual go-as-fast-as-you-can-then-stop-cos-you-are-dying pace that men tend to adopt (testosterone is not always your friend).   We worked up through the clouds and as we neared the top, the sky began to lighten.  Some flatter switchbacks gave an opportunity to look below at the head torches still climbing and as dawn broke to reveal a cloud inversion covering the whole valley the view was spectacular.

breaking through teh clouds on teh way to Tete aux Vents
breaking through the clouds on the way to Tete aux Vents

The remainder of the climb to Tete aux Vents was a bit easier flattening out to normal sized undulations and offering spectaular views of the Mont Blanc range. The views and the relief that the job was nearly done made for an enjoyable hobble in the clear early morning air.

The Tetes aux Vents checkpoint finally arrived with its iconic orange North Face dome tent, but the promised downhill turned out to be a steep and technical descent that seemed to go on forever.  I had asked the marshals how far to go and they said 3K to the last aid station at Flegere and 5K from Flegere to the finish. They lied.

Once the track to Flegere eased to a sensible gradient I picked up and passed quite a few people, making a point of running through all of the ice cold streams to cool my feet and legs. There is a final climb up to the chair lift at Flegere but after so much climbing this one was just inconvenient rather than difficult. At Flegere I changed back into my shorts, and finally was able to take off my sick stained warm top and swap it for a cold sweat soaked t shirt.  I downed a miniature of Great Glen Ultra whisky, filled a bottle with water and headed out with 8K to go.

I had a good run on the single track which followed the contours of the hill down into Chamonix picking up a lot of places as I passed plenty of people who were quite content to walk it out.  Lots of supporters were out walking up hill to see runners and they were all so genuine in their support of what you had just achieved. Through some houses, again with support and then it was across the road and into the town of Chamonix and the famous run along the river.  The crowds thckened and I spotted a Saltire waving in the distance. I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out the flag was attached to friend Norry who had volunteered to come out and watch for me. Norry passed me the flag which I attached to my walking pole making an impromptu flag pole. The cheers from the crowds on the last loop through town were amazing and as I turned the final corner to see the finish arch the Scottish contingent were going crazy, shouting and waving flags. Some high fives and a massive hug from Helen who I thought ws going to burst with excitment and I was over the line. I had finished the CCC.

3 happy Random scottish Punters
3 happy Random scottish Punters

I caught up with Terry and Carol and was pleased to learn they had finished safely with strong runs. We had all come here with thoughts of using CCC as a precursor to an attempt at UTMB. Our concensus on the finish line was absolutely no way! The respect for the UTMB finishers is absolute, but we were going to have to rethink our ambitions, CCC was so hard that doing more seemed impossible.

I think it took about 6 hours for us to change our minds.

Initially I was a wee bit disappointed with my finishing time of 24 hours and 10 minutes but that didnt last long. CCC is so diferent from anything I have done before and I was pleased to learn that I had picked my way through the field over the second half of  the course finishing in 950th place just inside the top half of the field. You really need ot serve your apprenticeship running in the Alps and at times on the CCC I was definitely sent for the tartan paint and the Long Stand.  The climbs arent just enormous but they are unrelentingly steep. The downhills are steep and technical in places. The altitude affects you. The path was muddy and treacherous in places. There is 9 hours darkness running with headtorches on technical trails in unfamiliar mountains. There is a massive drop out rate. To finish in itself is an achievement. There is nothing which can prepare you for how big it is.

The whole trip was an amazing experience, all the more so for sharing it with the large contingent of Random Scottish Punters who had made the trip out to run or support. Watching people finish the various races was fantastic. Every single person was given a hero’s welcome. The Elite performances were astonishing.  Despite being the hardest race I have ever done by a long way, It is in the diary for next year already whether I am succesful in the ballot or not.  CCC was one of those life changing experiences and I am sure Chamionix will become a regular fixture in our travel plans.

Having seen it, UTMB has to be the next target.

As Terry said to me “We had better do it soon cos we are not getting any younger”

Great Glen Ultra Race Report

Great Glen Ultra Logo
Great Glen Ultra Logo

The Great Glen Ultra is a new Scottish Ultramarathon race which starts in Fort William and finishes 72 miles later in Inverness.

Both Helen and I were running the race. The unsupported nature of the race meant it was possible for both of us to run. Being unsupported means drop bags – lots of them. With 6 checkpoints and a finish bag, we had 14 bags to organise between us. In the days leading up to the race our kitchen looked like some post apocalyptic refugee camp as food, drink and spare shoes and clothing were piled up in a vain attempt at organisation. Despite being mocked by my dear wife, I had a bit of a brainwave which worked a treat. Morrisons supermarket had strong Bag for Life type carriers in bright colours for the princely sum of 12p each. Pink for a girl, blue for a boy so they didnt get mixed up, with a distinctive pattern which made them easy to spot at checkpoints and the added bonus of a big yellow M for Munro on the front of the bag.

