Monday, 15 August 2016

The Fort William Marathon

The Commando Memorial

The race medal

 The Commando Memorial is dedicated to the men of the original British Commando forces during World War 2. It is a category A listed monument.

This was the second staging of this new marathon replacing the old Lochaber marathon. Whereas the old Lochaber marathon was a rather joy-less affair of a flat out-and-back road course the Fort William marathon is a bit more of an adventure, starting and finishing at the Aonoch mor ski centre up on the side of the hill a few miles outside Fort William. It had a bit of everything, land rover track, narrow muddy trail, quiet back roads, mountain bike track and canal path and, with less than 500 runners, the field spread out nicely so that you were never out of sight of other runners but at the same time it wasn’t crowded. And being Fort William it rained. Rather a lot.
Camping in the shadow of Ben Nevis
Camping essentials
The sun struggling to break through the cloud and mist
I arrived at the start at the ski centre having had a very relaxing evening camping in Glen Nevis in the shadow of Ben Nevis, my fears about noisy school holiday campsites had not come to fruition despite the massive tailback of traffic driving into Fort William and how busy everywhere was. Happily the campsite seemed to strictly enforce their “no noise between 11pm and 7am” policy and I managed to find a quiet spot at the back of the field to pitch the tent. Even better the midges were strangely absent and people were actually able to sit outside their tents and enjoy the evening. It hadn’t started to rain by early evening so I treated myself to a post dinner walk to the foot of Ben Nevis as the evening sunshine tried to break through before retreating to my tent for an early night. When I woke up the tent was soaking wet, it must have rained in the night so first task of the day was packing up a very soggy tent.
The start and finish line
This is the location of the world downhill mountain bike course - if you feel brave enough
I got up to the ski centre in good time before the race start and milled around chatting with other runners before lining up on the start line. The drive up to the start line meant that it was impossible to ignore the fact that this was going to be a proper uphill finish and so my race plan was built around making sure I had something in reserve for those last three uphill miles.

A nice uphill finish
The gun was fired and off we all charged into the forest. The initial part of the route was over undulating forest track, the course marked by large yellow sign boards with big black arrows on them however within 4 miles I had the novel experience of being passed by the leaders who apparently had managed to not follow the arrows and had run nearly a mile extra at that early point in the race. Must have been very disheartening for them. I can only assume the arrow marker at that point had been blown over or moved by someone? I never did hear the full story but it did seem strange though as generally there were a lot of marshals out on the course and it was very well sign posted.
Setting off through the forest (photo: Fiona Rennie)
It was muddy in parts (photo: Fiona Rennie)
Parts were nice even track (Photo: Fiona Rennie)
High Bridge (photo: Fiona Rennie)
Photographer at the 11 mile mark. He was probably being eaten alive by midges (Photo: Fiona Rennie)

 The course passes the remains of High Bridge. This bridge was originally built by General Wade in 1736 as a river crossing on the Inverness to Fort William Military Road. It was replaced in 1819 by a Telford designed bridge crossing the river Spean in a different location. Although it is a listed structure it is falling into a derelict state. Highbridge was also the site of the first battle of the 1745 uprising.

Coming out of the woods the course then turns down to Spean Bridge, where a crowd of spectators were waiting at the road crossing to cheer the passing runners, and up the hill past the Commando memorial which is featured on the very substantial finishers medal every runner received, before yet more climbing, this time on the road. Next there is a gentle descent taking you down to the Caledonian canal which the course follows for the next 5 or so miles on its flat towpath with people in kayaks and boats cheering on the runners and the odd bemused Great Glen Way hiker walking past wondering what happened to their quiet walk through the Sottish highlands.
The canal section
the long flat section of the race
I had mixed feelings initially about this canal section at first thinking that it was a shame for a marathon in such a mountainous area to choose the flattest place possible to run along but I soon found the canal section just as challenging in its own right (long, dead flat and into a slight headwind) and I notice that this week on the race facebook page there has been a poll held as to whether this section should be included in the course next year so I can only assume there were a few others who found it equally tricky. There was nothing for it but to try and zone out while keeping some form of forward motion going and surprisingly perhaps the miles seemed to pass quickly enough. It has to be said though if the race organisers are looking to alter the route to include more hills then I have quite a few suggestions as to how this could be done and it wouldn’t be difficult to find some hilly off road routes here in fact at times it seemed a shame that we were running in the presence of mist shrouded giants without the pleasure of actually climbing them.
Plenty of options for a hilly marathon course ;-)
By the time we reached the turning on to the road at Corpach at roughly 20 miles and were greeted by the welcome sight of the railway station I was ready for some hill running and, by the time we reached mile 22, my wish was granted as the route wound its way through the trees climbing back up to the ski centre. As soon as we started on the uphill section I started to feel happier and stronger and decided for the first time in well over 10 years to try an energy gel, after all what could go wrong?! The sweet sugary substance was nowhere nearly as grim and sickly as I thought it was going to be and seemed to be all the fuel I needed to keep running up hill to the finish passing quite a few other runners who were walking by this stage. The final 0.2 miles of the course were over the mountain bike tracks which I thought was a nice, if slightly sadistic, touch by the organisers and as I ran the last 50 yards of the race the sun finally came out after 4 hours of grey skies and intermittent rain showers.
Reaching the finish in the sunshine
 This race had the feeling of a low key informal friendly event and although surprisingly I didn’t really know many of the other runners there were one or two familiar faces so I hung around at the finish line for a while chatting and putting off the inevitable long drive home.
I suspect Pauline and Fiona were treating the marathon as speedwork for another great big long ultra race!
Race goody bag contents.


  1. Great report on a great "wee" race, must admit I resorted to ultra rules during the last 3 miles and walked bits! xx

  2. Thanks for the report and the enthusiasm. I think it has enspired me to do it next year. Cheers and well done.