This was definitely the hardest hill run I have ever attempted and in terms of mph, the slowest. However, I can still almost walk today and am quite chuffed at having survived without any permanent damage (so far) and I am feeling quite ‘achieved’.
The Arrochar Alps epic is about 15 miles in length and starting from Arrochar (to the west of Loch Lomond) takes in four munros – Ben Vorlich, Ben Vane, Beinne Ime and Beinne Narnain. Being some of the furthest south munros, they are quite grassy except near the tops but are exceedingly steep and the climbs are monstrous.
I had originally planned to do the Glenshee 9, but it doesn’t seem to be organised this year, and the ‘next best’ run was obviously Arrochar. I had also planned to do some more proper hill walking in preparation, but had managed only Ben More and Stob Binnein back in April. I found to my cost that running even 14 miles in the Pentlands on a few Saturdays is not adequate training for these huge mountains.
Anyway, after a longish drive via Glasgow of 1 hour 45 mins, I arrived at the Arrochar car park and looked around for the sign-on. Amongst the scores of hill walkers I located a runner-looking type who told me that sign-on was back in the Community Hall. Not bad, £10 for an on-the-day entry. I filled two small bottles with Carbo drink, one with just water and stuck them in my rucsac along with two gels and the usual kit required for hill races – the most important being map and compass. The weather forecast was quite good, but looking up at the hills, I couldn’t see any tops due to mist, and what I could see seemed an awful long way up.
I didn’t bother with much of a warmup for such a long run and actually just walked the 200 yards to the start. With only about 40 runners, the count-through was nice and brief and kit check even briefer, and just after 11 am, we were on our way. The first 4 miles we headed north along a very pleasant flattish trail and then tarmac road to within half a mile of the Loch Sloy dam. We then turned right up a pretty steep track leading up to the first munro. The track degenerated into a steep, soggy, grassy climb which went on for ages. The scenery opened up gradually, but we still couldn’t see any tops. At last I could see the runner in front disappear over a lump and the terrain thankfully changed into a drier, rockier and less steep path winding up to the summit. We by-passed the trig point and continued on to the real summit, a third of a mile to the north in the mist. Runners were now coming back down and I counted about thirteen going past (not that I’m competitive).
I couldn’t see anything at the summit cairn, but one down, three to go. Back down the path and I knew that I would have turn sharp right downwards to find the dam. I must have overshot a bit, as I could see the runner behind me galloping down a hundred yards to my right. He looked as though he knew where he was going so I converged on his line. Ah, there was the dam! We arrived at the same time and crossed the bridge beneath as the dam top was closed. It transpired that he had done the race a couple of times before so I thought that keeping up with him for as long as possible would take the pressure off navigation.
This was definitely not the tourist route up Ben Vane and we just went straight up again. It was incredibly steep, slippery, wet and with numerous crags to avoid. I was grateful to follow the expert and listened carefully to his tips on later parts of the route. Two thirds of the way up another runner passed us and I stupidly tagged on to him and left my helpful guide behind. The top was again very misty and I had to resort to map and compass. I hadn’t done this for a while and I was quite apprehensive, but struck off downwards on a westerly bearing. The other runner started off slightly more northerly, but I stuck to my own route. The descent was quite technical and very uneven – not much galloping. As the mist cleared I spent a few minutes again with the map picking out crags and streams and then headed down to Gleann Uaine. By this time my legs were burning and starting to get wobbly. Ah, a group of people! With all this map-reading, my ‘guide’ had caught up and all three of us arrived at this small bunch of marshals at the same time.
The route up Beinn Ime was a bit more obvious with a large corrie and ridge to our left and a well defined gully leading up to the summit ridge. And I could see a couple of specs of other runners up above. It was not quite so steep this time but no less endless and the snow patches had recently melted leaving soggy mats of brown slippery grassy stuff. After another huge slog and grovel up the steep gully, we arrived on the ridge and made for our third misty summit. I was getting severely tired at this point and beginning to wonder whether a fourth munro was realistic.
At the top, I saw the runner in front disappear back down in the mist, but I still got out the map to check the SSE bearing and slurped down a gel. I was half way through my rations so had probably judged it right. Three down, one to go!
On the way down the legs started to cramp. Although I had added a few drops of concentrated electrolyte (very salty water to you and me) to my water bottles, I had an attack of paranoia and actually took a sook directly from the bottle of electrolyte. Yeaauuk! But magically after only a few minutes, no twinges of cramp! The descent this time was a lot less steep, but still too uneven to blast down comfortably.
At the bottom stood an orange tent and some cheerful-looking marshals who enquired as to my well-being and how I had found it so far. I said OK (not exactly true) and apologised for being so slow and doddery. Conscious of my cramping legs I stuck a few more drops of salt into my last water bottle and set off for the last hill. The west side of Beinn Narnain is far more straightforward with a firmer path and not particularly steep. (It must have been even mistier one year as one runner had gone up The Cobbler by mistake!) But by now everything was very sore, including my back, and it was still a painfully slow slog. Phew, at last the top! But again frustratingly misty and I couldn’t see a thing.
The last descent is pretty much SE towards a plantation above Arrochar, but it was probably the most technical of them all – starting off steep and very rocky and becoming horribly boggy, slippery and bouldery, not helped by very wobbly legs. Then that painful transition from hillside to forest track and a mere one and a half miles to survive to the finish.
It had taken me a record 4 hours 48 minutes but at least I could still walk. The timekeeper at the finish noticed my Penicuik Harriers vest and enquired after Bill. Unfortunately I have forgotten his second name – Drew somebody! The winning time was an incredible 3 hours 21 and puts things into perspective (results on Scottish Hill Runners). Well, a good excuse to go and do some munro-bagging.
Many thanks to Westerlands CCC, the organiser and marshals for a highly memorable event.