Great Glen Ultra

After missing out on a place in the ballot of the West Highland Way, I knew I had to get signed up for something else that I felt was going to push and challenge me. The Great Glen Ultra is billed as one of Scotland’s toughest running challenges so that’s the one I went for. I did the Maggie’s Monster Bike and Hike in 2010 which also followed the Great Glen so I felt like I sort of knew the route. Well that would come back and bite me!

The race begins Saturday at 1am, Neptunes Staircase at Fort William it was a completely new start time for me and it took a bit of a different approach and it did worry me a bit as I am a girl who needs her sleep! At 12.45 we made our way out to the canal for our briefing and with warnings of not falling in and keeping the Loch to your right we were off. The first 6 miles was along the canal and the miles ticked easily by, it was quiet and not much chatting was going on maybe it was the darkness, or the early hour. I just watched the moths fluttering around my headtorch. I had in my head that the first 30 miles were flat and you did not hit the hills until Fort Augustus when you already have an ultra in your legs so I was aware I needed to take it steady, which I did although it’s not flat, I think it just looks like that on the profile as the hills at the end are so big! The route follows canals, roads, trails and woods. The runners were pretty spread out from very early on and I was never around more than 3 or 4 runners, I managed to pass a few runners here and there and then was totally on my own for very long sections when you would see a runner ahead and you would either get closer and pass or they would peel away from you. I had a spooky experience running through one of the wood sections with a narrow trail snaking through which were quite overgrown when again I was running on my own, but kept hearing footsteps behind me. I would stop and look all around, but no, no one there so I would keep running and again – footsteps! Stop look around, no one to be seen so would start running again and still I could hear feet behind me. It was very unnerving. I don’t know if was echos or the way the trees were laid out or some pesky faeries but I did not stop or look round again, I just kept running!

The GGU is a self supported run and no support or pacers are allowed, Alan was only allowed to meet me at three points where there were public car parks and the first was checkpoint 3 at Fort Augustus (31 miles) There is a long 5 mile run along the canal which I know a lot of people find really tough, but I think the thought of seeing Alan helped me through this bit and I managed to pass a couple more people and arrived to his smiling face and a hug. I really did not know how long I was going to take to run this race but having looked at Fling and GGU times from the previous years I managed to get a window of times I thought was realistic for me to arrive in each CP. I had arrived within this window for CP 1 & 2 but I arrived in CP 3 about 10 mins ahead of schedule, now this made me a bit worried, I was feeling good but was I pushing too much? Would I blow up further on? Oh well just run to feel and see how I get on. After leaving Fort Augustus we took the high road. Now I had heard about the high road but if I am honest I did not pay much attention. I thought I knew the route and we had gone pretty high on the Maggie’s event so I just kind of presumed I had already done the high route. Well no! They have built new paths in the last 17 years – who knew! The path out of Fort Augustus took a different path. A very steep path. A zig zagging path up, up and up! I think it has been built for mountain bikes but certainly there were lots of tyre tracks. As I was climbing I was chatting to another runner, Ross who had caught me on the incline and he said one of the runners I had passed had taken his pack off and just lay down. Hope he was just having a wee rest. We walked and chatted along the path at the top of the hill and you could see the path continue stretching off into the distance. I was wanting to push on so said goodbye to Ross, picked up my pace and headed back off on my own. As far as the eye could see there were no runners in front of me but slowly reaching the top of the hill there were a few behind me. After meandering up and down along the hillside the path takes a serious down hill and it was just as steep (if not steeper) than the uphill. It was so tough. I wanted to hammer it downhill but it was just so steep my quads were seizing up and my toes were bashing off the front of my shoes, it was hard to run at all so I sort of walk/jogged/gravity induced tumbled down. I hit the road and was at Invermoriston (40 miles) and checkpoint 4 to be greeted by Alan again. I was still ahead of my timings but feeling good, I caught my breath and headed off, back up to the top of the same darn hill side I had just come off!

Again it was another steep climb and again it was a new path. So much for me knowing the route! A couple of guys who had been in the checkpoint when I came in and out again passed me on the uphills but as it levelled out at the top we played a bit of leapfrog. I was so glad to have other runners around me at this point as we had strayed far from the Loch and it was no longer in sight at all, so much for keeping it on your RHS! I would have been really worried if I had been on my own that I had taken a serious wrong turn. The path climbed up and down the hills and I realised at this point that I really had not done enough hill training- it was showing. I was able to see a couple of runners who were running together and I worked hard to keep them in sight and not be left alone. As it turned out I would spend the rest of my race spotting them disappearing into the distance and then catching them up at checkpoints only for them to disappear again. Eventually this new high route came back onto the path I remembered from before there were some beautiful views up and down Loch Ness here and I managed to take a few more photos.

