Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Glencoe trail marathon

Autumn colours in Glen Nevis

The route map
This was the inaugural Glencoe marathon and it was always going to be a very scenic, if slightly undulating, route. The race organisers were billing it as the UK's toughest marathon but I sure there are plenty of other worthy contenders for that title.
On the start line
  It was a beautiful bright and very chilly autumn morning when 149 runners lined up shivering at the start of the race at the Red Squirrel campsite in Glencoe and although registration didn’t take long the actual start itself did seem to be a bit of a faff. The runners were set off in “waves” according to predicted finishing time and needless to say I couldn’t remember what time I had predicted for myself when I had entered the race some months previously so I hung around the start while the “Golden Eagle group” (sub 5 hour runners) the ”Red Deer group” (sub 6 hour runners) and the “Mountain Hare group” (sub 6.5 hour runners) took their places. With there not being a “Mountain Slugs group” to join I decided that I would be a Red Deer for the day and took my place in the middle of the field and my decision was finalised by Emma Baker, fellow trotter and ultra runner extraordinaire, lining up in the Golden Eagles start. Before being set off we all had to “dib” our electronic dibbers or timing devices which added to the faff as well as listen to quite a lengthy spiel from the organisers about how we were such pioneers for doing this race and how much great work we were doing for the race’s chosen charity which is fine on a warm day but not quite so entertaining when you are freezing your butt off and just want to get on with the race. Why do race organisers always insist on doing this? Its one of life’s great mysteries.

With conventional wisdom being that it is unwise to run two marathons within a month of each other I set off intending to exercise a little bit of caution and self preservation with my next race being less than a month away so I trotted off steadily through Glencoe making a conscious effort to munch on jelly babies at regular intervals to ensure a constant supply of sugar through my bloodstream as often I have real problems with consuming enough calories during long races. I had also taken my camera with me and I intended to take photos to distract myself if the going got a bit tough and also to force myself to take it a bit easier in the early stages of the race. There appeared to be quite a few younger runners in the field who set off quite quickly but from experience I knew that the danger in races like this comes in the later stages from the more experienced older runners who have set off steadily.

The stretch through Glencoe was glorious with the mountains shimmering in their autumn colours and at times lit up by the sunlight against a vivid blue sky. The route followed bits of path and old drovers road through Glencoe crossing over, and running on trails, alongside the busy main road at some points.
At the first drinks station the real climbing started over boggy tussocky ground which slowed progress dramatically and I took the opportunity to cram down a few more jelly babies before the route joined the Devils Staircase and the real ascent began. It didn’t seem long before I reached the top of the Staircase but then my descending skills, or lack thereof, let me down and I lost some of the places that I had gained on the climb as people went past including, annoyingly, one female competitor. The path widens towards the approach to Kinlochleven and the rest of the descent was without incident before I checked in at the Kinlochleven checkpoint and aid station where I was credited with the dubious honour of being the only runner to request a gin and tonic. Now theres something to be proud of.
View from the Devils staircase
  At Kinlochleven I was passed by another female competitor who took off quickly and headed off into the distance but by now I was feeling strong on the climbs although less so on the flat sections so I worked hard on the climb out of Kinlochleven and caught her on the section of path just before it levelled out. Now we were on the home run, albeit quite a long home run, so I scoffed a few more jelly babies and put my head down. By now the camera was well and truly tucked away in my backpack and all thoughts of my forthcoming Himalayan adventure were gone as I headed for Fort William as quickly as i could force my legs to go. In typical Glencoe fashion the weather had changed and a shroud of mist now hung over the hills, a breeze had got up and some drizzle was blowing through and for the first time since the start I was aware of feeling chilled. 

At the next aid station there was a bit of a queue so I skipped that one and ran on and settled for eating yet more…you’ve guessed it…jelly babies. While my legs were feeling fine and I was overtaking other runners relentlessly my stomach was doing cart wheels and I ran along fighting a bad bout of nausea. At the final aid station at the Lundavra road head I decided to give the jelly babies a miss and took an energy gel but could only manage to stomach half a mouthful of the sweet sticky contents. Eventually I settled for munching a custard cream biscuit that I had picked up at an earlier aid station but didn’t feel I could request a cup of tea to dunk it in….

By now it was only 5 miles or so to the finish line including the long descent through the forest.  At this stage I was for the most part running on my own and the orange marker flags marking the route were very spread out so I had a couple of nervous moments when I thought it had been too long since I had seen a marker flag and this wasn’t helped when my garmin beeped to let me know that 26.2 miles had passed and I was still in a forest clearly nowhere near the finish line. This would have been an interesting study into runner psychology given how close I was to breaking the 5hr barrier… I decided that swearing out loud and stomping down the hill even faster were the only real options left to me, at least I was still running downhill which was a good sign and after what seemed like an eternity  a short steep muddy path led to the road and the finish line in Glen Nevis.
The finish line in Glen Nevis
 It was a fantastic event but being a Sunday it meant that few folk were able to stay on after the race and there was a large time difference between the first and last finishers so other than a few people hanging around at the finish to avail themselves of the free soup and hog roast on offer it all sort of fizzled out which was a bit of a shame.  A ceildh in Fort William would have been a good end to the weekend! The fantastic scenery and views really made the event and we were very lucky with the weather. It’s a race that could easily turn in to a bit of an ordeal if the weather was poor as much of the route is very exposed.

At the start Emma and I had been wondering why the slowest weren’t being set off first as you would expect thus decreasing the gap between the first and last runners finishing but the reason for this became obvious as you ran through Glencoe, it would have been difficult and even dangerous to have faster runners overtaking slower runners on the narrow paths and alongside the main road.

Course profile
 I was happy enough with my 49th place out of the 144 who finished and i was 8th female out of 36. Emma had finished 4th female. My garmin stats said that the route was 27.2 miles with 4656ft of climb.
 It was a really good well organised event and one I would like to do again although I’m not sure how long it will be before I can look a jelly baby in the eye again without feeling the slightest bit queasy.


  1. hey Louise. I took part in this on Sunday. And i came 5th from last. I had thought id trained enough, but obviously wrong. it was my first ever marathon...,I was wondering if you would mind contacting me for some tips./ pointers on how to do events like this!! Peter Thompson. you can see me on facebook. i live in stornoway.

  2. Hi Louise - thanks for the super story of your marathon. This helps me a lot. I am doing it this year. Can you give me any tips?

    1. Hello, I think the best bit of advice is to make sure you have enough warm kit with you as the weather can change very quickly in Glencoe and to make sure you eat enough. I wore pretty supportive trail shoes as most of it, apart from the little section through the bog, is on good stony track so anything minimalist will probably kill your feet. Don't forget to look at the scenery though!!!

  3. Hi Louise. Great effort on Glencoe.

    I'm running it next month - any chance you could post a link to your garmin - I'd love to see the route in more detail? Thanks - and best of luck !