Skye Trail Ultra – the race

I guess to understand how good I felt taking off down Glen Sligachan that night in the pouring rain, you have to understand how bad I’d felt just a few weeks before.

I had been on my feet for 15 maybe 16 hours by this point, and I couldn’t believe how different I felt compared to the soggy, sore, slightly broken person who had arrived at the checkpoint in the Sligachan Hotel car park a little while earlier. It was so strange, but also funny, and I heard myself chuckling away inside my waterproofs, wondering what on earth people would think if they came up behind me.

I was wearing clean, dry, fresh, new running shoes. Dry socks.

My feet were dry.

Yes, they were blistered, but they were dry at last.

I was wearing my new waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, my headtorch, my cap, a couple of layers underneath. The rain was really coming down now, but there I was, toasty warm, jacked up on tea and chips, and I felt incredible.

This was known territory now, I was 38 miles into the truly incredible Skye Trail Ultramarathon race, and I was starting to believe that I could do it after all.

A quick nosey at the race website will reveal a little more about the race, but a summary would be 74ish miles along the Skye Trail, an unmarked long distance walking route running the whole length of the island from Duntulm in the north via Portree, Peinchorran, Sligachan, Elgol, Boreraig finishing in Broadford, with a massive 4460m of elevation (that’s pretty much half of Everest).

The race is organised by a tiny team of hardy enthusiastic Scottish folk – runners, mountaineers, climbers with many years of experience out in wild places in rotten weather. Race director Jeff strikes an excellent balance between encouraging newcomers and ensuring people are aware of what they are undertaking.

Make no mistake, this is serious stuff. The race briefing was the longest one I’ve been to, and rightly so. It included extremely comprehensive verbal instructions as to the known tricky bits on the route (with a couple of locals helpfully adding their own excellent advice and lines), how best to deal with large livestock if necessary, and how best to signal to the coastguard helicopter if you needed rescuing. There are no roads or paths up on the ridge and access is tricky if anything goes wrong.

So what on earth was I doing here and why did I want to do it?

I had covered a similar distance before, at last year’s Great Glen Ultra, but on much easier ground. This race involved much more extreme terrain and much more experience and self-reliance. I’m no stranger to the hills, to big distances, to Weather and bogs and fells and moors and getting lost and figuring it out when things go wrong. It would be a massive undertaking for me, no question, but I wanted to try.

This would be a very long post if I told you the whole story blow by blow. If I told you about the drive up through the most beautiful weather I’ve ever experienced in this area of Scotland. About my recent Scottish immigrant parents sitting in the car with a road atlas each pointing out all the things we were driving past as it was all new for them.

About the utter astonishment on arriving at our Air BnB – a croft that was so far along the Lower Breakish road it was almost back on the mainland. About the good luck card and bottle of Prosecco that the croft owner had left in the fridge. About meeting up with the others for Jeff’s race briefing, and getting more and more nervous all the time.

So I’ll leave all that, and I’ll pick up with my mum kindly and firmly sending me off to bed on the Friday night, promising to make the precious rocket fuel marmite sandwiches for me, as I faffed endlessly and pointlessly over my already carefully sorted kit.

My dad very kindly drove me to the village hall in Broadford to get the 3am minibus up to Duntulm for the 5am start. He came in and said hello to everyone in the hall and then left me to it. The midges were out and he is not a fan, so off he went back to bed.

IMG_2083
3am and the sun is starting to rise over the mainland already
At registration I caught up with Donna who I’d met at the Fling a couple of years back. And there was someone else who sounded and looked familiar – it was Barley Sugar Mike from the Great Glen last year (he was so named by me because I pinched his sweets off him when he retired at Drumnadrochit, waste not want not).

Jeff packed us all into the minibus, booted us out to locate the keys, and we arrived at the start just after 4.30. Jeff was worrying about being late, but a few of us pointed out the race couldn’t start without him or us and he relaxed a bit.

