An ordinary woman's fascination with an extraordinary sport ... and the extraordinary people who take part

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Mountains, Miles and Marcothon

I keep on thinking that it's the end of the season ... no more races until next Spring.  Then, something comes along, and there's "just one more" to be done.

The Yamaa Trust Winter Ultra was always on the radar.  At one point, I was seriously contemplating entering the 10k run from Bridge of Orchy to Tyndrum.  However, common sense took over - the West Highland Way in December is not the place to run a first 10k.  Dave Scott, who heads up the Trust and is also the Mongolian Consul to Scotland, caught me at a weak moment in the pub after the Glen Ogle 33 and I found myself agreeing to report for marshalling duties at Kinlochleven at 7am again.

Last year, when I did this as my first ever marshalling trip, it made perfect sense to drive over from Edinburgh and back in the day.  This year, I'm looking at the map and trying to work out how to get there without setting the alarm for 3am.  I fail.  Friday night accommodation it is.  No post race drinking for me this weekend though; there are things I need to be back home for.

In the days running up to the race, the forecast is ... interesting to say the least.  Snow, gusting winds, windchill, rain, sleet.  Thursday night is spent working out just how many layers I can wear at once, and wondering if runners are really going to turn up for this.  Also sulking bitterly that the Real Food Cafe is closed for two months and I'm still not going to get the chips I've been promised since the Fling.

I've heard so many stories about the "luxury" of the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel but it seems a practical location for the Friday night.  What I don't expect (after an infuriatingly slow crawl west from Stirling stuck behind an eejit who thinks his car has a top speed of 30mph) is to see what appears to be a building in darkness with no signs of life.  Between the howling wind, torrential rain and abandoned reception, I start to wonder if I've inadvertently strayed into a Hitchcock movie.

I eventually discover a little note taped to the door of the dining room, saying "Sorry, closed.  Food available next door.  Check-in next door."  Aaah, back out into the weather.  Behind the bar in Paddy's is a very friendly man who takes some cursory details before leading me down a lopsided corridor to my room.  Oh, I see how this place has acquired its reputation....  This room was quite probably built and fitted out by an enthusiastic, if incompetent, DIYer in the late 1970's and hasn't been touched since.  And really, a vanity unit?  Oh my....

It's also completely freezing cold.  The nice man tries to fix this by adjusting the radiator and the valve promptly falls off.  We agree that I would be better in another room and he goes to fetch another key.

The second room is almost identical in build and decor but several degrees warmer.  I should, in fairness, point out that it's also scrupulously clean and the bedlinen still has the creases in it as evidence of out-of-the-packet newness.  The bathroom has its own challenges however in that it's rather, em, compact.  The toilet can only be approached backwards due to the lack of turning space.  The sink is, again, in the bedroom.

Back in Paddy's Bar, food and drink is cheap, good and plentiful.  The other customers are an intriguing mix of local families, hikers, posh English students and what appears to be the Tyndrum youth club.  Ada arrives later, with Terry and Susan as the Kirkie love bus is parked over the road.

We finish at a sensible hour and as she leaves, Susan calls back "it's stopped raining".  Famous last words.

When the alarm goes off the next morning, I can't hear either the wind or rain which I consider to be a good sign.  It is still raining, and it's breezy, but it's not ... weather.

The weather arrives about two miles up the road in a furious blast of sleet that rocks the car sideways.  It's intermittent but a healthy reminder that this is December in the Highlands and not to be taken lightly.

There's not a sign of life anywhere, no other vehicles on the road, no distant glow in the sky of reflected city streetlights.  On the climb up onto Rannoch Moor, I pull over into the viewpoint car park and stop the car.  Despite the weather, I want to stand outside for a few moments and drink in this world of utter blackness where I can't even see my own hands, never mind any sight of human impact.  It's awesome.

Despite being ten minutes late into Kinlochleven, there is no sign of life at the Ice Factor.  Dave will quite probably be late for his own funeral so no reason to expect registration to start on time!  When we do get started Geraldine is there again, as is Karen the Yamaa Trust administrator who I met at Andrew Murray's book launch.

With the weather forecast as it is, a number of runners have cancelled or just not turned up, although there are a few late entrants that bring the numbers back up.  Most of them I don't know, but I recognise the Loehndorfs - though I'm not convinced Thomas' surgeon and the Crazy German mean quite the same thing when agreeing that he can "run but nothing too strenuous".  The love bus gang are joined by Bill (having run his first post heart-attack ultra two weeks earlier and today having "forgotten" to mention that he's racing to his wife) and Mike who's sweeping the first section.  Also there is Adrian Stott, amazingly he says this is his first ultra distance race for three years.