The path started heading back downhill and there was lots of model train tracks here. We had been told about these at the briefing – a model railway had been built the entire length of the GGW and was part of a documentary to be shown later in the year- – it certainly added another dimension to watching your footing. I managed to get some good strong continuous running in here and I was feeling good. The next checkpoint was just a water stop and it felt like it took ages to get there. Once I eventually arrived, I saw my 2 buddies, grabbed some water and took off again. I was a bit disheartened as I had a flashback to the Maggie’s event and remembered that this was a very long road section and about 5 miles to Drummadrochit. I alternated walking and running but it was tough, the landscape is pretty open with just fields and the odd farmhouse and a long road stretching ahead with no other runners. It was not long before my 2 buddies passed me and had a really good steady run. I tried to match them but their pace and endurance was better than mine and they disappeared into the distance and over a crest of a hill. I turned round and apart from one runner quite far back behind me there was no one else around. I was about 50 miles in at this point and I was remembering how I was feeling at the Fling earlier this year at this point. I was much more knackered and in a lot more pain than I had been at the same point and that worried me a bit. My feet were aching – the soles and arches of my feet. I have never felt that before and I think it was the amount of tarmac which totally tires me. My toes were also sore and I knew I was getting blisters. My quads were aching, my arms are sore and even my stomach hurt I think from tensing my core while pushing on the downhills. It was the most sore I had ever been and I had to work hard to keep negative thoughts from entering my head and keeping in the present. If I think how far I still have to go, or how many miles/hours I have already done then (for me anyway) you lose it, the head goes down and it all seems a bit much. I need to stay in the here and now. This is where I am and this is what I am doing. So that’s what I did dug deep, kept running and worked on my mantras. Eventually Drummadrochit (54.5 miles)comes into sight and you can see the main road and I know there is another checkpoint about to come into view. Alan is waiting for me again and after a few hugs and another top up I am off again. The marshalls are telling me that the two guys I am chasing are just about 4/5 mins ahead of me and to go and get them. I have been trying to do that for the last few hours I tell them! The road out of Drummadrochit goes on for ages, I knew it was a long road before the climb but god it lasted for miles! I was just walking and eating and having a bit of a breather before the hill which I knew was going to be tough. I kept looking behind me to see if anyone was catching me up but there was no one to be seen. My toe was really hurting and I was thinking I should really have had it seen to at the last checkpoint but I was so focused on getting moving I didn’t. As I was walking along I knew I would have to do something to it but not at the side of the busy road, I would wait til the woods. Eventually the pavement runs out and the arrow points up the hillside. I stopped at a gate and took my shoes and socks off and was putting a plaster on when 2 people went past me, they checked I was ok but I was really annoyed that I had let 2 places go. I got my feet sorted and shoes and socks on and marched up the hill to chase them down muttering to myself all the way. This was one hill I remembered from before and had not changed from my previous journey here, and it was a steep hill but I think I was so annoyed with myself and pushing so hard to catch up to the 2 runners who had passed me it went by really quickly and was not as bad as I remembered. There were also volunteers taking railway track down and I was thinking how many trips they would need to make and how many times they would need to climb this hill to do it. They must have been knackered! I managed to pass one of the runners and then we hit the top of the hill and a long undulating path and I got back into my stride and passed the other runner and just kept running- scared to look back in case they were close behind. The final checkpoint was not far now and I kept going until I reached it. My 2 runners that I had been chasing were here having a seat and refuelling but I did my usual, grabbed my bag and go. I was still ahead of target and there were now about 11 miles to the finish and I was told it was mostly downhill. Except we had another long road to contend with and it was not downhill! It was undulating gently along and I was sore and fed up with concrete. I was scanning the horizon trying to see where we turned off and eventually it arrived. Into a nature reserve we turn which is very overgrown and I ran along being whipped by all the plants and undergrowth. I could hear some footsteps behind me and as I stopped to let them passed, my 2 runners I had been chasing went passed me for the last time. There are loads of signs for hot chocolate and tea and coffee all along this bit as there is some little cafe that sits up here in the middle of nowhere – it’s a bit bizarre.

The road turns into a path which then turns into woods and I know it’s only about 5/6 miles to Inverness. I was pushing on but was really just wanting to be finished, there was a long gentle downhill with just the train tracks beside me and I was just willing the miles to pass quickly I kept running but was pretty tired as I ticked off the miles, I kept looking at my watch seeing what distance I was at, I don’t normally look at my watch and the more I looked at it, the grumpier I got! Where the bloody hell is Inverness was a frequent question. I would slow to a walk and then I would berate myself and start running again. I was just wondering if there was any chance I could get sub 16 hours, I had 16.40-18.40 as my finish time window and I was way ahead of that when this lady came powering past me telling me not far now we were nearly there. All I could think was OMG she is running so fast and strong! Where the hell did she come from? How is she still running like that? And then, Bugger! I had lost a place! I was adamant no one else would pass and I ran as hard as I could. The woman who just passed was totally out of sight – my god she was flying! I now just wanted to finish and was really sore but pushing as hard as I could. I let myself walk about 10 paces every half mile and then start running again. Eventually I could see Inverness – thank god! But the finish just would not come! More paths, I ran through housing estate, building sites, parks more canal and I was just looking trying to figure out where the end was, was it ever going to come, I knew now I would not get sub 16 and I was annoyed for not pushing harder earlier, I could see the swing bridge so I knew I was close but I still did not really know where I was going, I was desperately looking for the yellow arrows and then I saw them, and then the running track and then the finishing arch! I just had to cross the road, get round the roundabout and get there. I was so close – I just needed to keep running a bit further. I followed the arrows round and hit the track and I could see Alan and Vicky standing there shouting me on – I have never felt so emotional crossing a finish line and as Alan hugged me I was fighting back the tears and then I got a hug from Vicky and I was so pleased to be finished. Vicky then gave me a bottle of fizz and I nearly went again!

