Just getting to the start line seemed like an achievement for me in this year’s Glencoe Marathon, an epic trail run over the pass of Glencoe over into the foothills of Ben Nevis.
I’d tackled the route for the first time last year and, against my better judgment, signed up again for the 2017 event which took place on Sunday.
But a couple of weeks before the race my back decided it was going to cease up. Never mind running a gruelling marathon over some serious hills, I found myself literally hobbling a few hundred metres around the block a few times each day just to try to get my muscles working again.
It was time to call in some real help, so I visited Inverness osteopath David Carter several times before being able to move freely enough for a gentle trial run. I was given the go-ahead to start the marathon but knew “taking it easy” would be my mantra as we headed off from the Red Squirrel campsite just outside the village of Glencoe.
My brother Iain, who I had run the whole route with last year, was soon striding off into the distance and my Highland Cross team-mate Kristina was running her own race somewhere behind us.
As well as a massive physical challenge, this was going to be a long mental battle to complete the 26.2 miles – and to top it all we were running into a storm.
Along with around 450 other marathon runners, I followed the road past the Clachaig Inn and across the A82 to take the “old road” up the glen. This is a bit of a misnomer, as the old road is now bits of path and track followed by a couple of miles of deep, wide bog.
It is only at moments likes this that you crave what lies ahead – the climb to the top of the 548m Devil’s Staircase, on a real, solid, rocky mountain track.
The views back to Buchaille Etive Mor were drowned in a cloak of cloud and rain but the scenery has a dramatic feel regardless, especially as we battled through the rain and wind.
The Glencoe Marathon Gathering – an event which also hosts a half marathon and 10k – has the feel of an ultra marathon, so walking is very much an accepted part of getting to the finish line. I managed to run some of the way up the staircase but, compared to 2016, I was feeling the pain, making the long descent to Kinlochleven a slow and cautious one – which was perhaps just as well given the wet and loose rocks on the way down.
I headed to the feed station at the halfway point and stuffed a handful of crisps and jelly babies into my mouth – yes, at the same time. An odd taste but surely an acceptable way to get some salts and sugar into the system for the remainder of the race!
Jogging through the village I saw my sister-in-law and nephews – Iain was, to my surprise, only 10 minutes or so in front of me. I checked my watch and realised I was pretty much on a par with last year’s time to this point.
However, I wasn’t getting ahead of myself. I still had to keep my back in working order and complete another tough half marathon yet!
The next stage is a beastly 300m climb into the Lairig Mor. Remembering the hard time I had last year from here to the finish, I decided to walk most of this climb, only jogging a couple of short stretches when I felt able.
The path joins a rough vehicle track that undulates through the long glen, gaining more height as it does so. I felt I was running – and I use the term more loosely from here on in – more than I was at this stage last year, but it was still a struggle.
I was glad of a stop at the feed station beside the old ruin, where I ditched my water in exchange for some energy drink – a wise move that helped me through the rest of the race.
Over the next few miles I got chatting to a chap who had run the Loch Ness marathon the week before and was running an ultra the next weekend. It really took my mind off the toll of miles that lay ahead, and I found myself really enjoying the run and the company. I was taken by surprise when he slowed and allowed me to continue running, and it wasn’t long before I reached the final feed station at mile 21 or thereabouts.
“Here, have some hot fruit punch!”
There wasn’t much choice in the matter as the cup was thrust into my hand, but my insides approved of the heat, having spent the last four hours drenched to the skin with the only warmth provided from my own running. I swear that punch had a kick to it, but I definitely avoided the port and cheese on offer again here!
Looking at the clock, I was pleased to see that even a long walk from here would get me back inside six hours – not bad considering the circumstances and not far off my five hours, 31 minutes of last year.
But, despite the pain and miserable weather, I was enjoying this now. The route has a couple more climbs left in its tail and I took them gently but with increasing confidence, allowing myself to walk the steepest bits and getting going again as soon as I could.
The sky even showed a little bit of brightness and, ever so briefly, a faint rainbow appeared on the foothills of Ben Nevis ahead.
I remembered the top of the forestry track that marked the end of the final climb from last year, so I decided to up the pace from there and realised I could even beat my time. It’s still a couple of miles downhill to the finish but when you hear the noise from the finish area you know you have almost made it.
Exhausted but elated, I crossed the finish line in five hours, 17 minutes. Iain had come in eight minutes ahead of me, and Kristina finished with the biggest smile ever in 5.50.
And the back? Well, I can walk round the block without hobbling now, so things are looking up!
Distance 26.2 miles / 42km
Terrain Off road marathon over paths, hill tracks and bog, with more than 1600m of ascent
Start/finish Starts at the Red Squirrel campsite in Glencoe, finishing near the visitor centre in Glen Nevis
Maps Harvey Ultramap XT40 Glencoe and Ben Nevis, both 1:40,000
A challenging off-road marathon through some of the Highlands’ most dramatic scenery
Glencoe Marathon Gathering winners
Marathon – male: Ian Porter, 3 hours 47 minutes 0 seconds; female Fiona Craft, 4.11:47.
Half marathon – male: Denis Prikulis, 1.34:44; female: Sarah Balancier, 1.47:56. Over 70s: Ronald Will, 3.32:32. Over 50s: Carolyn McLeod, 1.50:38.
The 10k was won by Inverness woman Amy Hudson in a time of 56:24.
* Full results and more information at www.glencoemarathon.co.uk
* Article first published in Active Outdoors | October 6, 2017