I woke up in the Caledonian Sleeper train to a hot cup of tea and the smell of the outskirts of Glasgow to warm me as I prepared to join a group of suitably idiotic ultra runners on a race across the stunning northern Arran landscape – this was a race and an event I was very much looking forward to. At around 6pm I headed over the short stretch of water from mainland to the island and arrived as both the dark and the wet had caught up with me. However, with my accommodation some miles away I needed to get registered and ready for the race start at 6am the following morning. Thankfully rather than reach the race registration I was sent over to the delicious pasta party a few feet across the road and my plans suddenly changed for the better.
It was here that the journey really started as the organisers welcomed the final stragglers to the inaugural Ultra Trail Scotland on the Isle of Arran. I grabbed a bowl of the delicious chicken and leek soup and chatted with Ross and James, two of the runners I’d met on the way up, to our left one of the chief race architects Casey Morgan was going through the race briefing with the Spanish contingent who had travelled over, some of whom were competing in the AlpinsUltra series of races, of which Arran was the final awesome stop.
We took a detailed race briefing from Andrew, who went through things in just the right amount of detail and ensured that we got to ask all the relevant questions.
Andrew also resolved some accommodation issues for both James and I as he said we would be welcome to share the bunk house space they had secured (as they had a couple of spare bunks). This meant that James didn’t have to camp and I didn’t have to travel halfway down the island in the rain with a heavy pack. Andrew and the team really didn’t have to do this, nor provide transport to the bunk house but they did and it would be fair to say that they went over and above their duty of care to the runners at every stage.
Race morning started at 4.30am, James and I dressed and left the bunk house for the mile hike up to the registration hall and arrived in time to catch a nervous merriment rolling around the runners. With just a few minutes before the scheduled 6am start we headed towards the coastline and boom we were off!
Before I’d entered I hadn’t really known what to expect, hadn’t really known what kind of pace everyone else would be going and hadn’t assumed that I would get close to the finish and when we set off I realised how tough even the easy sections were likely to be.
I was running near to the front of the pack, half a dozen runners all striding forward as quickly as they could and although I knew I couldn’t maintain this pace I figured that given my uphill speed is atrocious I should make up for it in the flats and descents. However, the first piece of ‘flat’ was on the sandy beach – something of a nemesis for me – but I ploughed through following the speedgoats ahead of me until we heard the calls of the runners behind suggesting we had gone the wrong way! 1km in and already some of us had had navigational problems. We doubled back and rejoined the throng of runners and thankfully going the wrong way woke me up a bit and I slowed my pace to something more consistent with a middle aged man trying to stay youthful! Ha! I also fixed the mapping on my Suunto (which had gone a bit bonkers) because the field was small enough that I would inevitably lose sight of my fellow competitors and would need the GPX file working.
Despite the dark I could see the first climb up to Goatfell ahead of me and in the distance I could hear the rumble of a waterfall. It was here that I met James again and for a while we shadowed each other but keeping to our respective races. I was making decent time uphill, nothing spectacular but doing basic calculations in my head I was projecting that I should finish the race even accounting for significant slowing later in the day.
The ground below was wet, rocky and undoubtedly dangerous. I’ve come a long way in the last few years where I now feel confident and competent to run on difficult and more technical trails (even without my poles) and here I felt like I was in my natural environment and happy with it. Even my fresh out of the box Altra Lone Peak 3.5 were loving these trail ascents and Altra proving once again that you can put them on for the first time in a race day and thankfully not encounter any shoe problems.
In the distance I could see head torches flickering periodically and I pushed on to try and make up ground on them but the weather was closing in around us. Despite this though I was able to switch my headtorch off and use the dim dawn light to guide me.
It was then that some of the frontrunners appeared before me – heading down. I asked what was wrong, wondering if they needed aid but they simply shouted ‘fini’. I assumed they were calling it a day and so pressed on a little further until more runners came at me, ‘race over – it’s too dangerous, they’ve made a safety call, the ridge isn’t passable, even Casey can’t find the path safely’.
I looked up for a few moments and despite only being 150metres from the first summit I knew it was dangerous as visibility had dropped to next to nothing. I was disappointed and deflated and weighed up my options a) hike back feeling sorry for myself b) continue onwards without the race support but be a clear danger to myself and the rescue teams or c) hammer the downhill home and run this like a gud’un!
Well I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself, not in these stunning surroundings and I certainly wasn’t going to endanger life and limb so it was the final choice – hammer it home and have some fun.
I turned on my heel and gave chase to a couple of the runners ahead of me and thundered as quick as my feet could carry me downhill. Leaping over rocks, slipping and sliding around but ultimately in control I was having a blast – my only complaint being that I knew it would end far too soon.
The light was now up and for the first time I could finally see Arran and the mountains behind me showed off their majesty – it would have been brutal but brutally amazing.
I arrived back to the faces of runners and organisers, all being incredibly professional, all incredibly disappointed. Tea, bacon and egg sandwiches and support flowed throughout this small, hardy community and ultimately it was the right decision to cancel the race.
I was grateful just to have gotten out there and seen even a tiny fraction of this wonderful island and I’ll be going back because this is a race to do. Thanks Ultra Trail Scotland – you guys have an amazing race on your hands and with a bit of nurture you’re going to have a great event next year – see you there.
- Distance: 71km
- Profile: Ballbusting ascents and descents
- Date: October 2017
- Location: Isle of Arran
- Cost: £80
- Terrain: Mixed, trail, muddy trail, off trail, boggy, technical – basically the lot
- Tough rating: 4.5/5
Route: I didn’t get to run the whole route, in fact I barely got started before the race was cancelled amid concerns for runners safety due to the weather and visibility. However, the section I did run (and my subsequent bits of running around the island) showed Arran to be the kind of place you need to run and the route selected by the organisers promised nothing but the best that Arran and perhaps Scotland has to offer. If you’re an ultra runner this route will not disappoint and if you want a shorter Arran test there’s the vertical and the 25km.
Organisation/Marketing: The organisation was first class, Andrew, Casey, Noreen and the rest of the team really covered everything during our time on Arran and as well as supervising the races they looked after everyone too in the pre-race and in the aftermath of cancellation. You really couldn’t have asked for any more from them.
One thing though as a thought for next year is the marketing of the event – I would love to see this grow, be a success and become a regular on the ultra calendar but I only found out about this because I saw the Rat Race version but knew I wanted a more intimate event – but I had to dig to find this event. So please get the word out as far and wide as you can because if you like a bit of bog and a bit of climbing this is the run for you!
Conclusion: I might not have finished but I had an amazing time, met some amazing people and got to run part of an amazing route. Ultra Trail Scotland deserves another crack with decent weather (or just not really shitty weather – annoyingly the weather on the days either side was pretty damn good). This is going to be a top drawer event in the future and you’re all going to want to be a part of it! As a special note I’d like to thank everyone involved for making this the most awesome and weirdest 40th birthday present I could ever have gotten for myself.
You can find out more by visiting the website ultratrailscotland.com or find them on Twitter as @findadrenaline