The weather is wintry but not too horrific, although I do take pity on two shivering runners and direct them to sit in my car to get out of the wind.  But as the daylight comes through, it's strange to be able to watch cloud banks rolling in across the mountain tops and hiding them from view within seconds.  I don't think anyone's going to be complaining about mandatory kit today...

A brief speech of thanks from Andrew, a quick safety briefing from Dave and just after 8.30, we set off some thirty-odd runners on their run down to Tyndrum.  I'm sure Dave tells us we're heading directly to Bridge of Orchy but somehow this includes stops at Altnafeadh and Kingshouse Hotel ...

I stop on the way to capture some of the incredible views.  It's the first time I've seen this area in winter and it's breathtaking.  So's the wind....

Dave diverts to the Ski Centre to put up some marker flags and the three of us head on to Bridge of Orchy.  When we get there, another woman approaches us, guessing that the hi-viz jackets we're wearing mean we're part of the team she's also volunteered for.  With her are two adorable although noisy dogs.

Somehow it's already nearly half nine so I don't think it's too early to order coffee at the hotel for all of us.  Expecting best instant, we get proper Italian with little chocolates.

The original plan had been for me to go to Forest Lodge where the WHW comes down from Rannoch Moor but it makes sense for the dogs to go there instead and leave me to the A82 crossing.  In the meantime there are road signs to be set up (not that they seem to have any effect on the speeding vehicles), checkpoint supplies to be sorted out (water, crisps, chocolate, etc) but still time to wander down to the bridge and watch the waters tumbling angrily down.  None of us are quite sure where the river ends up...

Although the 10k isn't due to start until 12.30, the first runner arrives not long after 10.30 having driven over from Aberdeen.  We adjourn to the hotel for a second round of coffee and sit watching the hillside while we chat.

I'm not half way through my cup, when the first runner is spotted.  Oh f........, and we're scurrying out the door to get to the road before he arrives.  It's before eleven, which means he's covered over twenty miles in less than two and a half hours ... with a couple of hills and somewhat inclement weather thrown in ...

For me, it's the start of an almost continuous four hour stint stood outside at the crossing.  The nearby cottages block my view of the hillside so the first sight I have of any of the runners is as they come off the track onto the tarmac.  The third runner tries to head off south along the riverbank and I can't catch his attention to call him back.  Fortunately he realises quickly that he may be wrong and doubles back to talk to a family of walkers who point him over the bridge towards me.  There are many places to expect a directionally challenged runner to veer off course ... but that isn't one of them.

Fourth and fifth are Andrew Murray and Thomas who arrive chattering away.  How do they manage to make it look so effortless...?

Many times I've heard the expression that in Scotland, you get all four seasons' weather in a single day.  Today I can see all four seasons at once.  But mostly I can see the "wintry showers" coming down across Rannoch as they block out the mountains, before delivering their cargo of rain, sleet and snow.

And the wind never stops.

Thank god for a self-indulgent trip to Tiso last weekend, and the acquisition of a fur hat and very expensive gloves (I thought a requirement of keeping me warm and dry, while still being able to hold a pen, was pretty simple - apparently not!).  However I probably should have been investing in a new pair of boots as well as the left one is letting in water at an alarming rate, resulting in some significant squelching.

Ah well, at least I'm only standing here; I'm not running up on the high open ground.  I'm the sane one, right?

Not surprisingly, there aren't too many walkers out today.  As usual there's an element of curiosity as to what the race is, and what the runners are doing.  Maybe it's the fact that you have to be reasonably hardy to be walking the WHW in December, but there doesn't seem to be the same level of surprise as I've encountered on other ultras.  However the white van driver delivering down to Inverornan is sufficiently impressed to give me a pound as a donation.

Phil arrives accompanied by the first withdrawal - a runner who stands, shivering in vest and shorts, until I quite bluntly tell him to get inside the hotel and get warmed up.  There may well be a foil blanket in my car but I don't wish to have to use it!  Oooh car ... in the expectation of a long stint in the middle of nowhere I made a flask of coffee first thing and it's still in the boot.  I fetch it along with a box of Jaffa cakes (not quite sure why there weren't any jelly babies - poor planning!) but Dave offers to cover the checkpoint for ten minutes while I have hotel coffee (which he's paying for).