We lurked around the car park above the Duntulm phonebox waiting for the time to tick by, feeling anxious and watching the sun come up.

The sunrise was an absolute cracker. There was an incredible sense of camaraderie among this small band of folk, we all knew we were there for something special and that by the end of the next day, we would all be full of stories and we’d all have had a myriad of different experiences despite starting at the same time and place.

We wandered down to the start line. The countdown started after a small debate of 1-2-3 or 3-2-1, and we were finally off after months of preparation and many miles of driving.

18768372_10213172566898502_6483187284592955527_o
Photo by Fiona Rennie
I soon met fellow competitor Carolyn and sweeper Andy, and introduced myself as I knew we’d be spending a lot of time together.

The first climb was long, hard, incredibly steep and really tough under foot, and a small part of me wondered if I’d been kidding myself about this. But the sun continued to rise over to our left, and gradually things eased off. The views across the sea were astonishing, and it felt so special to be in this place at this time in the morning. All along the ridge we could hear cuckoos and it was just magical.

Soon we were clambering over the fence and heading down to the Quiraing.

I’m glad of the photos I’ve seen from here. There was so much to take in, and I don’t really remember much of being here. Although we did come across a camera club who had come out at an ungodly hour, probably hoping to get nice peaceful pictures of the sunrise, which were of course interrupted by chatty smelly runners.

IMG_2091
actual trails! luxury!
18768604_10213172593819175_8969727503005323789_o
None of the usual race gurning. Thanks to Fiona Rennie for the fab photo!
The road crossing and water station was a very welcome sight and brief change of scenery. I refilled my bottles as there would be nothing but the slight possibility of stream water for 20 miles, and then we set off for the rest of the ridge.

Endless up and down. The torture of inching your way down some steep descents while confronted with the very visible steep ascent straight back up the next hill. Losing track of all the hills because there were so many of them and really we were just following Andy.

At one point I asked Andy which the next hill was.

I’m not sure, he said, but locally it’s known as…

Beinn Bastard.

There was a chuckle all round as we were all still in quite good spirits, and this grew legs.

I said, well if it was a proper hill, in Gaelic surely it would be the Old Bastard of Something.

Or the Old, Red (or Grey) Bastard of… Something.

Carolyn piped up, aye and there would be a song about it.

We all laughed, I laughed quite hard because I think I’d had my 9am tin of coke by now, and I’m still laughing now at the memory of this ridiculous, sleep-deprived, typical random runner hill chat.

At one point, Neil and Alex from the race team appeared saying there was a problem as someone was missing. They’d set out to look for the missing runner, and to collect Andy who as sweeper would drop back if needed. As he left, Alex helpfully reminded us we were still leading the ladies’ race, which made us laugh considering we were right at the back.

Andy took his leave, and Carolyn and I continued together. We were really concerned for the missing runner’s welfare, and we hoped the others weren’t put in too much danger searching for him.

Somewhere around the Storr just as Carolyn and I were sussing out the best route around it, Andy re-appeared. He dropped straight to the ground on his belly, fished about under the peat and produced a bottle re-filled with water. He gestured for our bottles and filled them for us – we had been starting to run pretty low so we were extremely grateful, bits of peat or no bits of peat.

We reached the last big climb over Beinn Dearg. Carolyn and I were flagging, but we tanked ourselves up on gels and set off to get it done, step by step, working together to keep our spirits up as we hoofed up the side of the hill on hands and feet and tried to avoid the looser gravelly bits. Andy said to take our time and do it in phases, even he didn’t do this hill in one go, but I really think he was just being kind.

The long descent off the ridge was utterly miserable. There were clouds of drizzle starting to pass over, the boggy tussocks got bigger and further apart and my usual cheery patter (that had no doubt been driving Carolyn and Andy up the wall) was now reduced to the odd grunt.