We had taken the day off work on Friday and after packing the car headed up to Inverness. The intention had been to arive early afternoon, have a couple of hours sleep before eating and heading out for the race start. Inevitably time frittered away and we arrived a wee bit later than planned, so after pitching the big “Old Lady Tent” we lay down for about half an hour before heading for some food. For future runners of this race, the campsite at Bught park in Inverness works really well as a base. It is 2 minutes walk from the stadium where the race finishes and where the buses leave for the start. There are plenty of toilets and free showers with lots of hot water and food is available both at the leisure centre and the Premier Inn 5 minutes away. All in all an excellent base for the race.

Transport to the start duly arrived at 9:30 in the form of luxury coaches which was a pleasant surprise and it made the 90 minute journey to Fort William comfortable and as relaxing as it can be when you are about to run 72 miles.

Registration was indoors at the Moorings Hotel and was well organised and relaxed with lots of well known faces making sure everything worked.  Eventually at 12:30 am we were walked across the lock gate for the race briefing at Neptune’s Staircase. With lots of good advice such as “Don’t fall in the canal” we made it to 1am, race start  and a snake of head torches headed up the towpath.

Ready for the Off
Ready for the Off – photo Fiona Rennie

Stage 1 – Neptunes Staircase to Clunes

This first section consists of a fairly uneventful 10K on the canal towpath to Gairlochy before an enjoyable run through the fairy woods on the side of Loch Lochy.

It never really got dark all night, but the dense forest section was pitch black and the overhanging branches and narrow path had more than a hint of Blair Witch about it, especially knowing that the Fairies were nearby.  After popping out into the road, the 10 mile checkpoint at Clunes arrived.  Drop bags were handed out, a quick rice pudding was consumed and I headed out on the next section.

Stage 2 – Clunes to Laggan

As I set out from Clunes I wasn’t feeling great. My legs were tired and I could feel my right ankle start to ache. I had had a problem with my ankle earlier in the year, so this wasn’t a promising sign. It was also way too early to hit the wall. The wee voices in my head were starting again: ” You can run a pretty decent marathon, so why can’t you run 20 miles in an ultra without falling to bits?”. There are of course many answers to this, but the only real answer is to get the head down and grunt it out until it gets better.

The sky was starting to lighten and the views up Loch Lochy as the daylight crept over the hills at the head of the Loch was quite picturesque.  I trotted up the lochside making reasonable progress, picking off a few folk who had set off a bit faster. My legs were still tired and my ankle was getting progressively worse, so as pretty as the views were, I steadfastly refused to enjoy them and grumped my way up the side of the loch.

Despite my self imposed grump, the approach to Laggan was truly ethereal.  Boats appeared to be floating on a sea of early morning mist which covered the loch. Ok watching the scenery means you run through sheep shit on the road but that is the Yin and Yang of running at 3:30 am.

Stage 3 – Laggan to Fort Augustus

I was out of Laggan checkpoint quite quickly. The run along the canal to Fort Augustus was very pretty.  Some  mist was still hanging around on the water as the early morning sun warmed things up, I was catching and passing people, and under normal circumstances you would have said it is one of those times when it is great to be alive.  However, add in the fact my ankle was killing me, my right quad was cramping and locking up, I was tired and it was all just rubbish. I had bitten off more than I could chew, there was no way I would make it to the end,  I was going to be a failure and that was it, the end of my stupid ultra running career.

I was running in a pair of Montrail Bajadas and possibly had the wrong combination of socks which made them sit rather too snugly on my feet.  With all of the hard tarmac and mettalled tow path, things just didnt feel right. The good news was that a change of shoes was available in my drop bag. The bad news was that it definitely wasn’t the next drop bag and I couldn’t remember whether it was the mile 40 or mile 50 drop bag!

Arriving Fort Augustus
Arriving Fort Augustus

Halfway along the loch I was passed by the lovely Antonia who was going like a train.  This was one fo those Oh No moments, becasue if I was in front of someone like Antonia after 25 miles it meant that I had gone off too fast. Again. Which meant that I was going to be in a world of pain later. Again.

The route eventually made its way back to the tow path and despite my soreness I had quite a good run along the flat path before seeing the locks of Fort Augustus and the welcome sight of the support crew.

Stage 4 – Fort Augustus to Invermoriston

I slumped into a seat and started trying to make sense of the food in my bag. Too many choices. Alice asked if I was trying to feed the *expletive deleted* five thousand!  Apparently I was soaked in sweat and looking grim. “John, you are looking warm” came the advice. “Yes George” I replied. “You might want to take your jacket off?” “oh right George…” Sometimes the brain doesnt quite work properly.

