WILD HILLS & WHISKEY

Matt May­nard tack­les 71 miles of wicked hills, weari­ness and a wee dram of whiskey on Scot­land’s Great Glen Way Pho­tos

Trail Running (UK) - - Contents -

Just two of the many rea­sons to tackle Scot­land’s mag­nif­i­cent Great Glen Way

Jimmy Hy­land, www.jh­parchive.co.uk

I’ve been pok­ing around this re­mote cor­ner of Bri­tain for the past few days. Noth­ing is quite as it seems. On the first day I ex­plored a wilder­ness re­serve with a game­keeper who plans to rein­tro­duce wolves. We met at 4pm, driv­ing deep into ‘rewil­ded’ land. In­stead of sheep and deer, here they guard small flocks of an­cient trees. The wolves, he ex­plains, will one day do the guard­ing. Trees will re­turn bio­di­ver­sity to the moun­tains stripped to grass.

Run­ning is pos­si­ble for 20 hours a day with­out a headtorch in high sum­mer. The sun does set, but seems to get stuck be­neath the hori­zon. The same evening of the wolf trip, we go for a shake­out jog from In­ver­ness at 10:30pm. The sun is still shin­ing. Over the next hour, forests and lochs turn a brief navy-blue. The sun is back a few hours later.

I’m here to run the 71-mile Great Glen Ul­tra, along the Great Glen Way Na­tional Trail from Fort Wil­liam to In­ver­ness. When I signed up, I knew I could com­plete the dis­tance. But in­jury struck eight weeks be­fore the event, just as I was crank­ing up. On a measly diet of re­hab and bik­ing I limped my way into sum­mer. By race day I feel re­cov­ered, but my lack of train­ing now puts me into ter­ri­tory as un­fa­mil­iar as the land­scape we are set­ting out for. Into the twi­light We be­gin at 1am. The pack of run­ners is quiet as we pace down the Cale­do­nian Canal in the twi­light. Some run­ners don’t bother with head torches, but I keep mine on and strike up con­ver­sa­tion. To­day there’s noth­ing to be fright­ened of, but 300 years ago the Great Glen was clan coun­try. Fort Wil­liam, now be­hind us, kept out the rebels of the Ja­co­bite re­bel­lion. Tales of bru­tal ex­e­cu­tions, moun­tain­side bat­tles and death by ex­po­sure to the el­e­ments haunt these parts. Wolves haven’t been seen here since 1680 and are in­cor­rectly ma­ligned as a threat to hu­mans (blame Walt Dis­ney for that). I run a lit­tle too quick down the 10-mile tow­path, know­ing I’ll pay the price by morn­ing. The Great Glen

Way even­tu­ally breaks into for­est trails be­side the imag­i­na­tively named Loch Lochy. In­side it’s dark and cool, and for the first time in days it seems like night has fi­nally fallen. I’m run­ning with my long-time ad­ven­ture pal James. We take turns to set the pace, tell aw­ful jokes and iden­tify hills steep enough to war­rant a walk. Ap­proach­ing the aid sta­tion in North Lag­gan, a vol­un­teer shouts out our num­bers and our per­sonal se­lec­tion bag of race food is passed to us. James is a much bet­ter run­ner than me these days, but nei­ther of us are go­ing to win any medals on this par­tic­u­lar out­ing. Some­times, when it’s 4am in a High­land wood­land, it’s bet­ter to share your crisps and flap­jacks than go run­ning off alone.

Soon the sun is hov­er­ing back on the hori­zon. We re­join the canal at Aber­chalder, and the wa­ter steams like an Ice­landic geyser in the day’s first rays. The whole Great Glen Way is, in fact, a geother­mic li­a­bil­ity. The Kes­sock Bridge at In­ver­ness is built to re­sist earthquakes, af­ter a 1901 tremor caused chim­neys to fall and a crack to ap­pear in the Cale­do­nian Canal. Our en­tire route has been cre­ated by earth­heav­ing ac­tiv­ity around 350 mil­lion years ago. My pace is the only thing not smok­ing this morn­ing. Lack­ing suf­fi­cient co­er­cion in train­ing, my knees are mis­be­hav­ing on the Tar­mac. Crunch­ing away like Kel­logg’s Corn­flakes, I bar­gain them into a slow jog be­fore col­lect­ing my break­fast food bag at the 30-mile check­point.

Siege tac­tics

By Fort Au­gus­tus. The corn­flakes in my knees are turn­ing ra­zor-like and it feels like I’ve gone too deep. In 1746, a siege was suc­cess­fully waged here by the Ja­co­bite rebels as they at­tempted to re­turn the ousted Stu­art fam­ily to the throne. Now fully 272 years later we try the same tac­tics by hav­ing a sit, a good moan and re­fus­ing to move at the aid sta­tion car park.

We power-hike in si­lence on a steep road as the heat be­gins to ping from its sur­face. It’s into steep conifer and Scots pine for­est from here. A few com­peti­tors trickle ahead of us. Then it’s into open coun­try, high above Loch Ness, the trail con­tour­ing be­tween beds of pur­ple heather. The pho­tog­ra­pher Jimmy Hy­land star­tles up from one of these for a high-five. It keeps us go­ing, but other run­ners con­tinue push­ing past.

Wonky with whiskey

From the route’s high point it should be a won­der­ful view over Loch Ness. I should see wa­ters peel­ing away through a glacier-gouged val­ley, hill­sides pock­marked with beech and the oc­ca­sional golden ea­gle swirling on ther­mals. But I’m asleep. James couldn’t keep pace with my moan­ing

‘The con­nec­tion to the land­scape I’ve been mov­ing through forms a cu­ri­ous knot in my throat.’

dur­ing the climb, and sen­si­bly pushed on ahead. I set my alarm for 15 min­utes of shut-eye and I’m out like a can­dle in a High­land hur­ri­cane. Groggy eyed and short of ex­cuses I even­tu­ally plod across the hill­side into the vil­lage of Drum­nadro­chit.

Scot­tish race di­rec­tor Bill is here with a bot­tle of whiskey in his hands. Ac­cept­ing his shot glass of medicine, I wob­ble onto the wood­land climb of Creag Nay. Soon the stands of conifers be­gin weav­ing in front of my eyes. Next thing I know, a run­ner is above me, ask­ing if I’m okay. I try a lit­tle slurry con­ver­sa­tion, but my guts are messed up from my en­ergy gel break­fast, and it comes out as a fart. I push on alone to the fin­ish.

Scot­land’s Great Glen race has been bruis­ingly bru­tal. Over the last 70 miles the beauty of its hills, its his­tory and the wild plans for its fu­ture have con­densed in my imag­i­na­tion. As I ap­proach In­ver­ness, this con­nec­tion to the land­scape I’ve been mov­ing through forms a cu­ri­ous knot in my throat.

It hasn’t been the race that I’d wanted and cross­ing the fin­ish line I let out a howl of re­lief. The wolf hasn’t quite run free this time. Hope­fully in the not too dis­tant fu­ture, there’ll be a chance for it to scam­per over these Scot­tish hills

once more.

Get­ting warmed up for wild hills and whiskey on Scot­land’s Great Glen Way p30

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