Sunday, 11 May 2014

Monkey Business at the Kintyre Way

Kintyre Way Ultra 10/04/14

photo Jim

Someone was recently saying to me that in order to do a decent marathon the stars have to be aligned. There are so many aspects from eating and drinking / travel and sleeping arrangements / fitness / weather / shoes and kit etc. and they all have consequences on your race. Equally, if not more so, with an ultra. However the straw in the wind, the writing on the wall was all propitious for this one. 

Jim gazes romantically into the harbour at Tarbert.
photo Mike

Firstly I took the whole week off running as a recovery from E2NB, apart from short sharpeners on Wednesday at Club, and Thursday for hill intervals. I finished a work project on Wednesday and only had to tidy and do the get out on Thursday leaving the afternoon free for buying a onesie and the all important haircut. And a couple of night's proper sleep didn't hurt. Then getting racing number 93, that was the clincher.

photo Gregor

Friday 5.15pm and Mike (who was driving the project, metaphorically and literally) picked up Jim and myself and we drove the long haul to Tarbert on the Mull of Kintyre. Following on from the Fife Coastal Path run, Carnethy were there to do a 6 person relay of the 67 mile route, while I was targeting the 35.5mile ultra. After the recce a few weeks ago I had scratched the idea of the 67 miler. Too much difficult ground and too much pain. The 35 seemed as much or more than a body would enjoy. A nice day out. No need to self harm.

photo Mike

I had been swithering about doing the run at all. The logistics of travelling all that way and where to stay were discouraging. However Roly was forced (by injury) to pull out and he offered me his race place and the travel and accommodation he had already set up with Mike and the mechanics. This swung it for me and I stepped into his shoes, so to speak. We were to stay in the wigwams just outside Tarbert and it seemed very inexpensive and handy. I took my tent as I feel it is only polite to snore outwith the earshot of others. The woodwams seemed very cosy for 2~4 folk.

photo Mike

As we picked up numbers on Friday evening we bumped into Lucy and Jamie who were doing a 2-lady relay team over the 67miles, alternating legs. Since their accommodation plans were to sleep in their car, the Carnethy men squeezed into one of the 2 wigwams giving Lucy and Jamie a better night in the other.

tenty onesie selfie

Mike and Jim had packed onesies as evening wear. Not possessing one myself I visited Primark (another first) to buy one. I slipped into it before going to the kitchen area to prepare dinner while Mike and Jim drove down the route to drop something off. I hadn't expected so many runners to be milling about preparing food and felt like I was the only dunce who misread the fancy dress invite. I was asked more than once was I running in the outfit. Had I just been doing one section this might have been possible but I wasn't going to run 35 miles in it.

5.30am in the rain
photo Mike

Now while some might regard me getting lashed into a bottle of red with dinner as irresponsible, it was a very good relaxation technique. When I got into the tent I listened to laid back tunes on my mp3 and was out like a light. Like a dreamy red wine soaked light. The alternative can be like Alec, the guy with whom I was getting a lift to my 9.30am start at Tayinloan. (Mike had his hands full organising the Carnethy relay team drop offs and pick ups and I wanted to avoid giving him another transport issue to sort.) So Gregor put me in touch with Gayle and Alec who were staying in Tarbert and driving to the 35m start.) Alec felt he had been awake all night when I met him just before 8am. I had slept like a log but had to rise at 5.15 to get my tent packed and onto the Carnethy team bus.

photo Mike

At Tayinloan the Carnethy relay team were out in front already and Lisa was well on her way to finishing the third leg and handing over to Graham. I expected him to overtake me on their leg 4, my leg 1.

