After the sordid flu-induced disaster of 2018’s Mountain Marathon on Harris, I was determined to give Gregor a “good time” in 2019. However, after registering in January for the SMM, he came back to me a month later saying he would not be fit enough, and could I find someone else. Enter stage right – Michelle Hetherington – one of the top V50 Scottish women on the long hill race and Ultra circuit. I knew she was partner-less and she jumped at the chance of dragging me around some rugged hills for two days. On longer 3-4-hour hill races we are well balanced and are usually within 10 mins of each other. Disaster struck however two weeks ago when she sliced her knee open on the Jura Hill race and had to pull out of the SMM. Exit stage left – I was partner-less again.
After many e-mails and discussions, I managed to persuade a colleague, Tim Kinnaird – who has run several half/full marathons and a few shortish ultras – to join me. With a week to go, he ran consecutive days of 20 kms (with a little hill climb ?) and e-mailed me and said he felt he could do it. Although I had originally signed-up for the B course (~55kms, ~2500m over two days), we felt, wisely, that Tim’s lack of experience off-track meant that we should do the C course (~45kms, ~2000m over two days). In hindsight, this was definitely the right thing to have done.
So – last Friday, I picked a very nervous Tim up from Cupar, and met Julian Hall and Mark Dawson (also running the C-course) at the Broxden Park and Ride and so started the road trip up to Attadale in the NW Highlands. The drive was sunny and beautiful, but the forecast was not good. The drive was lovely, but the heavens opened as soon as we got to Attadale for registration. Luckily, it was just a heavy shower and we soon registered, pitched our tent and tried to go to bed early so we would be fresh the next day. I don’t know about the others, but I did not sleep well at all. Nerves getting the best of me again.
Mountain marathons generally follow no tracks and require pretty good experience for navigation. The C-course is the easiest of the courses, with the Elite class covering 75kms (4000m) over two days. Tim and I started around 8.40am (choice between 8-10am start) with Julian and Mark starting a little later.
For reference – see full map at the end of this post.
The first kilometre was tarmac, and Tim set a way too quick pace with me telling him he would suffer later. We constantly passed teams who had started at 8am. As the single-track road changed to track and then a small path and then no path, the pace thankfully slowed down. The first main climb of the day up to checkpoint (CP) 1 was about 300 metres and I think this was when Tim realised what he was getting himself in for. However, before we knew it, we had dibbed our first point (always a good mental boost) and the next few check points (2, 3 and 4) went by in a blur of bouncing descent and bog hopping. There was even a short section of trail to keep Tim happy.
The 2nd major climb of the day, another 300+ metres, however, hit Tim hard and he was struggling with eating and leg fatigue. On reaching the top at CP5 we then had a rather straightforward descent and contour to CP6. However, Tim slowed considerably here, but I politely forced some salted crisps down him and by the time we got to CP6, he seemed to have recovered somewhat. After a boggy bouncy jog, we had a short sharp climb up to CP7 followed by a 3km decent across tussocky heather and grass down to the last CP and the last kilometre of track to the mid-point camp. Overall, day 1 had been quite straight-forward. The navigation had been very easy and the terrain mostly bouncy and not too technical. That would change somewhat for day 2.
When we arrived, hardly anyone had come in yet and we were the 3rd team to build a tent. There were almost 200 teams running that day. The weather had been perfect – maybe too warm in the lower elevations – and we in fact had a very nice 2 hours lounging around the tent eating and drinking before the rains finally hit around 2.30. It rained rather heavily for 3 hours and we all bunkered into our rather small 2-man tents. Teams were still out running in the poor weather and we were simply very thankful that we did not have to put up the tent or run in that! The weather improved a little for the evening and everyone started emerging to chat and take short walks to ease off achy muscles. We, after all, had to do it all over again the next day.
It thankfully did not rain again overnight, and we woke up to a dry but marginally cooler day. It turned out that Tim and I had done quite well and were 6th. We were also in the racing start. What this meant was that at 8am the 1st team (two young 16-year olds who were not allowed in higher courses) started day 2. As we were 56 minutes behind them, we could not start until 8.56 am. Meanwhile, for anyone not in the racing start, they could start day 2 anytime between 7 and 9am – Julian and Mark – being further down the order left about an hour before we did. Tim and I were the 2nd-to-last team to leave the site. This meant that everyone running the C course was in front of us – lots of people to catch up. The team at 5th place – the Swedes as we called them – becuase they were from Sweden 🙂 – were only 4 minutes in front of us, and papa Swede (father son team) obligingly had a bright yellow backpack so we could always see them ahead.
So – the day-2 route – to get Tim in the zone – started with a ~600 m climb. Ugh! This was a steady steep affair and was a great warm up. On reaching the summit CP1, we had made up some time on the Swedes and were only about 30-60 seconds behind them. Game on. Competition. This is what I run for and love. We flew along the ridge between CP 1 and 2, and we certainly went way to quickly on the steep descent down to CP3 – me oblivious to Tim tumbling all over the place behind me with his flailing road/trail runner legs. Happily, no broken legs. The Swedes had however gained on us again, and we saw them disappear off over the next rise. They however had taken the straight-line route up and over a small hill. Time for some smart navigation. We took the longer contouring route round without any major climb and caught the Swedes up at CP4. 🙂 The hardest navigation of the day was between CP4 and 5. While most teams took the compass straight line route, I again felt that the slightly longer contouring route would be better – but riskier. CP 5 was nestled between some lochs so I hoped it would be obvious when we got there. So – between these points, Tim and I were running alone. Everyone was above us somewhere out of sight. After about 2kms, I started getting twitchy. Had I messed up – where were the lakes? I stopped a couple of times to triangulate – convinced I must be right – but where were the damn lakes. While doing this a second time, thinking I had somehow royally screwed up, Tim had jogged ahead and shouted – “There’s a loch!”). We had done it. If I had not worried so much we would have been ahead of the Swedes, who had just left the CP as we got there. We raced after them and we caught them up (plus the 4th team) at CP4. Phew – what an epic this was turning out to be!
Unfortunately, the mad rush from CP1 to 6 had done its toll on my legs. I was goosed and the climb out of CP6 and the long 2+ kms of bog to CP7 was my low point. I stuffed everything into my system to try and get some energy back. By the time we had reached CP7 the Swedes were off in the distance. No chance with my legs wobbling to catch them. So we focused on trying to find the optimal route for the last 4kms down to the finish line. There were lots of areas ‘out of bounds’ which allowed for only 3 route options. We took the most direct one, but in hindsight we should have first gone NE and joined a track that went northwards down to the valley. In our rush, we missed the track on the map. Our descent was therefore very rough and the so-called “intermittent track” did not exist. Although some semblance of strength had come back to my legs, Tim did not like the rough terrain at all. However, by the time we crossed the finish line, we were only 10 mins behind the Swedes. They had simply had that extra bit of fitness and very much deserved their place. The second half of day 2 had been much tougher than day 1 – trickier terrain and more complex navigation but to be honest we had nailed it pretty good. Fitness had cost us possibly a place or two, but we are not grumbling at all.
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing this year. We retained our place and finished 6th overall (53 finishers in the C course). Day 1: 03:51:57 and Day 2: 03:57:03. Total: 07:49:00. Pretty consistent to be honest. This was Mark’s first MM and with the ginormous size of his backpack, coming in 33rd with a total time of 11:01:46 was very respectable. I am sure he will say more in his report – and possible Julian would say a LOT more about “weight advantage” 🙂 .