The Inaugural Great Glen Ultra
5th July 2014
72 Miles and 10,800ft of ascent.
The Great Glen is Scotland’s longest glen and runs coast to coast across the country from Fort William to Inverness. The glen was formed by the Great Glen Fault which divides the North-West Highland from the Grampian mountains, and holds many deep lochs, the most famous being of course, Loch Ness. The Great Glen route has been historically used by travellers from the ice-age, hunter-gatherers, clansmen and farmers, and in more recent times after the Caledonian Canal was built, vessels were able to avoid the treacherous journey around the North of Scotland by traversing through the country on water. The Great Glen is still an important passage as it carries the main road between the biggest city (Inverness) and the biggest town (Fort William) in the Highlands. (adapted from Footprint Maps – footprintmaps.co.uk)
The Great Glen Way path was ‘opened’ in April 2002 and is a popular 75 mile path. Last year BaM racing ran a recce run with 5 runners to ascertain the suitability of running an ultramarathon along the route and deemed it to have huge potential. The inaugural race was scheduled for the 5th of July 2014 and would start at 1am from the Neptune’s Staircase area of Fort William and continue for 72 miles with a finish in Inverness Athletics Stadium and a time limit of 24 hours. With 6 drop-bag check points the race was designed to be ran unsupported and runners were asked not to have support crews with them, although they would be allowed to have friends/family meet them at two of the checkpoints held in public car parks if they wished.
My personal preparation for the race had consisted of a hard 3 months training at the start of the year culminating with the D33 ultra, and then the 53 mile Highland Fling and the Cateran 55 mile Ultra with recovery in between. The Cateran was harder than I expected and recovery from the the two 50+ mile ultras within 3 weeks hit me harder than expected so I was nervous and felt under-trained when the start of July arrived. However it is always better to arrive at a start line of an ultra a bit under-trained than over-trained, and I had every confidence that I would be able to complete the race if I engaged the right frame of mind.
I had taken the Friday off work to prepare, and spent it sleeping in as late as possible and then pottering about the house preparing my drop bags. As I mentioned in my last post there were some discrepancies in the information provided as to the exact distances between some of the later check-points so I had some difficulties in deciding what and how much to pack. I stuck with familiar items though – walkers salted crisps (I’m fed up of hula hoops!), lemon cake bars (I found chocolate ones stick in the mouth too much at the Cateran), Chia charge salted caramel bars, cheese and tomato pizza, Ambrosia custard, butteries, muller rice, nature valley cereal bars, and gels and chews in case my stomach freaked out and decided it didn’t want real food. For drinks I had my camelbak with High5 Zero tablets, but also half bottles of blue Powerade, little Irn bru bottles and cans of Starbucks Espresso. As previously mentioned, I had prepared a little bottle containing a healthy measure of Jura single malt for the last check point too.
Kynon arrived home with the ultra van (kindly on loan from Mum and Dad RWR again) at about 3pm, and after some duel flapping and last minute packing, we shipped out of Stonehaven at around 5pm. The weather was really mixed – beautiful blue skies and sunshine interspersed with really heavy rain, but a steady hot and humid temperature either way. This was exactly what the weather predications had been for the whole weekend, but since we were heading across to the other side of the country where the weather is notoriously always at polar opposites to the East, there was really no way of predicting what we were up against for the race.
The plan was to have some food about 9pm at the Fort William Wetherspoons before registering for the race and then having a lie down before the start. It was really strange to be back in Fort Bill so soon after the West Highland Way race; it’s usually a once-a-year trip over to that side of the country for us, so driving through the town without the context of the WHW weekend was a bit odd, especially passing the deserted leisure centre which was lifeless without the finishing arch.
I’d had a large lunch so planned to order a salad for dinner. They had run out of salads (how?!) so I ended up having vegetarian sausages, mash, peas and gravy which was really nice but a bit heavier than I’d intended. Still, with 4 hours until the race start I didn’t think it would be a problem.
We drove over to the Moorings Hotel and found a car park with motor homes, cars and lots of familiar faces. The vast majority of runners would be arriving on a bus from Inverness at midnight, but because Kynon was marshalling we just drove directly to the start. After saying a few hellos and ditching my drop bags we collected my number and went back to the van for a sleep at 10pm.
