Monday, 7 March 2016

into the wild

Last week went well. Very well. I got the week's work finished (and paid!) on Thursday and got the early bus home. So I was feeling pretty chipper at Wintervals on Thurs eve with the lads, although it is always a session to leave you whipped and gasping on the damp sod of Arthur's Seat. Graham suggested he was doing a longish run on Saturday and that I might like to come along. The early start was discouraging but he sent me an email with maps and I was unable to resist the lure of 40 miles snaking north along valleys from Blair Atholl to Kingussie. I wasn't familiar with the route but a glorious (if chilly) forecast sealed the deal. Graham was waiting outside my front door at 5.58am.

Trusting the nav to Nasher my only homework had been to establish where the war memorials were at either end of our run. At 7.25 we parked up between the station and the Atholl Arms directly across the road from the WW1 memorial which looks like a petrified tree trunk but is a giant rock. All we needed to do now was to run 30+miles and March's Tynecastle Bronze was in the bag. We didn't even need the one in Kingussie which was on Station Rd and presumably within sight of where we would be catching the 4.47pm train back to the car.

Gregor and Steven arrived in Steven's van and we all set off. Graham had done sections of this run but not linked it all together. The route was largely to run North for about 20 miles then turn slightly left and run North West for another 20. The only downside was the wind was from the North. I had hoped that we would be sheltered from the wind by the hills either side of us. I think if we had realised the hills would act like a wind tunnel so we had to shout over the howling gale at times, we would have caught the first train North and run back the way. After a while it eased off or we got accustomed to it. Despite Gregor not wearing gloves in the photo below it was defo gloves and hat weather. Unlike the other 3, I was wearing shorts, not being a huge fan of running in tights. Again, if I had known what lay ahead I might have opted for more leg cover.

Steven, Graham, Gregor

The weather was what made the day. We certainly had moments of grey clouds and showers of sleety snow but they were few and far between and the wind kept them moving along. The majority of the day was as advertised - blue skies and sunshine. Hallelujah!

where eagles dare

The first dozen miles were up a valley with impressive hills either side, before it opened out and became more like a plateau or flood plane. Most of the going was really good easy running on landrover trails, with sections of thinner tracks lightly dusted with snow and ice that you had to be careful on.

Very picturesque bridge around 13 miles

Looking back the way we came.

The route had climbed slowly and as we ascended there was more snow cover.
On the plus side the snow was recent and there wasn't ice on top which made it okay for running.

It was turning into a magnificent run and I was taking loads of photos. Around 16 miles Steven let us know he was tired and preferred to turn around, happy to do 32+ rather than 40. Although he had issues I think he was mainly just tired from the early start and a snooze by the bridge on the return would suggest this was the case. I was very glad I had got Friday off and had spent much of it catching up with sleep and preparing for an early rise. We were sorry that Steven was feeling below par but given what was to come it was a propitious move. And he would be travelling downhill with the wind to his back.

About 17 miles there was the ruin of this hunting lodge. Given the snowy surroundings it felt very remote, but we were still running along landrover trails. Presumably the ones along which were brought the construction materials for this building originally. We sat with our backs against the supported wall out the wind and had sandwiches/lunch. Fuelling is very important on longer runs and I had been eating bits of sports bars and flapjacks (and Double Deckers - see Mary's Blog) from before we set off.

Some fast running on broad trails after lunch before we came to the first big crossing without a bridge. Wet feet were the only option and the snow-melt water as you can imagine was VERY cold. Feet were numb and you were running on your ankles as Gregor said, for a few hundred yards until the feeling came back. 


I think this marked the point at which we turned left (North West). The trails were fine and broad for a few miles then, just as we could see the ruins of another lodge, we veered right and up a small trail. This was about 21 miles and the next four were about as bad as bad can get. 

Still great fun at this point.

