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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.