As you turn west on the A835 just north of Garve you enter my favourite part of Scotland. Roads lined with trees which enforce the sense of enclosure formed by steep valley sides give way to a wide open landscape of moorland, lochs and distant peaks. It’s the stuff of country house oil paintings and school geography lessons on glaciation. Today lochs are streaked white as waves sweep across them. Fog rises from sodden hillsides to merge with a low cloud base, breaking every now and again to allow glimpses of higher summits. Then the rain starts, slowly at first. A single loud crack on the windscreen followed by another on the metal roof of the van. As if encouraged by the first, several more drops follow, then the whole bloody gang as the heavens open and the windscreen wipers get turned onto that comical but rarely used third setting. The showers are over as quickly as they arrive but once barely noticeable streams on hillsides are now appearing at white incisions. My fears are confirmed as I enter the race registration to see the bad weather route map hanging up on the wall. The map below shows the race route, the stream between checkpoints 4 and 5 can become a raging torrent when the weather turns as it had done and hence becomes impassable. You might just be able to make out the alternative route which heads from the summit of Slioch back down to the bealach between Meall Each and Sgurr Dubh before reaching checkpoint 0/6 once again.
After registration and the obligatory kit check I walked back through the village and then jogged out to the start line at Incheril with a friend Jon who I’d met at previous mountain marathons and races. Jon had run the route before and had the inov8’s with metal studs in them which he sneakily thought would give him a competitive advantage over the wet rock sections. Unfortunately, metal tips make a crunching sound when running on tarmac so he was confined to the grassy verge where his secret could remain just that. It was tipping it down at the start line and the midges had come out. A couple of hardy runners had vests on but the majority ran nervously about with hoods up, adjusting laces or comparing training or lack thereof. One of the aspects of racing I wanted to be more in control of was pre-race nerves so I chatted to friends and generally ignored the impending pain fest.
A quick spiel from the race organisers followed by the shoogle of a cowbell in place of the usual starters air-horn and we were off. The track over the first few hundred metres is relatively narrow so people started pegging it through bogs or over humps adjacent to the crowded path to gain position. The riverside singletrack leading out to the foot of the hill is extremely picturesque and the sort of trail I often run in the south west of Scotland. The monotony of the track is broken up by tree roots, stream crossings and fallen branches as the river it follows turns into a loch. The topography at this stage means runners are still close together so there’s plenty to keep your mind occupied as people sneak past or fall back.
Then it begins. A nice wee wooden footbridge leads into a lung and leg busting ascent up the nose of Sgurr Dubh. The rain hasn’t stopped and water comes streaming across the bedrock in sheets, hell bent on slowing you down where the peat bogs have failed. Call me a weirdo but I like this weather. I scorch and dehydrate under a cloudless sunny sky and in overcast conditions the colours of the landscape appear dulled and bored. Such heavy downpours at this time of year usually don’t last long and when they pass, allowing the sun to break through momentarily, everything shines and glistens. You can mistake wet rock on distant hillsides for white snow and the air becomes clearer. As the ant line of runners progresses up the slope ahead of me some break off to the east, preferring a less vertical route to the first checkpoint. I stick to the direct route which offers some nice hands on scrambling. Up at checkpoint 1 we are well and truly in the fog so I whip out the map and compass then push on to the edge of the lochans, stretching the legs out between climbs. As we start up the final rocky ascent to the summit of Slioch the cloud suddenly breaks and breath taking (as if you have any breath to give at this point) views open up over Loch Maree below. I spot the unmistakable red of a Carenthy runner off to my right and chase him up to checkpoints 2 then 3.
The descent. Back down to the lochans the short grassland or rocky screes offer fast running which combined with steep gradients, is tough on the legs. The rain has made the vegetated sections lethally slippery so runners come fleeing down with arms flailing, bambi on ice style. We pass a group of school age hillwalkers at this stage, they look thoroughly miserable and ready to murder the Duke of Edinburgh and his stupid award. Dropping down into the corrie the gradients mercifully level out for a while and the running is fast to the re-situated 4th checkpoint. The Carnethy runner I had followed up to the peak appeared out to my left having descended a different and quicker route. I congratulated him on his route choice and we spent some time yo-yoing past each other. The descent back down to the 6th point is steep and plays into the hands of the confident as you jump streams, clamber down rocks and straight line it through bogs. An unlucky runner in front lost one of his legs to a thigh depth narrow stream sending him for a classic face-plant into adjacent bog and heather. Shouting ‘you orite pal?‘, then using his back as a stepping stone before he had time to answer we continued on our way (no, not really).
Crossing the footbridge, I try and get my mind ready for the long slog back to the finish. I had half an energy gel at this point which just gave me a stitch, probably because I hadn’t been drinking enough or something. The ‘picturesque’ river side trail has become a winding, endless, pain in the arse. The streams which cross it have swollen, I drop slightly off track at one point and end up wading through bollock height water getting covered in that white foam which appears when streams are in spate. The European runner behind me shouts some amusing foreign profanities as he meets the same fate a minute later. Finally and suddenly the finish line appears and it takes every ounce of strength to keep the legs running up the final slope to the juice and cake stand. Happily, I managed to come in 9th at 2:13:47.
The race organisers really do a brilliant job at Slioch, after the run tables are set up in the village hall and runners get stew, baking and even a courtesy bottle of beer from the An Teallach Ale Co! It’s a great chance to sit and chat to folk and exchange stories from the hills. Guess how much the entry fee is? £12.00!
Photo credit: Phil Hindell (the good ones)