The snow hid the path and we were never terribly sure if we were on it or not. We were travelling in the right direction but it was several miles of very hard going. After being reduced to a walk, a foot would go through a yard of snow and you had to crawl out on hands and knees with a wet foot where it found the stream below. First time was amusing. 18th time less so. Snow storms swirled around to add to the threatening atmosphere and the banter stopped as we retreated into our internal worlds. Gregor said his heart rate monitor showed he was working as hard over this ground as when running. Except instead of 8 minute miling we were 25 minute miling. All of a sudden the prospect of catching the 4.47 train seemed less in the bag than before. The next train after was 7.40, and we didn't know how many miles of struggle lay ahead. Most of this unspoken, but there was a tension in the air. Heads down and exhausting high knee stepping through the interminable snow. 

across the Siberian Tundra we spotted a herd of deer

They saw us and legged it, although when we passed by where they had been (a thousand hoof prints in the snow) there was a strong goaty-horsey smell. There were accusations and denials.

Some bits were terrific and the pace would pick up then the 4" deep snow would turn into 18" deep stuff and we would be reduced to a walk. It was an amazing landscape to be in. And I was very glad there was no ice crust to skin shins and knees. The Hoka trail shoes I was wearing (Challenger ATRs) were great and I suspect the extra width of the soles, like snow shoes, gave me an advantage over the other 2. Graham did just about all of the trail breaking. Sometimes we would follow in his footsteps other times they were so deep it was just as easy to go to one side. However we would get a warning of where the deepest bits were and try to go round when Nasher went up to his waist. I tried to stay positive; thinking how it was an excellent workout. But we were all very ready to get back to the better trails beyond by the time we got to the bridge at the far end of the section. I think we might have been walking in deep stuff for 90 minutes or more, I kind of lost the will to live and remember it. 

right leg disappears into the snow
yes and I am wearing shorts

towards the end of the ordeal

We saw a couple of Mountain Hares - the first shot off at 90mph before I could get the camera out. The second, above, when it saw us, lowered its ears. Much preferred tactic.

Graham was navigating possibly using his phone and/or his previous route file. It was very impressive to hear him say the bridge should be 100 yards over to our right and when we climbed over the snowy hill sure enough there was the bridge. It was good to know that if we were going to die at least we'd know the exact spot. I had hoped the snow would thin out after the bridge. For a while it was worse then we worked our way onto a broader trail and were past the worst. Great relief, not only to be on a better trail again but to be able to run and warm up. I fell a couple of times around this point - just slight carelessness and possibly mild hypothermia, and so was glad to get going again properly. When I fell the camera popped out the chest strap pocket and into the snow. It got covered in snow a couple of times and I worried it might fritz. However it survived, although a few of the images are a bit blurred from smears on the lens.

This crossing marked the last of the bad terrain. We followed landrover trails for a couple of miles of gradual descent, and much improved running conditions. As we descended the snow cover receded until we came back onto dirt trails with just patches of snow. The snow had been very cushioning and it felt quite different stepping back onto hard pack. After a couple more miles we came to a bothy where we hoped there would be occupants and a roaring fire. There were 4 guys there but they were saving their coal for the evening. They reported the night before had been perishing cold. We could see they had used their resources to carry in booze rather than coal and were perhaps going to rely on internal heating. We ate some more food and then set off on the last 8~10 miles. 

There were some really nice forestry trails and some less nice miles. In several places you could see the damage wrought by the winter's rain. Normally the snow would sit on the high ground but being unusually warm the rain ran into the rivers which became torrents and washed away bridges and left rubble strewn along their way. Below (where the walkers are approaching) is a what used to be a stepping stone crossing of a stream that had swollen until it washed away the banks at both sides and left a landslide of rocks we had to cross. Next shot down: a bridge was damaged and the stream took a different course leaving us to wade through the icy water. 