I managed to rest for about an hour before dozing off for a short while and being awoken by my alarm at midnight. The fact I had slept a little really helped convince me that I was waking up for a new day, rather than keeping Friday going right through into Saturday! I quickly got dressed and coated myself in midgey repellent, and just when I thought I had loads of time I heard the rest of the runners walking through the car park to the start. Up until this point that night I had successfully relegated the start of this epic run to ostrich territory – I had my head in the sand about it all and didn’t want to think about it lest I realised what a tough thing I was about to start and freak out. I was just dressed in my running gear, standing on a canal path with 85 others at 12:30am on a Saturday morning. Totally normal.
I found the temperature really warm so had elected to leave my long sleeve top in my bag and just start the race in a vest. Everyone else was in jackets or long sleeves and quite a lot in tights as well and commented on my minimalist kit in surprise; I did double think it but then I knew I’d be roasting after I started running so there was no point in changing just because everyone thought I’d get cold.
After the briefing there was nervous hugging and chatter until the final countdown and a conservative ‘GO’ from the RDs, given the time of night. Even as I started running I was in total denial about the whole thing – 72 miles? Nahhh, surely not…
I ran the first few miles with Claire and Nicola from my club. My plan was to slow to a 5 minute walk every 25 minutes to eat something and conserve energy in the early flat miles along the canal. The field spread out quickly and we were moving faster than I would have been doing had I been running alone. I reluctantly conceded to running my own race and let them pull away, although they went on to be only 25ft or so ahead of me. The ground underfoot was packed gravel and easy to run on, but there were lots of puddles to dodge. After a sneaky toilet stop under cover of darkness I ended up running with Karen D for a while which was great as she knew exactly where she was going, having been a part of the recce race last year.
At Garilochy we were met by Lorna McMillan who was directing runners to the left over a bridge to leave the canal path, and then off up into what Karen referred to as the ‘Fairy Forest’. Up until now it really hadn’t been dark at all – a classic Northern summer sky which with the exception of a few clouds was a cloak of midnight blue and with an ever-growing smear of aquamarine on the horizon. When we entered the forest it was very dark however and I needed to concentrate hard on what I was doing with my feet.
The trees thinned as we ran closer to the beachy shore of Loch Lochy and more of the lightening sky was revealed. We were literally running towards the light as the sun was thinking about rising and it was totally magical. There was not a breath of wind and the Loch was like a mirror, reflecting the growing fiery horizon perfectly. It looked like my dreams were going to come true and we were going to get a spectacular summer sunrise.
Just before the 1st checkpoint at 10.5 miles at Clunes (2hrs-ish race time, 3am) we ran on the road for a little while. I didn’t even need my head torch here, but after a quick stop for a buttery and custard we re-entered the forest and I reluctantly had to put it back on for guidance.
The next section stretched for 6.5 miles along the side of Loch Lochy and had a few long hills to walk up. The birds were beginning to burst into a deafening morning song, there were bats flitting overhead and looking down to the Loch on my left there was a misty cloud inversion hanging over the water. There was nobody else around me in front or behind and my spirits were soaring as I took it all in; I just felt so lucky to be out there running in this race and it was such a privilege to see this part of the world at such a mysterious time of day. It made me wonder why I’ve never done it before – what’s stopping me from going out and running up and down a hill overnight for the sake of it? Maybe I need to shake up my training a little.
The trail spat us out of the forest at Laggan Locks at around 18 miles, and just when I thought I’d seen it all, we were presented with an even more breath-taking sight.
Another runner was just behind me and we both paused to walk and take it all in; the sky was fuschia, orange and aqua, there was mist hanging above the Locks which were peppered with still moored boats, and fields with sheep quietly pottering about and observing their human visitors curiously.
Four other runners had stopped to take some pictures and they offered to take one of me before moving on. Amongst other things, it’s moments like this that makes it all worth it…this was definitely one for the memory bank.
Pushing on, I knew I was only a mile or two away from the next check point where Kynon and his crew would be waiting. I was looking forward to seeing him and getting a hug, and also having my first can of espresso of the day. So far I hadn’t felt that the lack of sleep was affecting me but I certainly didn’t feel very sharp, especially after spending the last hour trotting along grinning at the world around me in euphoric ecstasy. The coffee went down a treat as well as another custard and buttery, and I repacked my pockets with more crisps and gels.
