It’s very dark, sometime around 2am, I guess. Rain is falling steadily, as it has for most of the day. Alan and I are making our way along the narrow, rutted path toward Boreraig on the final long leg of the Skye Trail Ultra.
Less than 24 hours ago I was downing a quick breakfast and packing up my tent to join fellow competitor Elspeth and support-crew extraordinaire Elizabeth on a pre-dawn drive from the Staffin campsite to the race start in Duntulm.
I have created a serious problem for myself, discovering only late last night that I omitted to pack my compression tights. Disaster – I cannot run without them. Emergency calls sent out to Christine and Carol, who are staying somewhere on Skye. Elspeth offers me a spare pair of tights, which, surprisingly, more or less fit. So, Big Girl Pants day it is for John.
A small field assemble – just 28 runners start. I feel intimidated by the quality of the field. Many sport UTMB labels, experienced ultra runners who know what they are doing. This will be the longest race I have ever done.
The weather sticks to forecast: morning drizzle turning to persistent rain by mid-afternoon. I start slow, trying to stick to a race plan. As the field spreads out on the pathless boggy stretch before the Quiraing I can hear Rebecca and Scott close behind, chatting away. Ahead, Donald, Jean-Yves and Alan pull away. I don’t see them again until Hartaval, where the thick catches them out and they take a poor line down the Bealach. I have done this section of the ridge a few times now, and they are grateful to have someone to follow. We four stick together until the ridge runs out into Portree – the three of them waiting patiently while I greet Christine who has come up past the Storr to meet me with a bottle of sport drink.
At Portree, Donald and Jean-Yves take off on the road. Without exchanging a word, Alan and I have decided to run the rest of the race together – both instinctively know our chances of finishing will be far greater if we stick together. We catch Donald and another runner, Martin, on the long road section toward Sligachan. Christine is here again, along with Helen, Carol and Isobel. I am fed creamed rice, packed into a fresh top, given a fresh buff and even treated to a wee nip of Gin! Words of encouragement, and we’re off – too cold to linger.
Alan and I push hard on the next section toward Elgol, perhaps my favourite trail in Scotland. We’re both feeling the cold, and aware of the steadily worsening chaffing. Elspeth’s Big Girl Pants are taking their toll. I’m fairly sure women’s tights are not designed with a testicle-size hole in the crutch?
Despite lifting our pace, everyone in the bunch converges on Elgol around the same time. Rebecca and Scott are looking strong, and cruise past us in the fading light as we start on the road section to Blaven. They are still lingering at the next checkpoint when we arrive, but overtake us again soon after. Running with head torches, we turn off to the final trail. In daylight this must be a spectacular track – I can hear the waves crashing against the cliffs below, and the sound of a waterfall nearby. We reach the shoreline, and start tracing the faint path up the hill. Terry catches and passes us – he has been trailing the race until now, winding up for a strong finish. We meet him again shortly after, as he recovers from a minor navigation error. We three shuffle on until Terry judges the path clear enough and runs ahead. Alan and I have no sprint left in our chaffed groins. Somewhere over this section we must have passed Jean-Yves, but never saw him. He eventually finishes an hour after us. Donald is the last man home (and first ever Skye local), arriving nearly 5 hours later. He must have had a torrid time in the final section, and arrives to effusive applause just in time for prize giving.
Elspeth wins a bottle of whisky for first lady, and there is a trophy, medal, shortbread and tin of soup for each of the 20 finishers. It has been an astonishing day. I’m delighted at finishing. Thanks to Elspeth for being such a brilliant training partner, Elizabeth and Christine for their amazing support, and Helen, Carol and Isobel for much needed encouragement. Alan – I hope to see you at the Devil’s in August. The race lived up to its hard-core reputation, not least because of the weather. Low-key, friendly and iconically scenic. Yeah, I’d recommend it.
1st: Tom Sutton, 15:38:22
10th (1st Woman): Elspeth Berry: 19:56:06
17th=: John Hamer, 23:28:57