IMG_2105

Finally the road was in sight. Carolyn flew off into the distance and I plodded through the softly falling rain to the Portree checkpoint where my parents were waiting for me. Also, there was Carolyn, waiting with a big smile on her face because somewhere back on the ridge, she had decided to finish when she got here.

I was looking forward to seeing my mum and dad of course, but more so I was looking forward to the can of Coke and the marmite butties that were also waiting with them.

It was an efficient stop, not unlike a slower Formula One or Isle of Man pit stop. My dropbag was waiting, I sat in the chair, swapped my shoes over and then while I nipped to the loo (and got a bit lost), Donna filled my bottles, put all my food in my bag and emptied all my rubbish.

I said my goodbyes, someone sprayed Smidge over my exposed skin, Carolyn gave me a big sweaty stinky ultra hug and reminded me I was now first lady (!!), and then I headed through the bluebells down towards the beach. Thanks Andy for warning me about Fiona lurking in the bushes with her camera, and for the suggestion to hold off munching my marmite butty for a few minutes.

I felt really glad to finally be off the ridge, in one piece, in good spirits and on the way to the next checkpoint, and I was looking forward to chef Ali’s chips at the Sligachan hotel, and to Glen Sligachan which I adore.

I ran as much as I could along the road section to Peinechorran, sometimes just a few steps before the next hill came along, and I looked over my shoulder back at the ridge which was by now covered by clouds. We had come down just in time and Andy and I were both mighty relieved about this.

IMG_2106
We’d been lucky with our timing and made it off the ridge just as the mist came in. The rain was on its way.
And then came the path along Loch Sligachan.

Andy had warned me it was a bit stop-start along the beach, but actually we ended up on a path slightly higher up as the tide was in. This was not unlike the Inversnaid path, but much wetter, narrower, more overgrown in places, muddier and with a few crafty twists and bits of nifty footwork required in places over seaweed-covered soaking wet rocks.

Andy went slightly ahead here, and occasionally dropped back and suggested I go a bit higher and see if there was a better path further up. It was pretty soul destroying, very slow going indeed and my feet were now soaking wet and I’d started to get some blisters. At some points, we were wading rather than even walking, let alone running. I was starting to fade – I was painfully aware of just how slow I was going and I’d really hoped to start making up some time on this stretch, but it was just not going to happen.

IMG_2108
one of the nicer sections of ‘path’
I was wearing gaiters after last year’s gritty blistered disaster at the Great Glen, and these kept out the worst of the stones, but still the blisters came. I have run many, many miles with soaking wet feet, in these shoes, and I’d never had anything like this. On reflection, my old comfy soft friendly cosy familiar shoes were actually worn out – and choosing these had been a real mistake that would cost me dearly.

As we got nearer Sligachan, I was unsure whether I could face going on with my feet the way they were. It took ages for them to heal properly after the Great Glen and it was a very painful few weeks.

But then I remembered that at Portree, my dad had produced the box of new Terraclaws I’d brought with me but had decided against back at the croft. Mum and Dad had kindly picked up all the shoes from the croft and bunged them in the car just in case, and I will forever be grateful to them for that.

I’d planned to change my shoes at Portree and then not bother again until Elgol as I knew I’d get wet feet going through Glen Sligachan.

As we got closer to the hotel, I remembered the presence of the shoe box, and I prayed Mum and Dad hadn’t taken them back to the croft.

We reached the campsite and Andy assured me that whatever I decided about carrying on was fine with him, he said I was moving well and not to worry about him as he would be there whatever. I’ve spent time with a few sweepers over the years, but this was a rather more prolonged period than I was used to and I’d been feeling a bit self-conscious about my pace. As we crossed the road into the hotel car park, he continued to reassure me. There’s a lot of bravado at the back of ultras sometimes, about carrying on regardless, and I’m glad he was so kind and listened to me without trying to persuade me in any direction. I think if I’d been whining I would have been kicked into touch, but thankfully I didn’t test that theory.

