Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

27th July: Fort William Marathon

It was a long drive up to Fort William, the self proclaimed outdoor capital of Scotland, if not Britain, for the latest leg of my trail marathon oddyssey (oddity?).

This highland town is one of my favourite places to be and I would happily move there in a heartbeat if circumstances allowed, so when I heard last year that they were holding their inaugural marathon I entered it in a thrice.

The course is centred on the Nevis resort ski centre, with the first section coincidentally on trail I had run along last year on the way back to my holiday gaff having face-planted off the side of Ben Nevis, with the rest of the route looking quite straight-forward and surprisingly not very hilly given the surroundings!

I drove the 10 hour journey up on the Saturday (thanks to roadworks and traffic-jams it took an extra 2 hours more than it should) in time for the pre-race ceilidh being held in the Snow Goose restaurant at the top of the gondola.

The race organisers had arranged this as an easy £20 up-sell (for the gondola ticket and food) when booking your race entry, as it took away one of the unknowns when you arrive, that of where to get some scran and avoid a last resort visit to an establishment that pedals nutritionally dubious food promoted by a clown if you’re unable to get a table anywhere else.

Looking up from the cable car at the restaurant.
The view down from the cable car.
Soaking up the sights from the cable-car I marvelled at the changing view that follows the route of the UCI World Cup downhill MTB course over the ten minute ascent and emerged at the top able to see a small patch of snow still on the north side of the mountain.

The lonely patch of snow.
Wandering in to the Snow Goose I joined the queue for what transpired to be a very underwhelming meal… For our troubles we were given a meagre plate of pasta, a slice of garlic bread and a soft drink - without second helpings on the pasta to help fill you up. The view for the meal was probably the best I have had though, so after finishing my plate (it didn’t take long) I wandered around the restaurant’s veranda taking pictures and chatting with some fellow runners. A good plan for the meal would have been to offer ‘bottomless plates’ so with the small size of portions people could have second (or third) helpings as pasta in a tomato sauce with mince (I chose the carnivore option, there was also a veggie one) is not the most expensive to provide or complicated to prepare.

With the dinner eaten there was no point in hanging around any longer, so I descended on the cable car and headed back to Fort William itself for some more food, stopping for a pint in the Grog & Gruel before grabbing a portion of chips to tide me over till the morning. Hunger finally sated as the sun disappeared behind the mountains I kipped for the night parked in the ski centre car park, all ready to waken the following morn next to the start line.

Awake and breakfasted, registration was a simple straightforward affair in the resort cafe, and the queue for the toilets was not too bad (it does help if you are not leaving it to the last minute though).

One of the sponsors of the race was Smidge, the insect repellent company who were offering a free basting in their product to anyone who wanted it - well it seemed churlish not to take them up on their offer, as from experience a plague of the little biting feckers can be pretty annoying, so I went over to lard-up with it, and bumped in to a familiar face from last time I was up here: Theresa Majeed, fresh from winning an ultra over in the Irish Republic and newly engaged, so I was able to offer congratulations to her and her trail running fiance in person.

All the runners were champing at the bit ready to start!
Soon we were all corralled at the start and sent on our merry way… Uphill through the trees on the fire-break roads of Leanachan Forest, before hitting a clearing where we had the Grey Corries overlooking us on our right. The first couple of miles are essentially a steady steepish climb before there’s a slight drop to offer some respite to fatigued calves before the climbing recommences and we reach the highest point of the course just shy of 5 miles in to the run.

The Grey Corries overlooking us.
Playing 'follow the leader' through the clearing.
On this stretch I bumped in to one of the runners I had spoken with last night, who was also underwhelmed by the meal and their party too had returned to Fort William to seek more fodder in the form of a substantial dessert!

Leanachan forest is a managed environment that has reached maturity, so the timber is now being harvested before re-planting, so running along the fire-break roads on this high-point of the course you were looking down at times over a site of desolation: where once stood firs now lay just torn tree stumps. 

All warmed-up with the 5 miles of climbing, we were able to breath, relax and make the left turn down towards the valley bottom, encountering our first road at seven miles as we ran along above the river Spean, hearing it tumbling over the boulders that form its bed a good 30ft down the embankment next to the road.

The river flowing below the road.
A short detour back in to the forest and we soon hit the village of Spean Bridge where having been well marshalled across the A road (one of the main roads linking the west and east sides of the country), we crossed the bridge that gives the village its name and headed off on the path following the undulating bank of the river till we found ourselves on the dismantled railway bed of the former Invergarry to Fort Augustus line. From here we passed the remains of Highbridge and moved away from the river towards the Commando Memorial.