Unfortunately it wasn’t all good news I gave to Kynon, as by this point my right ITB had begun hurting a little. I get occasional tightness in my ITBs, usually after long runs, but a bit of foam rolling sorts them right out. This kind of more intense, acute pain at the outside knee was something I hadn’t experienced since the 2011 Loch Ness Marathon where it destroyed my race from 13 miles in and had me seeing stars with the intensity which it escalated to. It was concerning, but I knew I had to keep my mental game smart – at 20 miles it was still early days and anything could happen, the worst thing I could do at this point was let it get to me. After a goodbye kiss and a cuddle I started up the long haul up into the forest to Invergarry.
It was fully daylight now, although some morning mist was still burning off creating a lovely mysterious haze. There was big climb up a technical switchback trail out of Invergarry and the beautiful views over Loch Oich distracted me from the growing ITB knee pain.
I’d been running away from the girls I knew, but after I’d popped behind a bush to take care of some morning business I ran into Karen D again and we ran the descent towards the Caledonian Canal together where the route hits 26 miles. She warned me that this was the toughest bit of the race for her and that it was 5 miles of flat canal path. She wanted to walk to get her head in the right place to tackle it so I ran on, saying hello to the four Irish chaps that I’d been running near and speaking to throughout the race so far. They were lying on a pontoon with their feet up having a drink and enjoying the morning sun blazing down – whoever said running these races was hard work?!
Whilst I understood why Karen wouldn’t like this section I was secretly really relieved to get a long, flat run to try and shake out my ITB. In the previous hilly and scrambly miles it had begun to really hurt so I knew that I was in for some trouble from it. I decided to tackle the flat miles with a walk/run interval of 0.1 walk/0.4 run which would break it up into manageable small chunks. My knee shut up a bit as I made steady progress in the sunshine which was really very warm already even though it was only just 7am. The sweat was pouring off me as I ran and I had to ration my water supplies until I hit the next checkpoint at Fort Augustus at 30.5 miles.
At Fort Augustus we were welcomed by Ada, Susan and the rest of the team, who quickly and efficiently got my bladder re-poured, my face wiped and even a bonus skoosh of deodorant. These ladies really knew how to run a check point. I had another can of espresso and some other bits and bobs but I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry because of the heat. Still I packed the gels and everything else I could squeeze into my pockets and left before I got too comfortable. Just around the corner I bumped into Claire, Nicola and Karen so we took a Stonehaven girls 30 mile selfie!
Out of Fort Augustus were some fairly steep hills and some ups and downs which really made my knee hurt a lot. My patience with this problem was wearing thin and I was so annoyed that this issue had sprung up completely out of the blue! At least I knew what the pain was (unlike at Loch Ness Marathon where I thought I’d torn a tendon or something) and that I could do walking intervals to keep moving, but it was so frustrating to think that my race would potentially take so much longer because of it.
I am proud to say that unlike the Cateran I was completely in control and whilst it had occurred to me that it could potentially be an injury that could see me DNF, I knew that even if I got to 40 miles and then had to walk the rest of the way that I would finish due to the generous cut-off times. I hit half way at 7hrs 50, so even if I walked at an injured 3 miles an hour I would finish under 20 hours. I was kind of annoyed that there was literally no excuses here and I was just going to have to slog it out; patience is not a virtue of mine.
It was in this section that I met Sharon and Fiona, two friends from Glasgow, who were running together and were very cheerful and chatty. We leapfrogged each other for pretty much the rest of the race and it was great to have some chatter to distract me from the pain. They were keen to fill me up with drugs and look after me but I was eagerly awaiting 9.45am when I could take my next dosage of codeine/paracetamol pills which had worked for a while but were wearing off.
I was trying really hard to stay positive but I was slipping into a low point as I ran into Invermoriston check point at 38.5 miles, where Kynon, Noanie and Johnny Fling had the place running like a fayre. I realised that I was a bit out of it as Kynon and Noanie asked me questions about what I wanted or how they could help and I couldn’t really get a proper sentence together. I managed to articulate that I needed Compeeds and that I felt really crap, but other than that I was in danger of entering into blubbering wreck territory. I had put a spare top and socks in my drop bag so changed into these, and applied some Compeed plasters onto the inside of my ankles. My new shoes (mens Asics Gel Nimbus – bought specifically for the race for their extra padding and roomy toe box) were supremely comfortable underfoot so far, but had decided to give me blisters where I’d never had them before. I thought I’d broken them in well, but you can never tell what obstacles will be thrown in your way come race day so I just strapped my feet up as best I could and got moving again.