The advantage of the A82 checkpoint is the proximity of proper toilets.  It's far too cold to be exposing any naked flesh, and with the number of layers I have on, would probably take half an hour to complete!

I try not to drip too much water in the nice restaurant area of the hotel, and also not to defrost too much as the weather isn't going to be any better when I do go back outside.

When I do go back to my post, it's to the sight of Dave handing out my coffee to some runners....

The 10k runners are a mix of serious and fun runners, including the Gobi United team in kilts ... and two runners dressed as parrots.  I can't begin to imagine what any walkers seeing those coming towards them are going to think.  Possibly check the flask and assume they've mixed up the coffee and whisky?

Back at my crossing, the runners arrive at increasingly distant intervals.  They've had four, five, six hours out on the hills in some savage weather but they're still going.  A pause for food, a brief chat, maybe a bit of friendly banter and they're away for the final stretch down to Tyndrum.

Thomas comes back with Neal Gibson (who should have been running but acquired an ankle injury on the WHW a week or so earlier).  Both Silke and Caroline are still out on the hill, Thomas having finished earlier and now onto support duties.  Their purchase of takeout coffee is inspired, especially when I get to hold one of the cups and relish the warmth.

Eventually the car comes up from the Forest Lodge checkpoint to say that the last two runners (Mark, an experienced competitor and his girlfriend on her first ultra) have just left there so will be here in 45 minutes or so.  Everyone else has come through, so the sensible thing would be to head indoors and watch out for them. Unfortunately, my mind is thinking more about the obligations of the Marcothon....

I had thought of running my 25 minutes after finishing here and heading down to Tyndrum, with the opportunity of changing into something more appropriate, but I'm tired and cold and know I won't do it.  And I certainly won't run when I get back to Edinburgh.

But I've just spent four hours looking at the West Highland Way and, well, I've never run on it and this really was where it all began.  Seems a shame not to take the chance while it's here....

So my Marcothon for the day consists of a slow jog up the hill west of Bridge of Orchy and back down again.  This is not a path, or even a trail - it's an avalanche of lumpy rocks and water tumbling down the hill, and I'm really not dressed for it in any way, from the furry hat on my head to my leaking boots - but it was fun.

Eventually Mark and his girlfriend arrive; she looks numb with cold and tiredness but still smiling and determined.  After they head off up to the station, and on the finish line, there is a checkpoint to be tidied up, rubbish bagged up, signs collected, etc

Then it's down to Tyndrum and into a heaving Paddy's bar.  More coffee and chips (okay not the Real Food Cafe chips but they were good :-) ) and chatter with those who finished hours ago, and those who are only just finishing now.  I talk to Caroline for the first time and she tells me that when she fell on the final stretch, her first thought was that she might not be able to do her Marcothon.  It's not obsessive, really....

A number of people are staying over in Tyndrum for the night, and there is some serious rehydration already started.  Sadly I have to be back in Edinburgh to keep an commitment the next day in Stirling and it already feels much later than five o'clock.  By the time I leave, I think I've promised to come back next year.

When I lose my footing on the outside steps and fall awkwardly, my first thought is that if I have broken my ankle, at least I know exactly where the nearest doctor is - even he's not entirely sober - and my second is that I won't complete the Marcothon.  Not a thought I could even have contemplated after the end of last year's event.  (Although sore for a few hours, the ankle was okay which is more than could be said for a discoloured and swollen finger).


On the Sunday morning, I'm heading back up the M9, this time on my way to Stirling University.  Overnight it has snowed and the motorway is down to a single lane through to Falkirk.  The blizzard that descends on the final stretch is even more worrying.  But it passes over.

Then starts up again as we head out to the track for the Fetch mile race.  My previous mile race was on the hottest evening of the year; this one is going to be in a snowstorm.

As I expect, I'm last by a considerable margin but much encouragement sees me cross the line at 12.13, looking like a drowned rat and not sure whether I want to laugh or cry.

And despite Hurricane Bawbag, and another snowfall, my Marcothon is still intact.

Not quite sure what's happened in the last year ... but I'm loving it.

See you in 2012.


  1. Nice report, was good to meet you on the day! Hope the finger/ankle is ok, and keep that Marcothon going! Thanks for supporting/marshalling again... It is always appreciated even by those of us that couldn't run on the day!

    pacepusher aka Neal!

  2. Well done Julie, especially on the marcothon run in that weather :-) now that's dedication!