Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Great Glen Ultra 5 July 2014

This has to be the most accurate description of a race ever - "The Great Glen Ultra is one of Scotland's toughest running challenges."
(no shit Sherlock!!) I don't remember reading this when I signed up...
It was definitely my toughest running challenge to date, but what an amazing experience!  The newest event from the BaM stable, there was of course, the usual first class organisation balanced with a quirky sense of humour.  These guys (and their long suffering and supportive wives and families) sure as hell know how to put on a race!  Entry opened at the end of 2013 and plans were laid... but, "the best laid plans o' mice an' men gang aft agley"  I took a nasty tumble on my marcothon run of 5 Dec and although I didn't know at the time, I broke my leg, this took it's toll on my training.  I had a rough start to the year work-wise too and the associated stress didn't help.  This combined with having to DNS the first 3 races I had on the calendar for 2014 meant that my confidence took a huge knock too and I seriously contemplated withdrawing my entry for the Great Glen.  (I am so glad I didn't!)
As part of my training plan, John had planned a wee surprise for me, he had entered us both into the Dirty30, this race will get it's own wee write up in due course, even though it will be out of sync, but it is unfair to just mention it in passing as it was also a great weekend.  However I went into that feeling more than a little bit scared, as my running training to date had been almost non-existent.  Needless to say I survived and would go so far as to say I really enjoyed it and this is what swung my decision back in favour of giving the Great Glen 'a go'.
So, here goes... and remember, it's a long way!
Friday 4th July - after a week of drop-bag shopping and making sure kit was ready, we had the day off work so had a bit of a lie-in then packed the car and headed off to Inverness.  Stopping en route for a nice lunch in Aviemore we arrived at Bught Park campsite about 3.30pm.  Tent pitched, stuff laid out for later and it was time for a wee lie down, not a proper sleep, just time off our feet and some chilling.  At 6pm we headed across to the nearby Beefeater for some more food where we met Bill and Norry, had a catchup and watched Germany win their World Cup game. Once we were fed and watered we made our way back to the campsite to get organised and head for the bus.  Luxury coaches were organised to drive us to Fort William for the race start so about 9pm we headed across to the Leisure Centre where a wee crowd of similarly nervous and drop-bag laden runners was gathering.  Some weel kent faces were spotted and hugs dispensed as appropriate, there were many others whom we didn't recognise, with this being a new race and with it also awarding 3 UTMB qualifying points, there were a fair number of entrants from a bit further afield than our usual 'crowd'.  Right on cue the buses arrived and we all piled in, I was a bit nervous about this part as I'm not a great fan of travelling by bus, and the thought of yabbering nervous chit chat wasn't something I was looking forward to.  Whether it was the lateness of the hour and the knowledge that we'd a 2 hour journey ahead of us and still 3 hours to race start, or not I don't know, but I was grateful that the atmosphere on the bus was quiet and almost subdued so I was able to close my eyes and zone out for a fair part of the drive.  It had rained most of the day and forecast was for more rain but it was a beautiful evening and the views were lovely, in fact the skies were lighter at 10pm than they had been all day!  We arrived in the car park at the Moorings Hotel where the Drop-bag manager and his able assistant had their receiving area all set out with markers and big blue bags from a well known Swedish store for us to deposit our bags in.  One for each checkpoint and one for the Finish - more hugs and greetings here as some of the runners had opted to head straight to Fort William as that suited their logistics better.  The hotel had kindly allocated us their wine bar for registration and general pre race chilling, they then opened up the larger lounge upstairs as well which offered more space for runners to keep off their feet and just chill - this was really appreciated so Thank you!
Registration was as you'd expect, seamless, it was after all manned by Julie, Ada and Alice!  Medical forms exchanged for numbers and safety pins a few more hellos and hugs and then more time to just try to zone out or catch up with friends.
Midnight quietly ticked over and at 0030 we all headed out to the car park for the race briefing.  Bill led us across the canal in single file and we gathered quietly in nervous anticipation.  I was struck by how subdued the atmosphere was, again, it might have been nerves, it might also have been the lateness (earliness?) of the hour or may also have been an awareness of people being asleep in the hotel and few houses nearby, but it was a relatively quiet affair, Bill welcomed us all again, reminded us of the rules, no support - this was an unsupported race (hence the drop-bags) for various reasons, not least the impact on the environment, there weren't many accessible points and also because it was one of the conditions of the licence agreed with Highland Council, and most importantly, no falling in the canal :-)  The briefing was finished with 9 minutes to go until the 0100 start so Bill offered to recount some of his famous pirate jokes, but the company declined the offer.  There was some scurrying to and fro to bushes for last minute calls of nature or assuaging of nerves (that's when you don't really need, you just think you do!) I heard George say he'd been  doing a 'sweep of the toilets' to make sure the stragglers were out on time, personally I think that was taking his duties as sweeper a little too conscientiously!
A couple of minutes before the magic hour, a hush descended and the pack moved forward towards the start arch, Mike (I think) held the hooter aloft and after the customary 10,9,8... the hooter went and we were off!
I had a plan, I was going to stay at the back and run/walk and this is what I did.  There were a few supporters cheering us on in the first couple of hundred yards and taking photos and once we were past them all I settled at the back counting my steps to get myself underway.  George and Terry were sweeping the race taking it in turns to do a section at a time, they are both lovely guys, and I had spoken to them both after the WHW race and asked them nicely to 'just leave me alone' and promised if I needed them I would tell them - I have written before of my stressing about sweepers... Terry passed and checked that I was ok and then went off for a ride up the course to see how folks were doing, the line of headtorches snaking along the towpath was something to see, although it was dark it wasn't completely dark, there was light in the Eastern sky, but headtorches were required to help see the ground ahead. 
It's a long boring 6miles on the towpath to Gairlochy where you cross the bridge and start on the trail proper, Lorna and Gavin were here, directing folks and it was nice to see friendly faces as I headed off towards the spooky woods.
I'm glad we recce'd this part of the course, it's really lovely in the daylight, but in the dark it's quite different however I ran through it confidently and just before the end, stopped to take a photo of the sunrise at the end of the loch - it was 2;15am and it was sunrise!