Before I left, Kynon gave me a knee strap which Karen had left for me as she knew I was having difficulty with my ITB. She said it would stop the muscles moving so much and stabilise my knee apparently, so I decided to give it a go. As I was yomping up the steep switchbacks out of Invermoriston it felt ok, but there were a couple of rolling hills where stabs of pain radiated from me knee that were stronger than ever before. I immediately took the strap off as the extra pressure clearly wasn’t working for me, but the damage had been done and the pain was at another level. Thankfully it was time for some more painkillers and I decided just to walk for a while and forget about running until I got my head in a better place.
Up and up we climbed, out of Invermoriston and high above Loch Ness. I was able to look over the water to the roads on the other side and remembered running along them only two and a half years ago at my first marathon, with equal amounts of ITB pain. What was it with running towards Inverness and my right knee?! It really doesn’t seem to agree with it.
After a time I caught up with Sharon and Fiona again and we shared some peanuts and some chat. My painkillers had kicked in so after a few miles of walking I was ready to take advantage of the boost and move a bit quicker after the big climb was over. It was getting very hot again as it was nearer midday and the sun was out at full strength. I had drunk a lot of water again, but didn’t waste time refilling at Invermoriston (38 miles) as I still had lots at that point and expected a water stop to be at the advertised 45 miles. Unfortunately 45 miles came and went and it wasn’t until 48 miles came that myself and my new friend Darryl spotted an oasis shaped like a parked car, where we could refill our camelbaks and drink delicious cups of coke and Ribena. Thank you Mark and Helen Leggatt for being there – other than the finish you were the most welcome sight of the day! I also spoke to Steve who reassured us that the vertiginous descent into Inverness was not as bad as it looked on the course profile. Unfortunately he also confirmed that the next checkpoint would be in fact at 53 miles, not the advertised 50. The distance between the two checkpoints was pretty much the worst case scenario out of all the possible mileage points I’d been given on Friday, however there was not much to be done other than push on. It made no difference to the food I’d require as I was struggling to eat anything other than gels (and I didn’t even want to eat them!) but it was a blow to know it would be so much further until the next drop bag and general boost.
The next three miles were hot, sunny and on road – my least favourite kind of running. I pulled my white buff over my head to try and keep cool and stuck to the shade as much as I could, but I knew it wouldn’t last as there were lots of clouds about.
The descent into Drumnadrochit and Checkpoint 5 was cruel and my knee hated every step. Sharon, Fiona and Darryl passed me again and I tried to cling on, but their pace was just that bit quicker than mine and I couldn’t quite keep up with them. My mood had lifted a lot since CP4 as I knew I’d broken the back of the race and it was under 20 miles to go. Again, I knew I could walk it in and I’d get there eventually, so knowing that I would definitely finish was a huge boost.
Kynon was working at Drumnadrochit with Julie and Karen O, who were all still going strong. It has to be noted that the marshals put in a terrific shift as well – they may not have been running but they were up all night too, and dealing with tired and disoriented runners from sunrise to sunset.
I parked myself on a wall and Karen took my camelbak for a refill whilst I consumed as many liquid calories as I could. Real food just wasn’t going down well so I was thankful for Mars chocolate milk, Irn bru, Powerade and espresso. I just tried not to think about how it looked all mixed up in my stomach. I also brushed my teeth which felt amazing after 13 hours of sugary crap, then waved goodbye to Kynon, Julie and Karen’s little puppy Dug, and headed back out towards Inverness.
Sharon and Fiona and I posed for a picture with the first sign we’d seen showing Inverness, before I jogged on and they walked for a bit. This next section was on the pavement right next to a busy road with lorries and buses flying by which was quite unnerving. I ran past a bus stop with a bus going to Inverness waiting at it…the day could have ended so easily right there!