Sligachan was my first experience of a Fiona/Pauline double act checkpoint. I’ve met them at races over the years  and always swapped hellos and a bit of chat but I didn’t really know them by anything other than their phenomenal reputation.

I sat down in the boot of my car. My dropbag arrived, a blanket was put over my shoulders, and oh my goodness, it was the loveliest blanket ever. It was soft and warm and I felt like I was in a little bubble of love and kindness. However, I was also under no illusion that I was not to get too comfy else there would be trouble. I asked my parents if there was any tea, Pauline overheard and nipped off to the kitchen and I asked if she could let Ali know I was there. She came out with a bowl of chips (I’d asked Ali to keep some for me!) which I struggled to squeeze down but I managed most of them.

The very careful chivvying started in the form of a gentle reminder that time was ticking on.

I was so tired now and not quite thinking straight.

It took me an age to change into the shoes – the lovely, new, comfy, dry shoes – and I was talking to myself, or so I thought.

But, when I asked myself if I should maybe put my waterproof trousers, I’d obviously said it out loud as there was Pauline’s reassuring voice replying that yes this was a good idea as they would help keep me warm as well as dry once the temperature dropped through the night.

Same with keeping my cap on – should I swap to a buff? No, keep your cap, that’s a good thing as it’ll stop your head torch slipping and will keep the rain out of your eyes.

I said my goodbyes, trotted through the car park, crossed the road carefully and then went over the bridge towards the glen. The contrast with my previous visit here was marked – I couldn’t even see the Cuillin this time. The rain was coming down heavily, it was just about starting to get dark and it was clearly going to be a very long night.

But inside my waterproofs, I was happy, unbelievably ecstatically euphorically happy.

I had dry feet, dry comfy shoes that had nice stiff new soles, and thanks to these, I could hardly feel the rocks beneath my toes.

The path was so much drier than the last time, following a week of baking hot weather on the island. I could hardly feel my blisters and while I can’t say I ran that much, I could manage quite a march. I didn’t need to wade through any streams this time, and I had enough in the tank to skip across the rocks. This shouldn’t have been happening after 16 hours, and as I bounded along, I decided that maybe it was time to have another crack at the Fling.

I looked behind me a couple of times – I could make out Andy in the distance, getting nearer in his fetching hi vis jacket that he told me had been forced on him.

Then there was another shape too.

Head chef Ali had finished his shift and stormed down the glen to catch up and keep me company for a little bit. It was so good to see him. The thing was, as I talked and talked and was a bit giddy after all the sugar and the chips and the tea, and as I asked him about all his news, I could feel myself getting more and more tired.

I felt like a complete meanie as I asked him if he wouldn’t mind leaving me to it. I knew I would want to keep talking and sharing my race chat, but I had such a long way to go.

Of course, Ali is so utterly kind and considerate that rather than pushing me in a stream for being so rude and ungrateful, he gave me a big soggy hug and headed back.

Somewhere at the bottom of the glen, Andy suggested it was finally head torch time. We had debated and resisted as long as possible, and it felt like a defeat to finally let the day go. The night was here, earlier than expected, but very definitely here.

The arrival of the night coincided with the arrival of a plague of toads.

I’d heard about hallucinating on long races. I’d managed over 20 hours at the Great Glen last year with no ill effects so I was hopeful that I’d escape unscathed.

I had seen a few flickers down Glen Sligachan that I thought were flashes of lightning. I asked Andy if he had seen them, and he very kindly and gently said that while he wasn’t saying there weren’t any, he hadn’t seen them.

I gave in to the fact that I must have imagined the lightning.

But those were definitely real toads on the path.

Here I learned something new. Toads are like rabbits, and when caught in the light of a head torch, they will freeze. This is a nightmare when you are trying to choose your footing around them and you’re assuming they will move and then they don’t.

Just as I count steps going up steep hills, and I’d counted small stream and bigger stream crossings on my previous trip down Glen Sligachan, I began to count toads to keep my brain switched on. Counting is one of my favourite things to do on a long run and I will count anything.

