We were prepared. We were keen. We’d trained hard(ish). We were ready.
However, this being our first mountain marathon, our collective
experience was precisely zero. What could possibly go wrong?
With secrecy their watchword, the organisers kept everyone in the dark
as to the location of the event right up to the last minute. After
hour on a bus from Ullapool, we stepped out into the car park at 001
928. No sooner than we arrived, we suffered a gear failure: Paula’s
waist clip had disappeared from her pack! Improvising, I helped to tie
the straps in my best boy scout granny knot, and we were off. Off over
the boggy marsh, looking for the first checkpoint at Loch (N end) at
010 905. But wait! What had I done with my map? Oh dear — dropped in
the wind while doing up the waist strap, forcing an embarrassing
return to the start. At least the officials could see the funny side.
Best to get all the mistakes out of the way early (yeah, right!).
Surprisingly, the day didn’t descend straight into a debacle, and we
proceeded to navigate our way to the first couple of checkpoints. A
minor navigational error exiting Sail Bheag was corrected quickly, and
we progressed steadily through Stream junction 002 881 and the tricky
Col at 008 871. A slog through to the end of the Loch at 027 853
brought us to our first major route choice: contour along the slopes
of Strathnasheallag forest, or drop down to the shoreline of Loch na
Sealga. Paula’s recommendation of the latter paid big dividends, and
we pulled off our best leg of the event. This was a long one, and by
the time we reached the South Loch (N end) at 087 822 we had been out
well over 4 hours. Another route choice: whether to head north west to
a cliff crossing and follow the Coir a’ Ghiubhsachain burn, or take
the high ground and descend through another “safe” crossing further
down. It was my turn to decide, but I made a poor choice. It turns out
that finding a “safe” crossing “somewhere” along the top of a long,
70m cliff is not easy, and we lost valuable time looking for the
(only) route down. I don’t have a head for heights at the best of
times, and was most relieved when we finally got off the cliff. As we
moved on, we saw an elite pair climbing straight up the rock face!
We were about to reach the low point of the weekend, looking for the
Bottom waterfall (W side) at 103 852 — the final checkpoint before
the finish. Of course, we passed lots of waterfalls. None of them had
a checkpoint kite, and so we pressed on. We pressed on until we met
the road. Road? What road??? Somehow we had switched off altogether,
ignoring the increasingly obvious clues that we had gone too far. Now
we had a 45 minute backtrack to find the checkpoint hidden behind a
rock at the “obvious” waterfall. All hope of a respectable time
vanished, we arrived at mid-camp in a slightly dejected mood, 6h53m
after setting off. The top team had completed the route in a
Mid-camp was in a paddock near Dundonnell, and our mental states
quickly recovered as we relaxed in the warm sun while feasting on a
delicious combination of couscous and tuna. The organisers erected a
large marquee, and by 8pm the cÃƒÂ¨ilidh was in full swing. We stayed for
a few dances, then headed off for an early night.
Day 2 was Navigation Day: forget about time, and just concentrate on
finding checkpoints efficiently. After a hesitant start with a tricky
re-entrant at 082 901, the day proceeded well. We found the re-entrant at
072 924 by sensibly attacking from the west, and used our altimeters
to contour around to the lochan above Loch na Coireig for another
steep descent with clear views of the checkpoint. The re-entrant at
Coire Dearg succumbed to a straightforward climb, and then a big
success in finding a cruelly hidden checkpoint nestled in the crags
around 081 954. The home stretch before us, we carefully made our way
to the Stream bend (shallow) at 092 931. “Stream” is used loosely
here: although it is marked on the map, the actual appearance is
little different from any of the surrounding bog. The last two
checkpoints posed little threat: the inflow to Loch na h Airbhe, and
the cairn at 114 924. A final fast descent around the edge of an “out
of bounds” area, and we arrived at the finish in a satisfying 6h16m.
The final treat the organisers had in store was a jet boat ride across the bay back into Ullapool.
An exhilarating end to an exhilarating weekend.
A finer weekend I would struggle to imagine. Thanks to Paula for
being a perfect running partner. Wonderful!