As I commenced the monster slog up the hill after Drumnadrochit I could feel my phone pinging in my pocket; I’d asked Kynon to get my friends to send me some encouraging texts to read in the last sections to keep my spirits up and I read one or two every mile or so. It was a great lift to hear from so many people – thank you so much. The climb out of Drumnadrochit was relentless and was nearly 1,200 feet of climb in 4.5 miles.
When I reached the top after emerging from the tree line, the route was now a bouldery trail winding through a rugged moorland, but with amazing views back over Loch Ness.
It had started to rain heavily and the wind was quite cold, so for the first time since the 1am start I conceded to the weather and put on a long sleeve top and my waterproof jacket. I knew that I was tired and sweaty and if I got wet I might struggle to warm up again if I wasn’t running hard. The last thing I wanted was to be pulled from the course with hypothermia – not what you’d expect in July, but entirely possible.
I had no idea where the final checkpoint would be – from the information I had it could be anywhere from 58 – 64 miles, but I was still surprised that out of the appearing out of the heat haze rising from the path (now the rain was off and the sun was beating down again) at 59 miles was some parked cars and the final check point.
Here I was welcomed by Elaine Sandeman and Fiona Rennie and I plonked myself down in a chair, deciding to take as long as I needed here. They asked if I was ok and I really was, but I think I was looking a little below par and didn’t do my best job of convincing them as I stared at my dropbag vacantly trying to figure out what I was looking at. I started by drinking the whisky I’d packed which went down a treat, especially followed by some Irn Bru. I then think I ate some chia charge bar and some Muller rice but to be honest my memory is really sketchy. I do remember deciding to save my last espresso can in case of an emergency so asked Elaine to pack it into my camelbak, and got on the move clutching a buttery which I really wanted to eat but could only stomach a tiny mouthful at a time.
I was really confused leaving the checkpoint as to how far I had left and my over-tired, overheated, over-caffeinated brain couldn’t handle it. I had 59 miles on the garmin, but the RDs had told the checkpoint that they were at nearly 62. Was there really only 10 miles to go? Was my watch that far off? I didn’t know what to believe any more. Never mind; just keep running.
Out of the check point we crossed a road and entered a really over-grown forest path which went through a nature reserve.
We then ended up back on the road where we slogged across moorland for miles in the sun. Thankfully Sharon, Fiona and Darryl caught me up again and we chatted for a while which passed the time. We’d been informed that due to the heat there would be one last water stop at 66 miles and before I knew it, I rounded a corner and Lorna and Carol Martin were bouncing around and cheering!
Lorna was very excited to tell me that she had a bottle of red wine in the car that she’d been saving for when I came through – she cracked it open and poured me a cup and it tasted delicious. What a shame I couldn’t stick around for more!
Sharon, Fiona and Darryl came through and I left behind them, but within 100 meters or so I just couldn’t keep up with them. It wasn’t like they were even moving very fast, but I just *couldn’t* run. I was annoyed as I would have loved their company in the last few miles but I just settled into a power walk and tried to move as quickly as I could to get the last 6 miles over and done with.
The last few miles were on soft, earthy, forestry trails and for the most part were slightly down hill but there was nothing that I could do to get myself going – I double dropped gels and took more painkillers but there was nothing left at all.
I was delighted when through a break in the trees I realised I was looking at Inverness! A little further on and the path went into a field and the view opened up – there was only about 2.5 miles to go and I’d finally be done. I could see the sea and saw that I had run from Coast to Coast across the country, which felt amazing.
I was still suffering from a lack of ability to move much faster than a walk though. It goes without saying that every step was absolute agony but I had long passed the point in ultras where pain becomes just an insignificant distraction. I was just exhausted. I put my iPod on shuffle and listened to the most upbeat songs I could find and tried to keep my spirits up, even when I thought I’d reached the edge of the city but in fact it was an Industrial estate on the outskirts and there was clearly still some way to go.
I shuffled through a housing estate and saw my first glimpse of the rest of the ‘real’ world for 17 hours – people with buggies who would not move and didn’t realise what an arduous and painful task it was to step down off the kerb and back up again, or dogs off the lead which were very excited to see me but who I was unable to dodge safely. I tried not to be annoyed though – this was a good thing because it meant I was nearly home.