I soon reached the next bit of road down past a few sleeping houses and then climbed up and down again to Clunes and checkpoint 1.
Checkpoint 1- 10miles (all distances are approximate - this will become clear later) Catriona and Mike Adams were here along with Fiona Rennie, George and Terry.  Mike checked my water levels while I downed an espresso shot and lifted some food to chomp on as I set off on the next leg.
I hadn't been on this section of the trail and didn't know what was ahead, an undulating forestry fire road which climbed towards the rising sun and Checkpoint 2 at South Laggan (20miles).  George came along on his bike, he told me that there was another lady just a wee bitty ahead of me and she was struggling, she'd been nauseous and wanting to drop out at Clunes but they suggested she walk to checkpoint 2 and see if she picked up with some food inside her.  Unfortunately she didn't recover and withdrew :-(  I trotted along quite comfortably, the only other living thing I saw being a small flock of sheep and lambs enjoying their breakfast at the side of the road.  About 16miles in I could see George ahead of me with someone, I assumed it was Catherine, but it was in fact Norry who was also suffering with throwing up and he too finished at checkpoint 2.  There were some stunning early morning views along the way - this one was taken by Colin Knox - thanks Colin!  Into checkpoint 2 (20miles) - this is the only place I got attacked by midges and they were vicious!  I think it was Scott who topped up my water here (or Graeme was here too) Thanks either/both!  Bill recorded my time and Carol popped out of the van resplendent in midgie net and I took more food with me said my cheerios and headed off up another little undulation.  I was quite happy eating my 'breakfast' as I yomped up the hill and settled into a run/walk rhythm as Terry rode off ahead on his bike for a bit.  I stopped at Invergarry for a minute or two to attach the charger to my watch to keep it recording for a few hours/miles more and climbed yet another big hill.  It was only slightly worrying when half way up Terry said to me, "I did this last year and i don't remember this bit"  It was a fair climb, but we were rewarded with some lovely downhill running down and down again til we reached the canal at Oich Bridge.  George was here, he told me that he'd seen John who was struggling and that it was a long flat towpath section ahead.  Eventually I arrived at Fort Augustus where Checkpoint 3 (30miles) was ably manned by Alice, Susan and Monica, they were wonderful as always, attentive and full of reassurance and giggles (no gin though! I suppose it was still a bit early...)
I paid a visit to a proper loo here and then headed off up another hill... George had gone ahead of me and was looking forward to a nice wee run for the next 8ish miles to Invermoriston.  Ray was just a little ahead of me and he is known for his poor navigation so George trusted me to follow the signs and he went on ahead.  Another cheeky climb up then back down again almost back to the main road and you set off up to Allte Criche(?)  I heard George call my name - "had I seen Ray?"  No, I hadn't passed him "bugger" or similar response... he'd been seen running along the main road so George had to go and get his bike and go off looking for him!  He found him and got him back onto the right track still a little ahead of me.  More ups and ups then a cracking run down a forestry road and in to Checkpoint 4 (39miles) at Invermoriston.  Johnny Fling and Noanie had this checkpoint setup like the Hilton, gazebo, cool box which doubled as a seat (thank you) an array of goodies on the table as well as my own dropbag and as always smiles and good craic.  I had passed Ray on the way into this checkpoint (he'd taken another wrong turn and I'd to point George after him..) however he headed out before me.  I had been struggling all morning with my asthma, I've been fine for months, but it kicked in with a vengeance and I was glad I carried my inhaler with me.  When I got into the checkpoint, Noanie was quite concerned about my breathing and I found out later wasn't keen to let me leave(!!!) however, an extra couple of puffs of my inhaler, some coke and a custard, a wee blether with her and an update that John was now flying (that was good to hear) and it was time for the off again.  Johnny Fling's parting shot was that there was a water station at the top of the hill, just 5 miles!  By now the sun was out and it was getting quite warm, I had recce'd this part too and I knew it was a monster climb on hairpins so I took it really really slowly enjoying the shade from the overhanging trees.  