Highlander Mountain Marathon 2016: Glen Cannich (10th and final)

The week running up to the Highlander was one of the worst weeks of my stomachs life. The two of us had been feeling great with a few races under the belt and a period of settled weather. Then, THEEEENN at 2 am on Saturday night the weekend before the race I woke up sweating and ready to explode from both ends. Some friends and I had enjoyed a barbecue on the friday night then spent the following day climbing before heading to a hippy café for snacks. Obviously I pointed the finger of blame at the bulgur wheat, quinoa or other pretentious super grain salads on offer at the café as opposed to the translucent fire-lighter infused barbecue meats of the previous night. Anyway 3 days of fevers, stomach movements and lack of appetite ensued. I really can’t deal with being ill, it’s shit. Honestly, another day would have seen Coldplay headlining a charity gig in my front garden, Bono giving it the hard sell to TV cameras while I made guest appearances ghostly pale from my bedroom window. Luckily, this time, I pulled through and had my first symptom free day on wednesday. I made the classic mistake of googling ‘how long should I leave between a stomach bug and a race’ or ‘should I run after a stomach bug’ etc etc. Answers on runners forums ranged from ‘AYE DO THE RACE, ACTUALLY DAE IT TWICE, NAW THREE TIMES GWAAAAN’ to ‘you’re maimed for life and may never run again, take up cross-stitch’.

One good piece of advice I read suggested the best thing to do was treat the recovery process like a race, so keep fully hydrated and eat small amounts often until you can stomach a full meal. So that’s what I did. Gluttony is usually something I pride myself on so loosing appetite and struggling to finish meals was quite un-nerving.  I pushed myself out for the weekly wednesday night mountain bike ride with the lads but felt like the food I had eaten was sitting high in my chest, with an acidy feeling at the back of my throat whenever I started puffing. It was under this cloud of gloom that I drove up the road in my wee van, stopping in Kingussie for some salty, vinegary chips before heading on up to Inverness for bacony, oniony pasta.

Cannich is another location from my childhood. It was in these birch and pine clad valleys that my brothers and I learned to cycle. The glens around here are particularly stunning, Glen Affric and Glen Strathfarrer being the two main valleys which head west out to the coast. I was exhausted when I arrived at registration so got the essentials done, parked the van up and packed my race bag for an early start. The preceding week played over and over in my mind as I tried desperately to get to sleep, it wasn’t a good night but the morning came around quickly enough.

Kicking open my van door I was greeted by low hanging fog and an early onslaught of midges. After a quick breakfast I popped over to find my running partner Kerstin. It was our 4th A-class Mountain Marathon together and if there was one thing that boosted my confidence of making it through the day it was Kerstin. She’s a pro-navigator and a tough as hell runner. We also share the mind-set that mountain marathons should be first and foremost about enjoying long days in the hills and having a good laugh en-route. A short bus ride up to Loch Mullardoch and we were ready for an albeit chilly start.

The map below shows our day 1 route. In retrospect it almost seems too good to be true but as soon as we got moving and the blood started circulating through my body again, my weariness and mood began to lift. Unfortunately, the cloud wasn’t so quick to lift between the first 2 checkpoints where we muddled about mid-slope before cutting our losses and heading for the upgraded track to the west. As we headed up to the 2nd checkpoint the cloud began to glow and a few minutes later we popped out into a perfect cloud inversion. Peaks with snowy corries poked out of the clouds like islands as the clouds ebbed and flowed between them. This was no landscape for bitching and moaning. I smiled and we set-off at pace back into the cloud. The next few hours were spent running across great terrain under the cloud before it cleared completely at checkpoint 6. The climb out of the grassy bowl on this part of the course was particularly hot and we re-filled our packs with water. Running alongside a couple of friendly lads we passed still lochs, steep walls patched with snow and numerous peat hags. Coming down to the finish line I almost didn’t want it to end, perfect running conditions, great course, great company.

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I was gutted to hear this Highlander would be the final one, although the LAMM will return next year. The Highlander has always been my favourite mountain marathon as it’s so social. The mid-way camp has a big communal tent, hot food, ceilidh and bar which stimulates great stories, laughter and chat. A light breeze kept the midges at bay in the campsite while the last rays of sun rose up the valley sides turning from yellow to orange.

Day two started with a long cue to the portaloos, the low cloud had returned keeping temperatures at bay. I scoffed some porridge then we set about packing away the camping kit. I managed to drink 3 litres while running the previous day so started the second day off with another 1.5 litres in the bag, heavy but worthwhile. The start of the A-course was under this cool old pine tree which stood alone on a small hilltop. The organisers shouted that they were aware someone had binned their tent in the hope of not having to carry it home, but would be found out. I chuckled at their nerve. The map below shows the extremely runnable second day route. The only slight difference today was teams could visit checkpoints 3 and 4 in any order. As with the first day we were treated to a cloud inversion climbing out of the valley which immediately raised the spirits. The cloud evaporated much quicker than the previous day and I’m sitting writing this stinking of cocoa butter plastered on in the hope it will prevent my sun-burn peeling. Oh the attractive Scottish complexion eh.

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Between checkpoints 9 and 10 the leading teams passed us, the Haglofs Silva team were on particularly impressive form and head to toe in blue. I ran behind them for a short moment to make myself feel like the big man, it worked. I kept scoffing food (salted cashews and raisins were my favourite) all the way round and we soon found ourselves in sight of Cannich and the fertile lower valleys. The run down into the village was steep and punishing but through birch wood which afforded nice spots of shade. For once I never tired and again didn’t want an amazing hill day to end. There had been another mixed team a few minutes ahead of us on the first day but unfortunately they visited a wrong checkpoint the second day so were disqualified. We genuinely felt for them having had a similar experience at the previous Highlander. We finished 10th overall and 1st mixed team so were extremely pleased but were both just ecstatic about what a great weekend of running it had been. If you do have a stomach bug shortly before a race, go with your instinct, just make sure you have a few days of good eating and hydration first.

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