The run ended as it started – with a stretch alongside the Caledonian Canal…
Part of me didn’t want the journey to end, part of me never wanted to run again and the rest was just so excited to see the finish. It was a delicious fusion of emotions and euphoria as I saw a bridge in the distance and noted that a figure had spotted me and was jumping up and down and waving. I took my ear phones out and saw it was Alice and Susan who were manning the final road crossing. There were quite a lot of cars so they carefully shepherded me and my spent Bambi legs across and directed me down a path which went through a hedge. I could see the orange running track through the foliage and knew that this was it – I was done.
As I stepped on to the track 200 meters from the finishing arch, the finish-line magic crept into my legs and relieved me of all pain and hurt. I was free to run strongly again and my legs extended far in front and behind me as if it was the first mile of the day. The shout of ‘RUNNER!’ echoed back to me and I saw people getting to their feet and starting to cheer, and Kynon, easily spotted in his yellow West Highland Way Race hoodie, stood under the finishing arch waiting for me with his arms wide open as usual.
Over the previous 72 miles I’d thought about how I might like to cross the finish line; with a jump? An air punch? Maybe even a heel-kick or a classic airplane finish, but in the end I was too exhausted to do anything other than grin like an idiot and keep pumping my arms back and forth until the end.
And then it was over. There were some hugs and I was handed my goodie bag, and I stumbled a few last steps towards the soft grass to sit down in the evening sunshine. Taking the weight off my feet and laying back on the ground felt amazing – it was so nice to be still for the first time in over 17 and a half hours.
After staying at the finish line for a while, drinking beer and speaking to friends, I gingerly walked the short distance from the stadium to the Campsite next door where we had booked a space for the van. I was able to shower and get changed and we headed to the nearby Brewer’s Fayre pub for a quick and plentiful meal with a crowd of others. I was feeling really light-headed and dizzy by the time we sat down and ordered so couldn’t wait for the food to arrive. Some of the others left before us and I was so grateful when Antonia offered me the remnants of her bowl of chips to tide me over! In the end I inhaled a double Quorn quarter-pounder with salad and chips and a side of macaroni and cheese and it didn’t even touch the sides. At first more beer seemed like a great idea, but I struggled to finish half a pint so it was straight home to bed, with one last stop at the finish to cheer in Helen, who was the gutsy final finisher in 21 hours 51 minutes as the sun set.
The next morning we made our way to the presentation at the Leisure Centre at 10am. Each finisher was congratulated and presented with a crystal whisky tumbler, and a little whisky miniature to christen it with.
Along with the beer bottle and Great Glen vest (or t-shirt – a choice was offered) the race provided a number of lovely keepsakes. My hard-earned tumbler is sitting proudly on our mantelpiece next to the Cateran 55 quaich, representing 6 months of very hard work and sacrifice.
At some point before the end of the year I’ll need to think about whether I would like to try and earn another one, or will the possibility of a West Highland Way Race goblet for the middle of the mantelpiece be too much of a pull? It was very special to be involved in the first running of this race, and now I’ve done it once I’d love to go back with experience and try to do better. It goes without saying that for the latter 12 hours of the race I was cursing myself and swearing I’d never, ever run another ultra let alone the West Highland Way, but of course that is all a distant memory now as my DOMS has gone and I feel ready to run again. Surely it can’t have been all that bad…?
Sitting in the King’s Highway on Sunday after the ceremony with my ultra friends, I reflected on how much had changed since the last time I had sat in that particular pub. Two and a half years earlier I’d been drinking there with Mike and our friends after the Loch Ness Marathon – my very first. Now thousands of miles later we found ourselves back there again, knocking back the beers in great company with some even bigger achievements under our belts (in case you didn’t know – Mike actually won the race on Saturday, in a time of 10 hours 48 mins 43 seconds). I never imagined I’d get this far, and to be honest the disbelief that I actually completed this race is still fading.
I don’t know what I’ll do next – whether that’s the West Highland Way Race, the Great Glen again, or even something different altogether. I’ll take my time with that decision and for the time being I will concentrate on building my mileage and general fitness back up so that I’m in great shape for Glenmore 12 hour race in 8 weeks time. In the meantime I have a couple of club hill races, a multi-terrain thing on Sunday and an exciting road trip to Lewis for the the Callanish Stones Marathon in 3 weeks planned with Rachel and Naomi. The rest of summer is looking good and I can’t wait to get back out there!