When I reached the top of the road, Ray was standing trying to decide which of the two arrows to follow so I called to him and he followed me.  I knew there was another wee bit of climbing and then a lovely downhill trail ahead so took it steady running and power walking along the fire road in a steady interval until we reached the right hand arrow down to the trail.  A few yards down, Ray stopped to water the grass and I ran past him, I was looking forward to this bit as I knew it went on and on and down and down, and I ran and I ran all the way to Allte Sighe.  I also knew from John that there was another big climb ahead so I gathered myself and set off up looking forward to the top and the water station.  It was boiling by this time and I was drinking a lot of water but feeling reassured that it would be topped up at the top of the hill.  5miles clicked over on my watch and a) I wasn't at the top of the hill,
b) there was nobody there,
c) there was no water!
A short while later I did reach the top of the hill to be met  by Terry on his bike who had come the other path over the top of the hill, "where's Ray?" he asked - this was becoming a familiar refrain...  I don't know I replied, I passed him at the start of the trail and he hasn't caught me.  Terry pointed me in the right direction for the next section and he set off retracing the trail to try to find Ray.  More climbing, then more climbing, and views like you get on postcards and calendars, but by then I couldn't get my sausage fingers to fumble with my phone so didn't take a photo.  Eventually 8miles after Invermoriston there was the very welcome sight of Helen and Mark Legget with another young man whose name I don't know.  A seat, a cup of coke, some friendly words - sad to hear that Mark too had had to withdraw.  Terry arrived having still not found Ray and plans were made between the Leggets and Terry to contact each other when he arrived at the water station or Terry found him first... I set off again with a spring in my step, thinking I'd only another 2 miles to go to Drumnadrochit and my next drop bag.  This is where the approximation of distances becomes important, I actually had another 5 hot sunny miles (first 3 of them on a hard road before I got to the checkpoint).  I was running down the road when George came by in his van, going to help look for Ray, then I turned off into a nice wooded path but it soon opened out again into bright sunshine - still very warm!  Eventually after more road I got to checkpoint 5 (53miles)and I was asked how I was feeling?  I'm F*cked I said absolutely F*cked.  Quick as a flash Bill asked what have you eaten?  Not much I admitted - this was my own fault - as I thought I'd only 2 miles to go I didn't bother eating when I left the Leggets, I should have.... Julie and Karen were lovely and they helped me to decide to eat some of the contents of my dropbag as well as a few of Terry's chips whilst dispensing TLC.  Graeme topped up my water for me and then we had an interesting discussion about 'talking out my arse' when I asked him to put batteries in my charger - which doesn't take batteries :-)  I said to Bill that I really didn't think I could climb another hill - everyone had spoken about 'the hill out of Drummi' and I was scared of what was to come and feeling tired it seemed worse.  However some friendly encouragement from Bill, some chips, couscous, a babybel and my tin of G&T and I wsn't for quitting.  George asked if I would like him to come with me over the hill and I said 'yes please', he went to get organised and I set off with a new lease of life and a spring in my step (it was the G&T that did it!)  George caught up with me on the road out of town - it's a long long way to the blue sign and the path but we turned off (still in the hot sunshine) and started to climb.  Okay, it's a bloody big hill!  I am really proud of myself as I climbed albeit slowly, all the way to the top and didn't stop.  George was always a wee bit ahead with words of encouragement and then an update that Karen had finished her race with a 46 minute PB, and that John had finished in an amazing time of 14hrs and 28 mins!  Still we climbed, up and up some little downs, then more ups.  Thankfully a lot of the time this was in the forest again so we had some respite from the sun.  The trail becomes an undulating fire road eventually and at long long last you pass the marker which states it's the highest point on the footpath.  George offered to take my photo here but I didn't want to stop as my legs were still moving and I didn't feel particularly photogenic so I politely declined.