We hit various bits of road and trails. The train was 70 minutes away with 7 miles to go. Normally 10min miles would be a doddle but after 8 hrs running it would be touch and go. A fair bit of the running was downhill but there were still fields and rough ground to cross. Every up hill slowed us to worse than 10m/m. Graham and I were out front while Gregor (on antibiotics for his chest and coughing!) was about 60 yards behind. I noticed Graham nimbly jump a low (below knee height) barbed wire fence. I walked up to it then stepped over unable to trust my legs. I had been hating the last mile or 2 and just wanted the journey to end. I couldn't believe there were several more miles and that there was no escape, and in fact we'd have to increase the pace. (You almost always go through these bad patches in ultras.) Then the path we were on went through some trees (below) and for 200 yards it was delightful. Enough to merit getting the camera out and snapping a pic of Graham skipping merrily away through the pines. Maybe it wasn't so bad. We popped out moments later onto a muddy road and over a bridge with just 3 miles left and 27 minutes. Would we be able to manage 9min/miles? Before we had the chance to find out we realised Gregor wasn't behind us. Graham retraced our steps and phoned Gregor while I ducked into the bushes for a toilet break. In an impressively short time Graham established Gregor had dropped back and missed a crucial turn at a cross roads, gone straight on then turned in the wrong direction when he hit the bridgey road. Gregor came back up the road to meet us at the bridge but by that time even on bicycles we wouldn't have made the train.

We ran on for a bit then after clocking 40miles-and-change on Gregor's Sunnto we walked and called up Steven. He had texted earlier to say he had made it back to Blair Atholl. We volunteered him to drive up the road and meet us at the chip shop, Kingussie. Which he, god bless him, did. Saving us from a 2.5hr wait on the next train. He drove us back down the road to Blair Atholl (after a chip supper) where I put everything I was wearing into a bin bag and changed into marvellously dry and warm clothes. The drive back to Edinburgh whizzed by and I even had the energy after dumping all my kit indoors, to go across the road and pick up a bottle of beer. It tasted super fabulous while I uploaded all the photos from the day.

Huge thanks to Graham for looking after us so well and planning a brilliant adventure. One of the best ever long days out and exactly the sort of "running" I am more drawn to these days. So much more rewarding than, for instance, running round Callander Park for 50 minutes with 500 other dudes. Although at times it nearly felt a little too adventurous; 20 miles from civilisation and something like a broken ankle could have resulted in a helicopter rescue, or worse. However we all survived and had a tremendous day out. The only regret I have is I forgot to get a team shot of us all looking heroic. Which we certainly were!

On the way to the chip shop, Kingussie.

Well, it was cosier in Steven's van.

Unfortunately the Garmin stopped recording for 3 miles, possibly a fall knocked it off. I noticed at the Bothy and put it back on. It did record nearly 39 miles in 7.5 hrs although it admits the elapsed time was 9.32, and so we probably did nearer 42. The three slowest miles were around 20minutes each. Gregor said his Suunto suggested he burned 4500 calories.


  1. FANTASTIC adventure, and glad you are all okay. Stunning photos, as always :)

  2. You passed my group of walkers in the final stages of the forest along the River Feshie, we had been up Mullach Clach a Bhlair. I thought the first runner looked slightly familiar but didn't make the connection. Anyway glad there are no grumbles about people blocking your way because I only moved in time for the third runner I think. What an *incredible* day of running in such fantastic surroundings.

    1. I think I wondered if it was you, but dismissed it as you looked a bit different. That's my group of walkers in your photo!

  3. Hi Mary,
    I like to think we would be polite about not barging past fellow trail users. I try to smile and say hello to walkers as I pass. I might have "looked different" due to weariness. Do throw a stick at me next time! Hope you enjoyed the day as much as we did.

    1. You weren't barging at all - just that you were strung out and didn't expect the first, or the second ... We all enjoyed, it was a brilliant day for it ... much better than 3 weeks back when I was last up there, and had to plough my legs through many of those knee-deep-+ drifts (not in shorts though - buy yourself a pair of tights!)