Fort Augustus 1
A wee bit warm

I sat and looked at my feet for a bit.  40 miles to go. Could I pull out? Was my injury bad enough? Maybe if I just accentuated my limp a wee bit?  I looked around and considered the possibilty of getting a sympathetic reception from Susan, Alice and Ada. That was that settled then. I scrounged some tape from George, taped my ankle, popped  some painkillers and headed out.

Leaving Fort Augustus, my ankle immediately felt a little better. It wasn’t great but I could at least run. As I ran through the town I got a cheery wave from Heather McCrorie who had wowed everyone at Glenmore last year and then Neil Rutherford asked me if I knew where I was going. Erm no, I replied and Neil helpfully pointed out the wee blue sign which headed up an unexpected hill.  Said unexpected hill seemed to continue for a long time. This was a section of the route I hadn’t recce’d  and hadn’t expected it to have such a big hill! Eventually it topped out on more forest road with some stunning views over Loch Ness.  Ups and downs were followed by more ups and downs before eventually Invermoriston arrived with a big blast of ozone from the river and a spectacular view of the old Telford bridge as Lorna and Gavin stood out on the street guiding the way in to the checkpoint.

40 miles done and  it was still only 8:30 am. At least that explained why there weren’t many people in the towns and villages we had passed through!

Stage 5- Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit

Invermoriston was a midge fest. Thick swarms were attacking anything which breathed. It was great to see Stan, Carol, Noanie and John and to finally get my hands on my change of shoes. They are all lovely people but it was time to get out of there as quickly as possible. Fortunately the weather was very kind and this was the only time I had any bother at all with midges.

The hill out of Invermoriston is a big one. I laboured up the hill and as it turned into the forest once more I was passed by a couple of runners.  This section I knew pretty well so eased the ups and had a good run down to the low point of alt-sigh. The section after alt-sigh climbs on switchbacks as the forest road goes high above Loch Ness.  Just when you thought you had to be getting close to the top another corner was turned and the road climbed again.  By now though, it did occur to me that things had stopped getting worse. My ankle wasn’t hurting too much, my legs were actually hurting less than they had and I was over half way.  The only problem was the non-appearance of the expected water stop at 45 miles.  After a bit I caught up with the tartan shorted legend that is Donald Sandeman and we had a good wee moan about how hard it was before consoling ourselves with the fact there was only a marathon to go. We finally reached the elusive water station and the ever cheerful Leggets who informed us it was only another 4 or 5 miles to Drumnadrochit and that we would feel much better once we were over the hill. I didn’t have the heart to break the news that we were already well over the hill.

I plodded off trying to do hard algebra in my head which would explain why I still had 4 miles to go when I had done 49 and the checkpoint was at 50. This kept me occupied for a bit. After more ups and downs,  the rain started to pour, and a big down finally brought Drumnadrochit checkpoint at around 54 miles.

I should at this stage apologise to the marshalls at this checkpoint for the slightly intemperate language used in expressing my opinion that the accuracy of the race brief may have been lacking somewhat in its depiction of the location of this checkpoint.  It was possibly slightly unjust of me to question so loudly the parentage of Race Director Bill Heirs at this point.

Stage 6 –  Drumnadrochit to Loch Laide

Arriving Checkpoint 6
Arriving Checkpoint 6

The run out of Drumnadrochit heads along the A82 for a couple of exceedingly long miles. It feels like the turn up hill is never coming, but when it does, oh boy it climbs.  By this stage in the day it was scorching hot. As a wee aside my Ultimate Direction Race Vest was working well. I was really glad of the bottles which meant I could use one for a mix of coke and Nuun, and the other for water.  Most of the water was poured over my head, but the ability to do that was very welcome. The only problem with using water to cool was my backpack was starting to have a cheese wire effect on  my under arms.  After a stoater of a climb the path open out onto the top of the hill and turns into a lovely track across some high moorland. My legs were working quite well by now and I passed a few more people. With 15 miles to go there was no doubt I would finsh.  All I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It occured to me that I had survived. I had got through the lack of energy. I had sorted the debilitating sore ankle an dthe aching quads.  I have even overcome the grumpiness. Unusually for me I was  coping with the heat.  Now I was just running. It wasnt fast and it wasn’t pretty but it was steady.

Single Malt recovery drink
Single Malt recovery drink

With the added incentive of a pie and a small bottle of Macallan in the drop bag I picked up the pace and was able to run freely down to the last checkpoint at Abriachan.

CP 6 was a great wee checkpoint. Enthusiasm and TLC were being dispensed in equal measure by Elaine, Angela and Fiona. The sun was shining. A wee dram was shared and there was no more than 10 miles to go.

Stage 7 – Loch Laide to Inverness

Reluctantly I left the checkpoint and headed for home. The first section is a bit of a slog, through the nature reserve, then on the road again for a bit, before hitting a section of bridle path which eventually led to the top of the hill. It really was all downhilll from here. A quick pit stop at the last water stop. Self Service this one as Lorna and Carol were indulging in some post vin beauty sleep in the car.