I gave up counting at 22 toads and 3 ex-toads. Yes, I’m afraid I trod on 3 toads. I felt awful.

After the path started to leave the glen, the underfoot conditions got worse and worse. Muddy, wet, horrible. Andy had warned me it was even worse ahead and I just wanted it to be over. Finally we went past the Camasunary bothy and a couple of tents.

I don’t remember much of the next bit, except that it went on for an awfully long time, and my feet became more and more painful. Every time my feet rolled or I stumbled a little, I was in agony and as the time went on it became harder to cope with.

I’d stopped looking at my watch a long way back, I just wanted to get to Elgol where my dad was waiting. He’d been a bit concerned at Sligachan and decided to come to Elgol just in case I needed some cheering on (or that unspoken thing – to stop there).

Mum texted me as I was leaving Sligachan to tell me the plan, but thanks to the total lack of signal I didn’t get it for a few miles. I tried to reply while things were going well, saying to let him sleep as I was feeling good, but of course it never sent, and in the end I was extremely grateful for that.

A couple of tears started to sneak their way out along the cliff section. The pain was getting worse and there seemed to be no end in sight. Andy stopped a bit ahead and I caught up and asked how much more there was to go. He really couldn’t say anything other than, there’s still a good while yet, and I told him I’d be stopping at Elgol.

And then of course, he asked if I was alright, and I said I wasn’t, and I managed to choke down a big old sob so there was no actual tantrum visible to anyone else, just to me in the comfort of my cosy waterproofs.

We started to see lights as we came towards Elgol but I had no idea what or where they were. I’d been able to see a light from back at Camasunary and it had seemed so near at the time.

One of the marshals, Karen, appeared out of the night by one of the gates. She’d been a bit worried as it was getting so late so she had come out to investigate. She saw us and trotted off back to the checkpoint. Now that I knew the end was in sight, of course it felt further and further away.

Every step down that bit of horrible steep tarmac was horrific.

And then a little white building appeared, and a light, and voices.

I stopped after 22(ish) hours and 50(ish) miles.

There was a little hardy bunch tucked away in the checkpoint. Karen made me some tea and I sat for a few minutes with everyone before heading home. I dread to think how many hours my dad had sat there waiting for me, and how worried he would have been. I knew I would be OK, despite the abnormal appearance of a few tears there was never a minute where I was worried for my safety. This is normal for me now and all part of what I choose to do in my spare time, but this was his first time coming to one of my races and deary me, what a one to choose!

I hobbled back to the car and started to shiver once I was inside. I put my down jacket on to try and get a bit warmer. We drove along and saw a couple of people with head torches at the side of the road. One was fairly obviously Ruaridh – easily identifiable as he is so tall. He was weaving about a bit but thankfully he had some company. I contemplated stopping to see if there was anything they needed but realised I didn’t have anything to give them really, and I was conscious that my poor dad probably just wanted to get to bed. Next we saw the light by Terry and Susan’s camper van at the Blaven checkpoint. I wondered about sticking my head round the door to say hi but I was just too tired.

And then before I knew it, we were coming through Broadford, past the Breakish horse, and turning down to where the croft was. Mum was awake when we got in around 4ish. I’d wanted to clean my feet up a bit but in the end, I just went straight to bed.

I’d had strange dreams of still being out on the ridge in the dark wondering where everyone was and who had finished and when. I woke up a few times to the sound of sheep outside the window. I thought they were coming past for their breakfast but actually it was a late lunch they were after – I’d slept through until gone 3pm.

Two days after our arrival, we ended up full circle, back at the Broadford hotel but for dinner this time. Before long we spotted a very slow moving person entering the restaurant. He looked slightly familiar from the briefing, and with the hobble, he could surely only be a fellow Skye Trail Ultra survivor. We invited Michael to join us for dinner and much swapping of tales ensued.

So.

