When Alistair Macpherson said he was going to do one last big fundraising event Pauline and I were on board for support. We’ve been there for his previous big challenges and we weren’t going to let him do the final one without us! This one is huge and a lot further than he has ever gone before,180 miles in 70 hours for Highland Hospice, going from Glasgow to Inverness on the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way then onto the road at Fort Augustus using the Loch Ness Marathon route to finish at the Highland Hospice which is situated on the final stretch of the Loch Ness Marathon.
There would be a wee change of tactics for this one, with it being so long Ally is going to factor in a few short sleeping breaks so I suggested we practice that in training and came up with the idea of splitting a 40 mile run into two. The South Loch Ness Trail is on his doorstep and we’ve never been on it so I thought it would be good to go somewhere new. Ally agreed it was a good plan and since we’d be running through the night during the event we should do that in training too. I suggested we drive to Dores, park up, run the 10-ish miles back to his house in Inverness, have 40 winks then take another car to Fort Augustus and run the 30-ish miles to the car parked in Dores where we would leave some warm dry clothes and a wee snack then head back round the Loch and pick up the vehicle parked in Fort Augustus then back home.
So with a plan in place Pauline and I drove up to Inverness on Friday afternoon. Now, Ally is well known for getting weather during his challenges and it looked like we would get some in training too, Storm Dennis was on his way and a yellow weather warning was in place for the weekend but if you’re Scottish that just means you wear yer big coat and mine is exactly that, one size bigger than my usual so there’s plenty room for layers, my arse is well covered and I can pull the sleeves down over my hands for extra cover, so let’s just get on with it.
We chilled out for a few hours, discussing the logistics for Ally K’s Long Run, eating huge bowls of Macaroni Cheese before getting geared up and heading off. It was around a 15 minute drive to Dores, I only had to brake sharply once to avoid a deer!
We started our run around 10.15pm, Pauline had printed out the route info and it was well marked but with it being new to us and dark we were careful not to miss any marker posts. At times it was heavy going under foot, wading through mud and flood, I’m sure it will be a pretty route in daylight. The rain had eased off and eventually stopped, the sky cleared and was full of stars, this was a surprise, we had expected to get drookit! So it was a pleasant 11 mile run back to Ally’s house, fairly dry (from the shins up) with no problems, part one done!
The wind had picked up and was bitterly cold, at least with running north/east it would be behind us most of the time and in a few hours we’ll have daylight.
The path out of Fort Augustus seemed fairly new and flat, a nice gentle start but that didn’t last long, we were soon climbing and quite steeply, looking back down over the twinkling lights of the town was a pretty view, I don’t suppose many are daft enough to come up in the dark to see it!
Although we were attentive looking out for route markers we missed one going by Glendoe Hydro works, we were watching our feet on the steep icy road but it was no big blunder, we just came out on the B862 sooner than expected, we decided to stay on the road for a short stretch rather than go back up and retrace our steps, it wasn’t long until we were back on route and climbing up onto open moorland.
The higher we climbed the wind gathered strength buffeting us about, bringing a mix of rain,snow and hail to sting our cheeks. With the snow lying in thick patches it was tricky finding the path, and difficult placing our feet, sometimes the snow held firm and other times I sank deep up to my knees, as we reached the top of the “big white mountain” (that’s what we called it anyway), it was really more of a hill marked on the map as Suidhe viewpoint, it was still quite dark so there was not much of a view for us, we weren’t going to hang around waiting for one either!
I’ve been up the Pentlands and the Lomonds when it’s been blowing a hoolie, even a bunch of us were out running during Hurricane Bawbag in 2011 (which killed my shed), this is the strongest wind I have ever attempted to run in, (there was very little running going on) Storm Dennis was giving us his best shot! I struggled to keep my feet, trying to stay sideways to the wind for the least resistance as possible, the peak on my Buff was flattened against the side of my face, the good news, at least it stopped the hail from stinging so much, the bad news, it also covered my right eye! I had the vision of a pirate and very little control of where I was going, so there was no surprise I got blown onto my backside, I wasn’t dismissing or underestimating the conditions, this could be serious if we weren’t careful but I laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it. I heard Pauline laughing too! It took a fair bit of time (just checking Strava), just under an hour to cover the highest and exposed two miles of the route! It was a relief when we headed down towards the relatively sheltered forest track where we could gather ourselves, get some food in and recover from the energy sapping battle we’ve just had.The weather never abated but least now in daylight and mostly at a lower level it didn’t seem too bad compared to what we had for the first third of the second part of our run, the rest of the route was a nice mix of forest track, woodland, minor road and farm land, a few wee water crossings which in better weather would be pretty insignificant.
We just kept a steady effort, letting the terrain dictate the pace, running where it was easy going and walking up the hills, one monster hill known locally as the Corkscrew road, a narrow track with a million hairpin bends that I imagine would fit well into a mountain stage of the Tour de France with close ups of grimacing, suffering cyclists.
At around 30 miles at a junction on a minor road, there was a marker for the Trail of the Seven Lochs which shares some of the South Loch Ness Trail but no marker for our route, we had a wee dither deciding which way to take when we heard a shout! Up the hill about a hundred yards away was a lone cottage and an old boy stood at the door waving to us. Pauline and I walked up to speak to him, before we could ask if he could confirm our direction, he shouted “ Come in, come in, I’m not coming out in this weather in my slippers, don’t mind the sheep, he thinks he’s a dog, and I have used him to herd cattle!”
We protested saying “Oh no, we’re wet and muddy!”
Again, he insisted we come in, “Don’t worry, I don’t do housework!” A wee shuffle of our feet on a doormat and into what must have started life as a kitchen, it had a sink, kettle and microwave, but now was a proper indoor man-shed, with a log pile that would see him into the summer, the table had a vice attached and covered in tools and stuff, so was every other surface. He offered us tea, we politely refused, saying if we stopped we wouldn’t get going again, he went into great detail describing our route and where all the other paths go, I was getting a bit bamboozled with all the information but managed to retain the “Straight on here, then second left, there is a marker but it quite often gets knocked down!” I don’t suppose he gets many visitors and eventually I think we chatted long enough that it wouldn’t seem rude if we left. Heading out, he said “Wait a minute while I get my wellies on.” he walked us to his gate, feeding his sheep a bread roll as he went, stood and waved until we were out of sight. I gave him a final cheery wave and hoped we brightened up his day as he did mine.
We were climbing once more and hopefully for the last time up the Fair Haired Lads Pass (a wee bit of Googling led me to a newspaper article that suggests it was named after an old man that had died crossing the hill on a stormy night) and at 333m above sea level, the second highest point on the South Loch Ness Trail. There would’ve been fine views over to Urquhart Castle and along the loch if the weather was better, we dropped down to the where the trail ran parallel to the road back to Dores.
Those final miles were quite a slog but at no time did any of us feel like we were carcass hauling, we still bantered along. Reflecting on the races I’ve done so far this year, covering 40 miles during the Falkirk 8 hour ultra with challenging underfoot conditions and 50 miles during the Tyndrum 12 hour in January never made me feeling as weary as I did heading towards Dores, testament to effort needed for what was “just a training run” 41 miles with over 4500 feet of climbing along with the lack of sleep, battling the conditions and the terrain all added up to a epic day and perfect practice for Ally going into his challenge in April.
Looking back over my 34 years of running I can safely say this is one of the most challenging training runs I've ever had!
If you want to follow his progress during the challenge Ally will have a tracker, the link will be available from the event facebook page and if you'd like to support the charity here’s his Just Giving link.