The more times you do the Highland Cross, the more you understand the community behind this huge annual effort. Turning up on the day to run and cycle 50 miles across the Highlands is probably the easy bit – and certainly the most fun.
The weather was kind to us on Saturday, a perfect window of sunshine and a light westerly breeze – just enough to keep the midges away – without too much heat during the run.
As the elite athletes at the front darted off through Gleann Lichd, the rest of us duly followed along the rough track that offers runners a good warm up before the big climb past the waterfall.
Those attempting to keep their feet dry by avoiding the many puddles and occasional burns found their efforts were in vain, as the course was so wet underfoot and even on a dry day nobody gets across without soggy socks!
I plunged right in, using the opportunity to make up a few places here and there. My wife Meg and I were running together this year, but I had some catching up to do on the hill so had to use any opportunity to overtake on the climb. This wasn’t an easy task with the narrow path that twists and turns as it rises to 300m or so above sea level, but I was feeling at home out in the hills.
Once above the main climb, the terrain changes to an undulating passage to Camban bothy at more or less the seven-mile point. The bothy is manned by the Scouts and I stopped for a blether with their leader, who had promised me a G&T on the way past but backtracked when I asked where it was!
The Scouts walk to the bothy from Athnamulloch on the Friday night in order to get their water station set up in the morning. They had the perfect evening for their adventure this year, celebrating the longest day of the year in style.
This group is just one of so many that contribute to the Cross each year, manning water stations, providing first aid and mountain rescue cover, handing out medals, assisting at the transition, making delicious food at the end and so much more.
Our descent from Camban to the youth hostel at Alltbeithe was good fun, making our way down the rough, loose stones on the track then crossing the river at the bottom. The flat stretch through the glen was a good opportunity to catch up with some familiar faces and enjoy this wild place before the next stage to Athnamulloch.
In the past I’ve struggled – mentally as much as anything – with the hills on this part of the course but today I was happy to keep running as we made good progress, overtaking a few walkers by now and thinking ahead to the infamous Yellow Brick Road.
This was the sixth time I’d done the Cross and perhaps I’ve now finally come up with a strategy to tackle the course. There’s no avoiding the fact that it involves consistent training on this sort of terrain, though, and a good few very long runs.
But I got a reality check when I saw former RAF veteran Duncan Slater from Muir of Ord, a double amputee who was injured by a roadside bomb in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2009. He was looking strong just a few miles from the end of his long walk as I ran past. It put my efforts into perspective a bit, as well as reminding me of the reason this event exists – to help those in the Highlands disadvantaged by disability, ill health or social need.
Along the Yellow Brick Road – the part of the course that runs from Athnamulloch to the road end in Glen Affric – I found I could actually keep running at a fairly decent rate. I even picked up the pace at the end of the road stretch to catch up with an old running friend before transition; that’s something I have never been able to even contemplate on any of my previous five Crosses.
Meg and I did a fairly quick transition, grabbing a quick bite to eat and in my case changing into my cycling shoes. We rode through Glen Affric together and we seemed to be going pretty well, soon finding ourselves at the Fasnakyle brae where I tucked in for a fun descent to the power station.
We regrouped at Cannich and headed on through Strathglass but we got separated after I overtook a handful of riders, so decided just to do our own thing to reach Beauly. For me it was time to pick up the speed a bit and this is where knowing the course well helps, too. There are a couple of hills in the ride but nothing significant, so if you can push yourself at this stage you can definitely pick up a few places.
After the Aigas and Kilmorack climbs I noted the giant lizard on the side of the art gallery, knowing that from here to the finish the only climb is the hump-back bridge over the railway line! As always, it’s a great feeling to reach Beauly and I enjoyed a quiet run through the village into the Square.
Meg wasn’t far behind as she came in, vowing never to do the Cross again – but already she is planning her tactics for next year’s event. It just proves that once you’ve become part of the community of the Highland Cross, there’s no escape!
- Thanks to Robin McConnell for the use of his excellent photos again in our Active Outdoors feature and in this post. Click here to see Robin’s event photos which are available to purchase.