The remains of High Bridge.
On the moorland approaching the aid station in the sight of the statue, amongst the other spectators, there was a gathering of some women of pensionable age all cheering us runners on and ringing cow bells! I noticed that a couple of them were sporting red maple leaves on their cheeks, so I figured there must be a Canadian connection (an absent great-grandfather is Canadian) which made me smile all the more.

Don't fancy living in the palindrome of this place!
Down the road to Gairlochy.
From this water stop where my shirt got plenty of laughs and love from the assembled support it was downhill along the road passing through the hamlet of Mucomir and alongside the hydro plant before hitting Gairlochy and the start of the plod along the canal tow-path. Upon reaching this point I had a look at my Garmin and realised I was easily on course for a PB - in fact I was nudging into sub 4 territory if I wanted to push myself till I dropped… Trying to use my loaf for once and thinking of next weekend and the Peak Skyrace I made the conscious decision to slow down so as to not ruin myself for that run.

Starting the 'beasting session' along the canal.
The Nevis Range, the Spean River and the Caledonian Canal in one shot (just)
Another canal user.
Along the canal there was plenty of yo-yo ing of positions as some people found it harder than others before they discovered a second wind and were able to get their running mojo back on track. A big surprise was at the mid-point water station, which was manned by someone from Portsmouth whose nephew turns out to live about 7 miles from me… Small world and all that!

M for 'muff'?
The high end of Neptune's Staircase.
Once at the end of the canal, turning off the tow path at Neptune’s Staircase it was a jog on the country lanes, giving a very excited little girl a high-five as I ran past. We skirted the northerly edge of Fort William, passing the ladies with their cow bells again and began the climb out towards Torlundy on the cycle path next to the A road.

Back in to the forest.
Reaching the turn for Torlundy we made our way back on to the forestry roads leading back in to the Ski centre… And it was here that I saw the most bizarre sight I have witnessed in 42 marathons: In the middle of nowhere there was a family out walking their 2 dogs… and their cat! The cat was merrily plodding along like the dogs, sometimes behind the group, others in front. The poor thing must have had an existential crisis and believed itself to be canine rather than feline!

Here kitty-kitty!
Into the last mile now and running through the last stretch of forest we crossed the finish line with the music blaring over the PA system and plenty of cheering runners and supporters in a good-old party atmosphere.

Considering it was an inaugural event, there seemed to be plenty of supporters gathered along the course specifically at the aid stations and other easy access points for spectators, such as at Neptune’s Staircase. I couldn’t fail to notice that a fair chunk of the days runners had also, like me, run in last October’s Glencoe judging by the number of shirts on display!.. And speaking of shirts, the finishers one is particularly classy with a very good simple design on the front and the ‘swag’ was great, including a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer (the best chocolate bars in the world) and a miniature from the local Ben Nevis Distillery.

The aid stations were perfectly placed and well stocked with amongst other things a bountiful supply of High5 gels - my go-to of choice in that department at present and the course was well marked and easy to follow. The surroundings are superb (which was a given anyway considering the locale) so there was always something good to look at - although I did find the canal section a bit of a relentless slog as you just had to find a rhythm and tick-on like a metronome. The course is probably the quickest ‘trail’ one I have run along with the pancake-flat Portsmouth Coastal which has a similar blend underfoot (around 8 miles was on the metalled tow-path and about another 6 on roads/ pavement does help to speed things up) and even with throttling back from hitting the canal and even more over the last 10k to save myself for next week’s ‘A’ race in Buxton I was still able to post my 4th fastest marathon time without feeling I had made any major effort.

Will I be back? Yes, as it gives me a reason to get up to Fort William again and I’m intrigued as to what time I can lay-down if I am not saving myself for a particularly tough 30 miler the following week! It was a lovely course, well organised and well supported and the fellow competitors were lovely and cheerful and very willing to chat - it will probably be an event that is really taken into its heart by the town over the next couple of years… Not too sure about the pre-race ceilidh though. If it was on a bottomless plate basis then that would be fine, but if it is to continue in the same manner then you’re probably just as well rewarding yourself with a ride up to the Snow Goose on the gondola for a post-race beer with a view!

Only a week for the legs to recover before the Peak Skyrunner!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

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