Sunday, August 5, 2018

Scotland: Running the Highlands

“Sit down, mate. You’re not going anywhere.” A broad shouldered six-foot-something says, clenching my forearm and plopping me down like a runaway toddler. He’s head to toe in foul weather gear with a chest mounted walkie talkie. Turning his back to the wind and leaning forward so as to be heard, he presses a button:  “This is Ridge to Base, over.” “This is Base, go ahead,” a voice responds back. “I’ve got a racer with no safety runner, over.” There is a long pause. “Hold until arrival,” the voice responds. Dark clouds full of wind and rain are circling like vultures. Tracing the ridge up towards the summit of Beinn Eighe, the third place runner and his pacer ascend through the mist and out of sight. Spinning on my heels like a top I scan franticly for Caroline, but there’s no sign of her.  
The race is named Celtman: a point to point swim through cold jellyfish infested waters of the Northern Atlantic, 125 miles of cycling through strong side winds with seven thousand feet of climbing, then on to a 27 mile trail run with two mountain summits (see sidebar).  If a person truly wants to feel a place, human propelled travel is best.
Sheets of rain are pulsing through in seventy mile per hour gusts, and it’s cold;  a hypothermic shake is taking over my body like a disease working from the inside out. I’m unraveling by the minute. It’s not just the wet feet, hard wind, and a tired body--it’s the combination of elements that make the highlands of Scotland so captivating.  The giant race official points downhill and Caroline punches through the fog below us. We’re back in the race!
After a race in Alaska I heard about a place called Torridon, located in northwestern Scotland (see map).  It was described as a small village on a bay and butted up to some of the best trail running in highlands. I was interested.  When I learned there was a race covering over one hundred and forty miles and combining endurance disciplines, I had to go. Standing on the edge of the bay in front of our small slat roof and white stucco sided house in Torridon, a person can just sit and watch squalls of weather roll through like a tumbleweed, up big green ramps and getting stuck in wide valleys.  After a heavy rain, white ribbons of water are everywhere, making their way through sponge moss and blackened rock to the swollen Torridon River where bright pink flowering rhododendrons line the bank.
Paul McGreal, an active member of the endurance community and director of many races including Celtman, describes the Scottish mountains in the Northwest of the country as “Very rough, wild and exposed. Despite their relatively low height they should certainly not be taken lightly. Our hill, Beinn Eighe, is no exception. There's no path, sometimes no view, it's very rocky, and the elevation, exposure and mountain architecture are thrilling.” There is no picture that can describe just how small a person feels in these hills.
I am stumbling after Caroline like a zombie on numb limbs.  She stops suddenly and shouts “Just stay right, it’s solid,” then continues on. There’s a break in the ridge the size of a football field with a loose gully dumping off to the right--none of it looks solid. Oddly enough, late in the day after a long swim, windy ride, and an episode of doubt, my legs are starting to feel better than ever.  Picking our way through moss covered scree and dropping below the clouds, we hit the base of the gully, and the view improves dramatically. A long view over a couple small lakes, through a valley between two peaks, and down to the river of Torridon, I can see the village.

Caroline and I met through the small and incredibly welcoming Scottish trail running community. She has an impressive resume chock-full of top five performances, high profile races, and a stoke for running in the highlands that is contagious.  Among her top picks (see sidebar) is the West Highland Way, conveniently passing by the historic town of Glencoe, my next stop after Torridon.
Glencoe feels like El Chalten in Patagonia.  It’s an unassuming mountain town with a bootpacker’s bar and deep climbing roots, but the history of Glencoe stretches far beyond climbing. As a person walks the one main road in town, it’s impressive to think back to the late 1600s where people were obliged by the sparseness of the soil to raid and steal cattle from their neighbors. Or to have an appreciation for what these hills have seen, like the Glencoe massacre in 1692 when the McDonald Clan was attacked unarmed by government troops because they refused to swear allegiance to King William the III of England. One of many run routes with a slice of history is Hidden Valley (see sidebar) where sections of perfectly laid granite steps lead to a small, high hanging shelf fabled as a hiding spot for stolen cattle. A person could spend a lifetime running and climbing here and still wouldn’t track it out, but if there’s someone who is trying, it’s Graham Kelley.
Kelley is a keen trail runner and a wealth of information on running Glencoe. According to Kelley, “When it comes to a dramatic Scottish mountain landscape, Glencoe ticks about every possible box. A mix of lofty summits, narrow ridges, steep slopes rising from the glens created by ancient glaciers, the desolate Rannoch moor to the south, Loch Linnhe to the west and the Lochaber mountains to the north.  It provides an environment with plenty to choose from for the aspiring runner.” See sidebar for Kelley’s suggested routes. With plenty of room and board options to choose from and access to trails directly from town, Glencoe is a must see for trail runners.
Hitting the road along the Torridon River with no racers in sight ahead or behind, I quickly find cruise pace. With legs and mind feeling fresh the last six miles go by in a blur. Hitting the finish line wearing a wide grin, Stuart, one of the event organizers, meets me with a handshake and homebrew. “Welcome back, Andrew, what did you think?” He asks with a smile. I think the highlands in northwestern Scotland are one of the best places in the world for the adventurous spirit to swim, bike, and run.  The terrain and culture will leave a person wanting more.


Caroline’s top race picks
West Highland Way:
Highland Fling:
Caroline’s Podcast:

Skye Beta

Glencoe Beta
Graham Kelley’s top picks:


Edinburgh beta

Inset map of Scotland with Torridon, Skye, Glencoe, and Edinburgh