Having done the recce a few weeks back, I was pretty sure I was aware about what I was letting myself in for terrain-wise, but the Glencoe Marathon itself, organised by WildFox Events, made me appreciate the difference of covering the route on foot rather than on a bike!
The weekend started with an early Saturday morning awakening and hitting the m-ways up to the highlands of Scotland. The drive itself was uneventful with me crossing the border a shade under 5 hours in to the journey and within 7 I was alongside Loch Lomond. The drive was made a bit better by the fact I’d splashed-out on a DAB radio for the van and fitted it the previous evening, so I had crystal clear receptions for pretty much the whole distance bar a few small patches in the borders.
Driving through Loch Lomond and the weather was such that you had sunshine and showers simultaneously - with rainbows crossing the Loch from one side to the other as a bridge of light, something pretty spectacular to behold.
After around 8 hours I reached Fort William and stopped to pick-up some provisions for the next 24 hours and some headphones as I had lost mine. Realising that the time for registering was upon me, I was just walking out of Morrisons back to the van when I was accosted by an American voice asking if I was running tomorrow.
I answered in the affirmative and turned to see a lady fresh off the bus with her suitcase looking a little bewildered about where things were to be found! She inquired of me where the registration was, so I told her it was about a 2 mile walk to get there, and saw her face sink - so I did the decent thing and offered her a lift to there seeing as that was where I was heading… And in taking a big leap of faith of getting into an unmarked van with a strange gentleman, she accepted the lift!
My passenger was Theresa Majeed, a Colorado native studying for her Doctorate in Management at the University of St. Andrews. Since arriving she has got back in to her distance running whilst based over here and had recently completed the Clyde Stride Ultra.
Signed-in to the race, I dropped Theresa off at her hotel in Fort William an headed in to the town centre for some nose-bag, chowing-down on a freshly ground steak beef burger with cheese and bacon all washed down with a pint of local ale in the Grog & Gruel. Hunger sated I drove back to the event base of the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre and parked-up for the night, having a read of a mag and another ale before hitting the sack... Does beer and chips count as pre-race carb-loading?
Up at sparrow's fart the next morn, I changed and prepared myself as much as I could for the race before climbing aboard the bus for the journey to the start of the Red Squirrel Campsite just outside Glencoe Village and from here it is a linear run back to the finish back at Fort William.
Sitting next to me for the journey was a lady called Katharine, a very outdoorsy A&E doctor who had been entered in to the race by her friends, and most importantly (or should that be surprisingly?) they were still her friends, although I reckon judgement was reserved on this till after the finish! In her spare time amongst the kayaking and rock climbing she is involved with mountain rescue and has been on the medical staff for the Edinburgh marathon amongst other sporting events. Naturally I told her about my fall off Ben Nevis and I was chastised for not getting my cheek-bone checked-out, especially as it is still sore, as if it needed it could have been operated on to strengthen it with a plate to help it heal as it should do… I’m kind of glad I just left it to heal naturally as that sounds all a bit drastic!
Naturally we spoke about the weather predictions for the day and Katharine said that some of her friends who were out in the Cairngorms have been texting her regaling of the snow, sleet and hail they had experienced over the last 24 hours - more to wind her up than anything else though!
|The view from the campsite... Now to me that sign looks like a challenge!|
|Not bad scenery to look at as you wait.|
After the safety briefing we were split in to our waves which had been assigned when we registered based on predicted finish times, this was done so as to take the strain off the marshals manning the road crossings so a steady stream of people will need to cross rather than everyone at the same time!.. The waves were given name: Gazelle, Antelope, Wildebeest and Hippo. I was in the 3rd wave with the other Wildebeest - which was a fair assessment seeing as I tend to finish in the 3rd quarter of races.
After watching the first two waves hare-off at 10 minute intervals soon it was our turn. I lumbered out towards the back of the herd of wildebeest as the piper decided to send us off with a tune whilst standing under the start banner… The poor lad was standing right in the way of everyone and was nearly stampeded by this herd of rampaging Wildebeest!
Climbing the short sharp hill out of the campsite we hit the road, this initial climb and the other short sharp hills on the road were a biatch and I found myself moving back through the pack on the ups and moving forward on the downs whilst breathing out of my arse in recovery. As the road levelled off I found my rhythm just as we found ourselves at the first road crossing… With it being so early in the morning the road was clear so I did not have to wait for traffic and once over the road we were on the trail, winding our way through the Glen of Coe proper.
|Let the fun begin!|
|Single file running on single track.|
After 5 miles we reached the first checkpoint where I grabbed a Tunnocks Caramel Log from the very well stocked aid-station… I used to love these when I was growing up, so it was a real boost to see some and being able to savour the delights of it as I carried-on away from the aid station.