I took this photo of Rob (the organiser) in the green cords however Ross - number 92,
 was to figure significantly in the day

photo Mike

Some of the Carnethy team and Joanne who should have been running but due to injury was supporting Hugh who was busy dominating the 67 miler.

photo Mike

There was a really relaxed feel to the check point, in fact to the whole event. There were cups of tea and biscuits, not too long a queue at the facilities and event organiser Rob was smiling and not looking hassled at all. We had been encouraged to wear fluro gilets as there was construction work going on near the route. Hence the yellow gilet I was wearing. Hardly anyone else was wearing the same and I wondered was I the only one to read that email, but others may have had one packed in their backpacks. We were set off without much fuss and the first mile was almost comical as there was a reluctance to take the lead. I intended to be towards the front but not leading as it carries a certain responsibility: you could take the whole field astray.

photo Mike

Steven - second place in the 67 miler.
photo Mike

photo Mike

and we're off
photo Mike

The course starts by heading onto the beach and when the guy out front went wrong (a cunning ploy?) I shouted him back towards the KW marker post and reluctantly took the lead. The pace was glacial, as befits a long arduous course. I was probably one of the few runners familiar with the route (from our recce) and so felt I might remember most of the route. However I would have preferred to disguise my intentions in the lead pack for a mile or 2. Before the first mile was up though, I was in the lead and thought I might as well begin the sprint for home from here. Only 34 hilly miles to go.

I knew the first section for us after the short jaunt along the beach was pretty much uphill for 5 miles. Runnable ascent but continual climb. Something to make you sweat. When I looked back I could see a pack following but I had kind of made some distance between us and had put my cards on the table. What the hell, I was feeling fine and the torrential rain of the night and early morning had stopped – the sun was shining and I was having fun.

The recce was a great idea. Again Mike was behind the logistics and it made all the difference. While the route is way-marked with blue posts (most with directional arrows) having done the recce was very reassuring. Racing for over 5hrs one's brain and blood sugar levels can get very wobbly and it would be easy to go the wrong way or lose time looking at a map to double check. As it was, I didn't have to get the maps or route descriptions out once, which I was relieved about, although there were long stretches when I recognised none of the surroundings and wondered if I had missed a turn. It is exhausting trying to keep your brain alert the whole time and inevitably I would drift or daydream and then suddenly I'd be running along trails I'd never seen before and the rising panic would flood my brain until I saw the next way marker or section I recognised. I assume these were bits where I was gabbing on the recce and blindly following, since this did not happen on the SUW which I recced solo and spent the whole time scrupulously reading the map.

There is some really lovely running on this course and the strap line of “the most scenic trail-running event in Britain” isn't an outlandish boast. I was glad however that the 35 miles I ran didn't include Lisa's section along the marble strewn beach for about 9 miles from Clachan to Tayinloan. It was one of the hazards that put me off running the 67miler however we did it at the end of a long day with 20+ miles in our legs. The mud and splosh was much less severe than on the recce but it would still be a LONG day out for those brave 24 souls signed up for the full thing. There were about 57 for the 35 miler. Just a quick mention about those nominal 35.5 miles. I had assumed the point five suggested an accurate measurement of the course however my Garmin said 36.28 and tends to measure short rather than long.

At various points through the wooded forestry trails I saw deer and pheasants and a small shrew thing dead on the trail. It is a very pleasant place to be although if you aren't keen on hills it's not for you. I thought it might be easier ground than the WHW but I think it is as challenging. It feels like a continual roller-coaster of hills with no respite between. The descents were more concerning than the climbs – the drop into Carradale had some nasty slippy slime and a couple of times I thought I was a goner. And the descent on section 5 down to the cp at Ifferdale was a quadtrasher with a cowshit mud bath at the bottom.

Jim just above the Carradale checkpoint.

his photo
photo Jim

First of 2 check points was Carradale and I find the best way to motivate folk into being your slaves is to bark short succinct orders “drop bag 93!” “any water” etc. Strangely the drop bags were hidden indoors and there wasn't any apparent water. (We had been told to carry cups and they would overflow with the provided fluids at cps. Maybe they sorted this service for later runners – I wasn't offered any.) I had quite a bit left in my camelbak reservoir so took a bottle of my home made rocket fuel juice from my drop bag and horsed down a Muller rice like I hadn't eaten for a week. I had a gathering number of gels in the bottom of my pack but hadn't taken the time for them so far.

photo Mike


route what route?