71.3 miles
8173ft elevation
16.03.42 finish time

The BAM team put on a great challenging race, with the usual wonderful encouraging marshalls and organisation. If you are looking for a challenging race to push your boundaries – then this is it!

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21 comments on Great Glen Ultra

  1. Mark Dawson says:

    Fantastic report and what a distance! Great determination to see you through to the finish. That’s the Devil O’ the Highlands distance plus more than a marathon added on!!! Well done.

  2. Dave says:

    Gilly, what mind games you must play. Marathons were hard enough but I just can’t comprehend how you Ultra folk do it, you have my total respect! An awesome read and an education too. Hope you managed a great recovery sleep and that your feet are ok.

  3. Chris says:

    What a donkey I am – I posted twice ! Oh well, that must be cos you are such an inspirational star !

  4. Chris says:

    OMG – what a riveting read – I’m not sure I took a breath till you crossed the finish line ! I’ve said it already and I’ll say it again – you are on such amazing form and very much a complete ultra runner – you have unwavering focus, true grit determination, are up for that relentless forward progress…and where does that take you to? A place where you can Run and Become ! In complete awe Gilly – the WHW awaits you for sure !

  5. Sadie Kemp says:

    I need to know what those mantras are that you use! Awesome acheivement you are a running legend. X

    • Chris says:

      I’m sure ‘Relentless forward progress’, ‘Live in the moment’ and ‘Run and Become’ will be in there somewhere 🙂

  6. Chris says:

    What a riveting read Gilly – not sure I drew breath till I got to the end ! I’ve said it already this year and saying it again now, you are on such brilliant form and this story just goes to reinforce this. You obviously have that ultra true grit in you….absolute focus and determination + relentless forward progress ! Above all else, you Ran and you Became ! WHW, bring it on Cxx

  7. Duncan says:

    Wow again!! How is that possible? I have been psyching myself up to run a 33 mile race for the past 3 years. Well done and great reading.

  8. Yan says:

    Not sure what the question marks are about……?

  9. Yan says:

    I need a drink or two now Gilly 🙂 what a report, you had your highs and you had your challenges. Without a challenge life’s not worth living in my world,
    You are and will always be one of my running buddies that inspires me to keep striving for the best in myself thank you.
    I get the part where you had to focus on the now and nothing else 🙂 that race is definitely not for all ultra runners, don’t think many runners could handle the solitude. How the heck did you get through that bloody Forest in one piece ? I would have ran blinking backwards ?? well done you Gilly.
    I’ll pray to the almighty that the 3 Oh us are successful for 2018 WHW xxx

    • gilly says:

      Thanks Yan, the 3 of us in the WHW next year would be amazing! It would be so good knowing we were all out there on the course together. Fingers crossed!

  10. Tracy philp says:

    Just amazing Gilly you brought it all back to me after the Maggies bike and hike and I remember how hard that was !!!
    To run that distance in all in one go in such an incredible time to you always look so strong at end of an ultra and the GGW was no exception!!
    Well done I’m in complete awe of you and Jan Dawson after both your epic races!!

    • gilly says:

      Thanks Tracy, it was tough but I absolutely loved it! You should give it a go, you have walked and biked it, you really need to run it now 🙂

  11. Sooz says:

    Oh my God Gilly!! Amazing report, amazing achievement and amazing girl 🙂 You leave me speechless and that is not easy as you know! I can’t believe at that distance you were still so competitive but I guess it gave you a focus and an aim. I am so glad that you had Alan there to support you and Vicky at the end. I was thinking about you from France knowing that you would be smashing it!!
    So proud of you having had the pleasure of running with you in a couple of Ultras, I feel really blessed!
    Sooz x x x x x

  12. sarah burthe says:

    My goodness, what an epic and what an achievement- so inspiring 🙂

  13. Rob Wilson says:

    having now read two ultra-babe reports, I am exhausted and certainty more than happy to focus more on shorter races.
    Epic – awesome – etc – etc
    what more can one say

    oh – I will say that if you want to reduce the tarmac – there is the odd long hill race out there 🙂

    • gilly says:

      I do want to give the longer hill races a go, but you hill runners are all so darn fast – I get left for dead. Oh and my map reading is pants!

  14. Jan says:

    Wow, Gilly, that sounds like a tough gig! Especially unsupported over such an epic distance. Well done on pushing through the pain and mentally challenging parts, you’re an ultra machine! Fingers crossed for a place in the WHW race in 2018.

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