14th May 2016
I’d thought about having a go at this one for a few years now, but it had usually clashed with the Scottish Islands Peaks Race. Having finally decided to hang up my water wings and retire from the high seas, I was free to give it a go this year. So, after an early start I pitched up at the Spittal of Glen Shee on a beautiful, if rather chilly, morning – a relief after the unseasonably warm week – ready for the 7am start. It was quite a different crowd at this race – everyone looking rather over-dressed and over-equipped … maybe they knew something I didn’t? – but they seemed a happy and amiable bunch. I soon saw a couple of familiar faces, Stanley and ex-Westie legend Stevie Bell, both old hands at this sort of thing. (Stevie: ‘what are you doing here?’). A quick race briefing from Karen the organiser, reminding us to give a shout out to the head-cases doing the ‘double Cateran’ (110 miles) who were now on their way round for a second time (this time running clockwise for a bit of variety), and then we were herded across the road with the other 80 odd runners to the start of the trail.
Having never run more than 34 miles in one go before and having no idea how my body would deal with 55 miles, my pre-race tactics were to start slowly and, well, try not to get any slower. That said, I hoped the lead group would be following a similar pacing tactic and I might try to stick with them for a bit, but from the gun the first half dozen or so runners led by an incredibly sprightly Rob Sinclair, went haring off. ‘This is faster than my 5K pace!’, cries Stanley, and then promptly proceeds to sprint off to join them. Having had a disastrous finish at the Dee 33 back in March after an overenthusiastic start, I was more than happy to settle in beside my Forfar RR mate Craig Stewart, a three-time Cateran veteran. We plod along, enjoying the grassy trods and trails as we work our way down the east side of Glen Shee, past the first checkpoint at 6 miles, and over the road towards the top of Glen Isla. I once read a quote by Ryan Hall on the attractions of marathon running, along the lines of ‘in no other race will you feel so good for so long’. Although you could argue that the converse also holds true – in no other race will you feel so shite for so long – I think he does have a point, and it applies even more to even longer runs. Certainly, jogging and chatting along in the early morning sunshine at 9 minute mile pace felt more like a gentle training run and after the pre-race anxiety it felt great to be out running, enjoying the scenery and company.
We reach the 2nd checkpoint at Kirkton of Glenisla (c. 15 miles) bang on two hours, grabbing some grub from the drop-bags and head off up a nice off-road section up the first proper climb of the run over the shoulder of Druim Dearg. Skirting round the side of the hill, we head down Glen Isla on series of farm tracks before heading off-road again for a lovely section along the edge of mixed woodland and pasture running on trails and across through grassy fields. Although there are no big hills on the route – even the climb up to the final bealach is only about 1200 feet – there are plenty of undulating braes along the way and it all adds up to the best part of 7000 feet, with very little in the way of flat running. I’m feeling strong on the climbs so far, and as we start to climb toward Alyth Hill, I gradually pull away from Craig. Despite the warning poster, there’s no sign of the escaped wild boar on the hill today, and it’s an uneventful drop down into the Den of Alyth and the third checkpoint at around 26 miles, where I clock in at 3hrs 40.
The next leg is the shortest of the day at 6.5 miles, through the Den and over the hill to Drimmie Woods, then down the road into Blairgowrie and the southern most point of the race. I know this stretch well and I’m still feeling pretty good as I pass the morale-boosting halfway point, enjoying the cool shade of the pine woods. On the final downhill road stretch into the town and the 4th checkpoint, a cyclist shouts that two runners are just ahead so I push on a bit. I’m not sure if they’re in my race or are doing the double but in the confusion of the checkpoint – it’s the only place where support is allowed and so mobbed with cars – I don’t notice that I’ve passed them both in the melee.
It’s a long mile and a bit of steep climb out of Blair as you head north again: I manage to run the hill but I’m starting to feel generally knackered, the sun feeling increasingly hot out of the breeze. I’m just trying to calculate exactly far I’ve still got to go – 20, 21 miles? – when across the other side of valley about a mile ahead I spot a red-topped runner who I seem to be slowly gaining on … wasn’t Stanley wearing a red top? I dig in, focusing on keeping the rhythm going on the short pull-up to the old drove road across the Muir of Drumlochy but I don’t seem to be getting any closer to the runner ahead. At least the going’s good as it’s usually a bit of a peaty boorach up here but bone-dry today like the rest of the route and it’s not long before I’m making my way down into Strath Ardle and the Bridge of Cally checkpoint at 38 miles.
In between downing some water and grabbing more food I ask the guys where I’m placed to find I’m sitting 3rd with the 2nd placed runner only a minute or two ahead. This comes as a welcome surprise as I thought I was maybe sitting about 6th. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later I catch Stanley at the start of the long climb up through Blackcraig Forest, obviously struggling. We chat for a wee bit but both his legs are cramping badly and I’m soon on my own again and strangely almost enjoying the climb. At about 11 miles this next stretch is the longest leg but also one of the most scenic, the route following shady trails and trods along the lush farm lands of Strath Ardle. A compulsory shoe disinfectant wash just outside Kirkmichael to guard against Larch fungus – another race first – breaks the miles and before long I’m at the final checkpoint at Enochdhu.
From here I know it’s only four miles uphill to the bealach at 2300 ft and the highest point of the route, and then two more to the finish. I manage to jog most of the climb up to Calamanach Wood but from here on I’m having to walk the smallest of climbs. But despite being totally knackered, sunburnt and generally jiggered I’m also feeling strangely euphoric knowing that I’m almost there, and certain for the first time all day that I’m definitely going to make the finish. Out of the woods and onto the hill proper and I pass three of the double Cateraners, including the leading lady, all of whom seem in remarkably good spirits for having been out on their feet for over 24 hours. A final pull up to the bealach and the end is literally in sight, with less than two miles of downhill to go. The hard rutted path gradually gives way to smooth grassy track and I manage to almost stretch out my legs a bit for the last quarter mile of road, over the humped back bridge and into to the field to the finish. I’d hoped for between 9 and 10 hours so I’m well chuffed with just over 8 and half hours. Rob Sinclair must have kept up that fast pace from the start as by the time I’ve finished he’s already been in for well over an hour, having smashed the course record by more than 35 minutes. Stanley’s in not far behind me having bravely held on to third place, and my mate Craig’s pleased with another top-ten finish and 3rd V40 prize.
If you’re fancying a go at a longer trail race, I really can’t recommend this one enough – scenic, low-key, but supremely well organised, with marshals and helpers that can’t do enough for you. A big thanks to Karen and all the team for putting on such a great, friendly race.
1. Rob Sinclair 7.18.52
2. Brian Bonnyman 8.32.31
3. Stanley Topalian 8.54.00
6. Espeth Luke 9.33.46 (1stF)
9. Craig Stewart 9.38.08
23. Stevie Bell 10.40.03