From here to the Devil’s Staircase where we join the West Highland Way it was more of the same underfoot, plenty of heathery boggy nastiness that made me lose my trainer 3 times over the two miles it took to reach the end of this first part and the climb up the staircase and I watched at one point as a runner alongside me disappeared up to her knees with a squeal of surprise!
God I hate hills, I find them a right slog, and at least this time I knew what was in store for me as I started to climb the ‘Staircase. Realising it was drizzling, and whilst slowed to a mere walk from the incline I took the judgement call to stop and put on my rain jacket to keep me dry and to protect from the wind - progress up would be slow and getting all the more exposed and with the rain bound to be heavier the higher you go, my core temperature was bound to lower significantly if I did not cover up.
|Looking up from half way.|
Head down and resisting as hard as I could the urge to look up and see how far was still to climb, I power-walked up the mountainside, every so often taking time to turn and enjoy the views around me. At around half way up we were serenaded by a piper - I’m not sure if he was out there to practice where the neighbours don’t complain, or to encourage us to run away from him all the faster, but it was a welcome sight and sound nonetheless!
|Cat strangling along the route.|
|Looking down the 'Staircase.|
|Looking back down along Glencoe from where we had come.|
This running to me is like crack, the kind of running I live for on one of these marathons - a fast flowing chewing of the terrain - all the slight up hills are well absorbed by momentum as the 5 miles of descent just seemed to sail past. It was amusing seeing people carefully picking their way over rocks and side-stepping down parts as I galloped by them as they stared at me in disbelief, in much the same way I look at them when they steam by me when it comes to going up hill!
By the time I reached the bottom of the hill at Kinlochleven, my knees were screaming at me for a rest from the pounding I had just given them, especially over the last mile of very steep drop on the forestry path from the start of the tree-line to the hydro plant, so in a way the change of terrain was a welcome respite as all of a sudden it seemed you transitioned from a 45 degree descent to total flat.
|Nearly at the bottom.|
Crossing to the north side of Kinlochleven and rejoining the West Highland Way brought the dubious pleasure of the climb-up the mountainside to the plateau of the Mamores. Trying as hard as I could to keep going forwards and not stop, countless people passed me but it did not faze me, as at least this time round I was not pushing the dead-weight of the bike up the hill before me and there was a damned-site less humidity under the trees than in August. I took the time to eat and take on more liquid as it took my mind off the ascent… As the switch-backs on the path began I knew I was approaching the top and soon after being passed by a group of around 10 runners I hit the clearing just under the summit and the cooling breeze. The entire group that had overtaken me not long before were all in a state of near collapse on the rocks there, using the spot as an impromptu aid-station, with others of us fellow runners stopping as well to catch our breath and admire the view and marvel about how far (and high up and down) we had come to get here as jelly babies and crisps were passed around!
|I think the body language speaks volumes!|
|Looking back where we had come from... Over them little hills.|
I didn’t stop for long here, just enough to shotgun a couple of glasses of electrolyte, but it was long enough to see something that reminded me to respect where I was and what I was doing: Lying down in the back of the aid-station’s tent in a survival bivvy-bag was a runner who had not been lucky today… Those manning the aid station were trying to keep him warm no doubt as they waited for outside help in getting him off the mountain pass, and I hoped it was nothing too serious for the fella on the floor looking sorry for himself all huddled-up in the bag, hopefully he was just caught-out with a twisted ankle on one of the loose rocks rather than getting himself in trouble with hypothermia, after all this was the most remote part of the course and with the chill on the wind and some rain it could easily catch-out the unwary and ill-prepared as fatigue grips the body and slows you down. It brought-home to me that going out and doing this kind of running does carry an inherent risk and the compulsory kit lists are certainly there for your benefit in case of anything like this happening… You just do the best to ensure that it doesn’t happen to you and always check on someone who has stopped by the side of the trail just in case!
Feeling good from the run to the aid station I set-off again at a similar pace to before, trying to hold the people in front of me at a constant distance as I got in to my groove, then slowly reeled them in one at a time. Soon I spotted high on the slope to my right the first tree I had seen since Kinlochleven, which was signalling the beginning of the end of the plateau, the trail beginning to take a more noticeable downturn and before long we went through the corral for the sheep when they are herded on and off the mountainside, and ran down through a strip of woodland.
|That first tree for a long time.|
Speaking of aid stations, the final one was upon us with the option of a cheese board amongst other edible delights! Now I love my cheese, but unfortunately it wasn’t the time nor place for me today, so I had a quick drink and was told that whilst they had no pies they’re waiting at the finish!