Would I do it again? Yes I would, definitely. It won’t be next year as I have some other plans, but it will be the year after if not.

Do I regret stopping? Yes, more and more and I’m still upset about it, and a bit embarrassed too. However, the sensible side of me knows it was the right thing to save the skin on my feet for the big run in Switzerland. The only reason I had given myself permission to stop was if I felt Switzerland was under threat at any point.

What went right? Well, almost everything apart from getting blisters.

I’d done a lot of strength training all winter to survive all the elevation changes on the ridge (and to get ready for Switzerland). My legs felt amazing, so strong, I didn’t get sore shoulders, and my fitness is better than ever. My running training hasn’t been quite what I hoped or planned, but everything else was streets ahead of where I was last year.

Food and energy levels were great. I ate every 30 minutes religiously, I ate everything I took with me and could have eaten more. I’ve found my list of magic foods that work for me – bounty bars, marmite sandwiches, mini pork pies, McVities Nutrigrain ginger bakes, a few SIS gels, Lucozade sport diluted 50/50 with water, occasional mini tins of coke.

My asthma was absolutely fine, I had a few puffs on my inhaler after the steeper ridge sections and heading towards Elgol once I had started to give into feeling tired, but otherwise no problems.

All my kit was BRILLIANT and totally worth all the money I spent and the time I waited for all the prices to come down so I could afford everything without compromising too much.

Mum and Dad enjoyed their trip to Skye. I was glad of their support and while I’m not a stroppy runner, I was extra aware that I needed to be nice to them in checkpoints. Every time I see my dad he’s still talking about the race, and I caught him nosing at some of my running books last time he was at my house. We looked through all Fiona’s photos together and he had endless questions about everyone’s kit and what other races they’d done and what this race tshirt was etc. I sent him home with the Feet in the Clouds book, so who knows where that will lead.

Worst bits – struggling on the first climb and wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and that coming so early on. Worrying about the missing runner, worrying about the stress and risk this created for Jeff and the race team. Realising Carolyn was serious about stopping at Portree. The path along Loch Sligachan. The onset of the blisters. Mud at points where I didn’t expect it. Feeling the usual embarrassment about my pace and keeping everyone waiting, with bells on this time. The pain of the last couple of miles and realising I would have to give in to it.

Best bits – So many!

The joy of just making it to the start after a couple of illnesses and minor but at the time quite worrying injuries. The drive up. Staying in such a beautiful spot. Jeff’s briefing – extremely comprehensive and practical.

The start – the sunrise – the teeny band of brothers who set off into the day. Getting off the ridge. The first round of marmite butties. Finally feeling confident that I hadn’t taken too much stuff with me.

The Sligachan blanket and support and kindness and putting clean fresh dry shoes on. Tea and chips. Feeling positively euphoric battering down Glen Slig despite the pouring rain. Seeing Ali and knowing I could send him away without him being too offended.

Being among such lovely supportive people at Elgol and knowing my dad had been so well looked after. Andy’s kindness and patience and reassurance, and his ability to stay out of the way or be around for a natter, and to know which to do and when.

Jeff’s kindness and support and encouragement to come back again. The fantastic race team. All the kind words in the Facebook group during the race, which I read afterwards. The fact that no one, absolutely no one, made me feel bad or silly for being slow. No one, not at all, at any point.

If you’re thinking about doing this race, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is not an easy undertaking, and if you are used to big races where everything is laid on and all you have to do is turn up and follow the signs, make damn sure you do some research. If you can look after yourself when the chips are down, you fancy something completely different, a bit (OK a lot) unusual and utterly life-affirming, this is the one for you.

A huge thanks to Jeff and all the marshals and race support team, and my mum and dad for coming all that way for something that wasn’t related to music or cycling. Special thanks to Karen for the pre-race calming messages!

IMG_2121
Favourite post race snack – Mr Kipling’s French Fancies – and a huge pizza in the oven back at mum and dad’s in Dunoon
Advertisements