A lot of fire road and we arrived at Checkpoint 6(62miles) where Angela had waited for me with a hug, a table of goodies and more encouraging chat.  Terry was also there and after I'd topped up and was ready to leave, he came along on his bike.  I hated this next bit of the route, the path is only about 12 inches wide and really overgrown as it passes through a nature reserve.  I found the overgrowing trees really claustrophobic so by the time I left that path I was feeling quite low, this wasn't helped with the next few miles being back on a road.  A road that went up (surprise!!) and occasionally slightly down, then back up...
Eventually we turned onto a nice wide bridle path which was softer underfoot and made a really pleasant change.  At the end of the path George was waiting to see if we needed extra water.  I was fine so kept on heading down the path, Terry called out to me to let me know that George was going to come the last 6miles with me but he would catch me up.  This section was beautiful, it was a long forest trail and lovely and soft underfoot, and almost all downhill!  It wasn't long until I could see the sea in the distance, and we turned away from it slightly, and Up again!  Eventually I could see Inverness  below me, I had a wee thought that I wasn't sure if I would have seen it from this point when I set off at 1am and it was a great lift to see it below, knowing that I'd pretty much made it home.  Another nice run downhill through some trees, a few horrid wee steps, more nice trail, then the sign that pointed to the canal!! When we'd said cheerio at the start, John had said 'try to be home before it's dark' At this point there was still plenty of daylight and I knew I was going to make that too - that was a great feeling!  As we trotted down the side of the fields towards the houses and the last mile, George pointed to the deer running through the long grass in the field - it was bonny, really dark red.  We soon turned into the edge of a housing estate and my heart sang, I'd been here before too and I knew it wasn't far to go!  Down the side of the golf course, up the steps!! (steps at this point in a race!!) and out onto the canal towpath.  Julie came bouncing towards us whooping and waving, John was on the other side of the canal shouting for a sprint finish (??!!!) Susan was also at the bridge - they were manning the road crossing all day and she'd stayed for me.  Julie saw me across the road, apologising that the kerbs were about 6inches higher than normal - they certainly felt it!! Then, it's the last turn on to a wee path towards the stadium, I started to run again here and I heard Susan say "I knew she was going to do that" she ran alongside me telling me to be careful at the gate as there was a large stone in the middle of the entrance.  Across the green carpet which they'd put on top of the tree roots and I was on the running track, only about another 200 metres to go!  I surprised myself by being able to run and to run all the way to the finish, even managing John's sprint finish! (well it's all relative!)  I was blown away by the crowd of people there to see me finish, cheering, clapping with the Proclaimers on the PA grins all round.  I'd done it, I'd finished the Great Glen Ultra, 72miles with lots of hills (10,800ft) in a respectable time of 21hrs and 51minutes.  I was and still am, absolutely delighted!!
Hugs, more hugs, my goody bag, a chair, shoes off, chocolate milkshake lots of congratulations and eventually we headed off back to the campsite.  I went for a shower then headed to bed a very happy old lady in her old lady tent.
footnote, they did find Ray, safe and well but he withdrew at Drumnadrochit.


  1. What an adventure...and kudos to tough it out.....love your writing.....

  2. Great read and well done on a great effort. Did you notice the eco coffee shop in the last section?

  3. You're one strong woman, what an amazing journey with much more to come

  4. What a triumph over adversity, Helen. I didn't know you'd had such a bad fall or a rough time of it with training, so this goes to prove over and over again that it's mind over matter for these races. I loved watching you sprint in for that finish which was so richly earned. Big well done once again xxx

  5. What a great account of the race Helen! You're amazing and an inspiration. Sprint finish??? Aw you've just got to love our men eh? But you did that too, well done! ��xx

  6. Well Done Helen, I knew you were having a tough time but I never doubted you would finish. xx