It's only 6 miles to the next cp at Ifferdale but the going is as harsh as any you could hope for. The path dodges round the coast and then clambers over rocks. There isn't a path and you certainly couldn't run it. It is extremely beautiful but very testing and the only section that stopped me running. (I ran every hill.) It would be very easy to twist or break an ankle hurrying too much. From there you rise over the grassy wet field and going inland begin a monster climb. At various points on the climb I took photos of the following runners trying to estimate how much of a lead I had. I felt I was comfortably ahead (times at cps show 4mins) but it's a long way and many things can go wrong. Cramp can nail you to the ground and watch that 4 minutes come and go.

zoom in from here to see (below) 2 runners following

I was still feeling good and enjoying the day, and wondering if I could indeed hold onto the lead. I kept trying to concentrate. It's one thing to lose to a stronger runner, it's another to fluff it because you went the wrong way. Just before Ifferdale was the muddiest part of the 35 miler. 

This marks the left turn into the dark woods!

and back out and over the bridge.

not sure why I am so pleased here

The long descent to Ifferdale


muddy shoes.
Hokas were great though bit slippy in places.

photo Jim

The long descent on thin rough trails ends in a very muddy section you can't avoid and I cursed as my feet got wet and muddy for the first time. I washed them off a bit in the standing water and continued round the field to where the welcome cheery faces of Jim, Neil and Graham were waiting for Mike passing on the baton to Neil for the last leg. 

special mash - mashed potato with hot chillie / veggie sauce - spooned into a cup flask to cool slowly for 20hrs before being spooned (technically sporked) into me at Ifferdale

While I was eating my special mash out of my Fling cupflask, Mike appeared and Neil set off just ahead of me. I had asked about water and only got some because Graham asked the passing farmer if the nearby tap was potable. I would have happily drunk water out the dog's bowl as I knew I had more than a hilly half marathon to go and I was well toasted. I was under the impression I still had loads in my reservoir, however as I climbed the next gigantic hill I hit that fruitless suck where you know that's the end of the juice. That left me with about 300mls of rocket fuel for the 15 miles. I also had a close encounter with the second placed runner, Ross Christie (also Carnethy) who was doing (a very good job of) his first ultra. He looked fine and I wondered if I could keep the 4 minute gap between us.


Mike, photo Jim

Ross at crossover at cp2
photo Jim

Meanwhile up ahead Neil disappeared off. This was not a surprise as the relay course record was in his hands. But I had hoped to stay on his heels for longer and get the benefit of his less addled brain-power / nav skills. There are fewer places to go wrong from here to the end but with stupidification setting in fast I could have done with a pacer. Now and again I would look behind but there was no sign of anyone. Then a junction and arrows on the post. I ran past looking hard at the arrows and trying to work out whether I went left or straight on. The arrows were in opposite directions and indicated we should follow the main path but I just looked and my brain couldn't interpret what the arrows meant. And I didn't remember the route climbing. Should I have taken that turn. Did we cross the valley and go round that corner over there? Could I see Neil on that road? Is the loch round that corner. No idea. I anxiously climbed onwards until the corner at the top and sight of the loch down below. Relief. Mashed brains. Then I put away the camera as a rainstorm was fast approaching. It started to pelt down – really thrash down and the salt on my head ran down into my eyes and stung. I tried to wipe it out my eyes and wondered why it was stinging so much. Aren't we largely made of salt water? Isn't that what's in your eyes anyway? Was I just crying?

here comes the bad weather

I was now very soaking wet. My "water resistant to 100m" watch fritzed. I couldn't have got wetter if I'd jumped into the loch. Crossing the bridge and turning left along the loch was another landmark though, and it was still going ok. As long as I kept going I wouldn't feel the cold. The rain passed and my legs felt slightly refreshed by the wash. Possibly the cold water. I passed a group of walkers in oilskins who gave me encouragement and cheers and I felt suddenly uncontrollably emotional. Get a flippin' grip! I knew what this was, as I had fallen foul of the low blood sugar thing towards the end of the second Fling I did, bursting into tears at the finish. So I lowered the pace (but didn't stop) getting my pack off and fishing out 2 of the more liquid type gels I had. The hardest part is opening them. Like trying to bite the head off a slippery eel. In about a mile I had re-buttoned my emotional nightie and pulled myself together. 