This last quarter of the run is characterised by plenty of short sharp climbs and descents mostly through long grassed gaps between strips of managed forestry land, as well as a run through a mature pine forest where you descend to cross a stream before heading onwards once more… This sequence comes to an end at mile 24 when you hit the forestry path and the trail winds sharply down along the access road to the bottom of the mountain and the end of the race, so you rationalise that the hard running finishes when you hit that path… So only 4 miles of suffering to endure.
As I ploughed-on through the section, truly doing mind over matter as I was struggling with these sharp steep hills even if they were mercifully short I managed to catch and pass some of the runners in the half-marathon. This really raised my spirits, however from seeing their pace I knew they were the slowest ones at the back of the field, so got back to concentrating on my own run.
I found myself in with another couple of runners as we made our way through the last couple of miles of the undulations, the three of us keeping our spirits up, talking of the forestry road as if it was some magical path paved with gold leading us all to the promised land… Eventually we found ourselves on it, and in a state of collective disbelief!.. We had come 24 miles, all that lay before us was a continual descent of just shy of 1,000 ft over 2 miles to the marquee we could just about see on the horizon way below… It felt like the end of the run was now, well I suppose in fact it was as all we needed to do was coast all the way down to the finish line, which is exactly what the 3 of us did at our own speed, catching and passing some more runners of the half and full in the process.
|The way down to the finish, which was the white block just above the path.|
|Running through the tall spruces, the runner in front gives a sense of scale.|
|The trees behind.|
As I approached the finish line to the claps of those assembled and the music over the tannoy, the PA announced my name and number and the comment that “he must be sponsored by a pie company wearing a shirt like that”… Smiling to myself I crossed the line, was presented with the pretty funky wooden finishers medal and staggered in to the marquee in front of me to be greeted with the sight of the post-race catering in full swing serving pie and beans with coconut water to wash it down. The marquee was full of the exhausted and the smiling, all of those who had finished the full and half distances with friends and family in attendance as a bit of a party atmosphere was happening.
|What I'm running for ;)|
I had a quick freezing cold shower to try and feel a bit more human, changed and made my way off to grab something substantial to eat… I say substantial, I ended up grabbing a MaccyD’s and dear god it was minging… I had to fight my way through every mouthful of the Big Mac, forcing myself to eat it… I think it was because of the proper burger I had the night before, the wonderful taste of that still on my mind making me realise how inferior the mass-produced crap served-up by that fecking clown really is - don’t get me wrong, their sausage & egg McMuffin is awesome, but I can now see myself never eating another thing off their daytime menu!
Extremely unsatisfied I decided to head-off sharpish to get to Loch Lomond. The previous day I saw there was a sign stating the road would be closed from 7pm till the morning due to the ongoing roadworks improving the A road that runs along the loch, so I needed to leave immediately or I would be trapped north of Loch Lomond for another 12 hours!
Once through the roadworks I pulled-up in a lay by and lay down for a few hour’s kip to recover before continuing the drive home, a drive that was pretty uneventful… That was until I got off the motorway 10 miles from home at 3:30 in the morning, when the clutch on the van gave-out, leaving me stranded there on the roundabout over J11 of the M4, and waiting for a recovery truck to take the stricken van off to my garage for repair.
I was dropped-off there by the recovery truck at 4:30 in the morning, so I thought better of calling LSS at this time, so had a couple of hours kip in the back before waking at the time I knew she would be getting-up, so she could come and rescue me… At least the clutch held-on till nearly home, rather than giving-out in Renton, just north of Glasgow, when I noticed there was a bit of difficulty moving through the gears!
This marathon has been my favourite one so far, the atmosphere was unbelievably friendly, he event was very well organised, the aid stations bountiful in choice and quantity of food, even if I could not quite bring myself to indulge in the cheese-board 3/4 of the way through the run, however the undoubted star of the run was the scenery - where you are able to run up and down and between mountains, and at times look back and truly see the distance, ascent and descent you have traversed. Something that a point-to-point run affords a greater chance of you being able to do, rather than a lot of the looped or circuitous courses that marathons tend to be.
Time wise, I had set myself a target of 6 hours and was very happy to cross the line in 5:41 to place 244/417. Incidentally, the time it took me to cycle the same distance took 4:56, so when it comes to the extreme terrain, its not too much slower to run it than ride it… And I’d recommend anyone give the Glencoe Marathon a go… Yes its a tough one, but this means its one you can feel proud in conquering and be pretty secure in the knowledge that there won’t be many harder ones out there.