The Finish
The Finish

The final few miles are downhill on a proper trail, with soft mud and everything. Such a relief. It is the sort of trail it would be really good to run on fresh legs just for the pleasure of being there.  Soon Inverness came into sight although still some way in the distance. I wasn’t entirely sure how far it was to go, but I had worked out that I shouldnt be far from 15 hours which is a time I would be really pleased with. After a few more miles I encountered dog walkers which meant I had to be close. I asked one how far it was to the Canal. “Not that far” she helpfully replied.

I kept plodding away and finally civilisation appeared. The path did that weird thing as it enters Inverness and meanders through a housing estate. After miles of not seeing anyone I passed a couple of runners and this gave me a big boost. Soon I popped out onto the canal and could see some Hi Viz jackets standing by the swing bridge.

I crossed the main road onto the running track at the stadium and sprinted (yes really) for the finish.    Over the line in 14 hours and 28 minutes, a pleasing time, some demons conquered,  lessons learned, mojo restored and feeling pretty pleased with myself for working hard to get there.


presentationThat was hard.  Much harder than I expected. It was a really challenging route, on an interesting and beautiful course.

The race organisation was efficient, relaxed and sympathetic to the runners.

I wasn’t sure about doing an unsupported long ultra, but in practice it worked out fine.  All of the checkpoints were manned  by teams of experienced folks who knew exactly what to do and how to look after tired and dopey runners. Arriving at a checkpoint was like wandering into a good going party where all your pals were pleased to see you, and that pretty much sums up the whole weekend.

The Great Glen isn’t the West Highland Way. It is very different, but in its own right is a seriously hard race which has all the attributes to hopefully become a classic ultra and a permanent fixture in the Scottish ultra calendar.

Tears on Boylston

There were tears on Boylston
on the day the runners came back.
Wrapped in scarves of Boston blue,
carrying the hopes of strangers.
The blue and yellow jackets of '13
the first ones to arrive
In a race for restitution
For their numbers to be counted
they stood in contemplation
At the finish line rebuilt.
Boston Strong, they walked in quiet tribute
Along the street that was hurt

And the hopeful yellow daffodils,
wrapped in Boston blue,
Lined the street like supporters
Cheering those who passed.
The daffodils made me cry.

Quit while you are ahead

The second half of last year saw me injured with an achilles injury which took nearly 6 months to get better.  Since January my achilles has been behaving, though it still niggles,  but I have also been struck down with plantar fasciatis, a sore ankle caused by bruised cartilege, a long running sinus infection, and a really busy work schedule.

Foremost in my mind has been my appointment in Hopkinton on Monday April 21st and the need to get there in one piece.

Boston ’13 eyeing up the finish line

Now normally when I train, I am  of the blood,  sweat and snotters school of training.  No finesse but lots of effort.

This year, with so many ailments I have had to adopt a painfully cautious approach to training.  I have tried to follow the 10% rule, upping my mileage slowly. I have been disciplined in my long runs, turning back early in some of the long group runs on the West Highland Way when it would have been easier just to slog them out with my chums who were all running longer. Turning back when you are competitive is really hard. I even dropped out of the D33 race at 25 miles because my foot just wasn’t right. My first ever DNF  and those who know me will appreciate how painful that is.

I have done next to no speed work. My usual set of Yasso 800’s has slipped off my plan. Even tempo runs have been done at about 80%.  I started training without a base and whereas last year I was running 200-250 miles per month this year I have been in the region of 175-190.  This time last year I raced a pretty speedy half marathon and got a new PB. This year I haven’t raced at all.  Not even a parkrun.

Boston ’14 training miles


Boston ’13 training miles


I am  undertrained. I have no speed.  I feel like I am about 4-6 weeks away from full fitness, so having been cautious all year, I am going to have to keep the caution going and run the race with my head and not with my heart which is what usually gets me into trouble anyway.

My mantra throughout this whole training programme has been to quit while I’m ahead.

So where does that leave me?

First off it means that barring accidents I am uninjured and ready to go run Boston. Success!

My goal for race day? To run safely and sensibly for 20 miles and get over heartbreak hill with 6 miles to go and be feeling strong.  If I can do that then I should be in with a chance of beating last year’s time. The trick will be to resist the temptation to push on and to remember where I am now, not where I used to be and tailor my ambitions accordingly.

Despite being tedious at times, I have plodded through the last 16 weeks doing what had to be done, to be safe rather than sorry. It has been frustrating and it hasn’t been enjoyable, but it has been successful and I will be on the start line with a semblance of fitnes

It is now taper time, and I will be getting wrapped in cotton wool because at the moment I am just about ahead, so definitely time to quit until race day.