The gravelly track turns into welcome tarmac and there is a rolling 6 miles or so to go. There was the occasional support team parked along the way and it was nice to get a wave and smile. A pro-photographer hastily parked, jumped out and took a couple of shots. I was breezing along pretty sure whoever was chasing wasn't going to be overtaking unless I had a major incident.

only "five miles" to go

A local came out their house and took a photo. But also alarmingly said “only 5 miles to go.” My Garmin read nearly 32 but I tried to reassure myself she probably didn't jog into Campbeltown for the shopping and thought of the distance in car-driver miles (around 5) rather than runners miles (3.83 miles AND NOT A YARD MORE thank you.)

One last incident: I had been having a look behind me, every hilltop, and there was never any sight of anyone, to the point I was fairly confident. I must have stopped checking as suddenly I hear footsteps and someone is 20 yards behind and closing fast. I asked was he a relay runner, and heard in my voice the hellshit panic – what was I going to do otherwise? Pick it up to six minute miling at mile 33 and chase him to the line? Oh sure I could do that. He didn't answer in any hurry, not quickly enough for my liking, eventually letting me know yes he was. He went galloping past and I was alarmed that I hadn't seen him until far too late. Although technically I was already going at full speed – I think 3 of the last 5 miles were done sub 8 minute miling, although that largely due to the downhills.

a Stoney goes past

Eventually you see the outskirts of urbanisation and it has never looked more welcome. Then the road junction with the main road into Campbeltown and I was tempted – given the lack of traffic – to run the last mile down the centre of the road. However I thought, there is still room for big scale cock-up and best to just finish in one piece. Whatever happens don't cross the line arms aloft fingers in Vs as this looks chronic. Just cool it. But the adrenaline got the better of me and I cranked out a sprint for the line, which promptly added 20 years to my age, hobbling like a granny to the showers and needing help to cross the road.


photo Mike

The showers were brilliant and hot and virtually medicinal. I knew better than hang around in cold soaking shorts and I nearly drained the hot tank of the home team before they left the football pitch, (that's strange the showers aren't as hot as usual.) I was tempted to strike up a conversation with the sole player in there, but noticed from his head-in-hands slumped form suggestive of either injury or sent-off-ness he probably wasn't in chatty mode. We showered and changed in silence and I managed not to tell him, “hey loser – I've just won a fucking 36 mile race!”

The Carnethy team also triumphed, however due to a diversion meaning a different length of course from normal, they weren't sure whether that can be the official relay record or not.

Garmin time of 5.14 doesn't include stoppage. Real time was 5.19

Due to family responsibilities etc. there was an inclination to get back home. It's 4hrs from Campbeltown and easier in the daylight. We thanked Rob for the superb organisation, and apologised for not being able to stay for prize-giving which was after 8pm. He presented me with a specially labelled bottle of local single malt for winning the 35miler. 

I would highly recommend The Kintyre Way Ultra. The scenery is outstanding. It has a friendly charm and being off the beaten track is unlikely to become overwhelmed with entrants the way certain other oversubscribed ultras do. The route is tough but interesting. Carrying a camera also recommended. I took around 220 photos while running. I take the photos on the run so it doesn't slow me down, and it is a useful reminder to what the reality actually looks like, often quite different to the reality you are experiencing. Big thanks to Rob and the organisers, caterers, marshals, and all helpers, top event!


  1. Absolutely bloody brilliant! Run, blog, photos, poetic turns of phrase. Congratulations on the lot.

  2. Thanks Andy much appreciated.

  3. Fantastic write up - congratulations on your win! I was around the 20 mile mark when you finished. Funny thing is I can identify with so much of your report, despite being in a completely different class. Running up all those hills! Wow, a well deserved win indeed.