A runners perspective

I hope this blog is of use/interest to walkers, runners and cyclists living in or intending to visit Scotland. Most of my entries below are described as long-distance runs - just because that's currently what I enjoy doing...

Monday, 23 May 2011

Southern Upland Way: St. Johns Town of Dalry - Wanlockhead

Distance: 33.8 miles (54.5km) Ascent/Descent: 1540m/1210m
Start/Finish: St. John's Town of Dalry to Wanlockhead
Terrain: 15% road, 75% rough single track (mostly but not always easy angled), 10% forest track
Transport: Good luck! There are limited buses to both start/end, but Sanquhar-Dalry better served via Dumfries. Bus travel will necessitate overnight before/after.
Route: Route Map | Garmin Course

Southern Upland Way Stages: Prev [1] [2] [3] 4 [5] [6] Next

Refreshingly desolate!? This is a great section to do if you were in the rat-race Monday to Friday. The way tends to keep to higher ground, giving lots of views, but bleak and exposed on the dull day I did it (for a nicer opinion check out this blog). Wind farms and forestry feature. Logistically tricky, Sanquhar (25 miles from Dalry) has reasonable bus service. Dalry and Wanlockhead have limited service.

We camped Friday night by the Ken Bridge hotel (just South of Dalry) so we could make the most of a brief weather window in what's been a very unsettled few weeks of strong S.Wly's and accompanying rain. It was a perfect night for camping by the river, no nasty midgies (being May) and the air was still, mild and the sky clear - when its like this I wouldn't swap a tent for a hotel room. That evening the bar and restuarant were buzzing, the staff friendly and the beer good. An early start meant we'd packed up and eaten porridge by 7am, and shortly we were up in Dalry ready to explore the Southern Upland Way.

The weather forecast had been for a bright start, with showers moving in followed by more persistent rain by late afternoon. But even whilst packing up the tents earlier, the sky had looked a little steely for my liking and the higher summits nearby were already draped in black cloud.

I started the run from the main junction in Dalry heading up the near-deserted main street and steadily gaining height from the outset. Once away from town the S.U.Way becomes little more than a sheep-trod through numerous rough-grazing fields and bogs therein, but the elevated position provides panoramic views of the Galloway countryside. Even within 3 miles of Dalry, the route already felt very lonely.

It's probably worth mentioning my spirits weren't as high as they usually are setting out on such a run today - not merely due to lack of sunshine, more due to the long-term hip/glute injury I've been carrying which was more pronounced than usual on this occasion and badly affecting my gait from the start. I nearly stopped after 8 miles. Some might (rightly) say I should have, given the remoteness of the subsequent 17mile section. As I crested Culmark hill I could see down into the valley of the Water of Ken and spotted my car parked near Stroanpatrick Farm. I'd expected to have met my dad doing his walk the other direction by now, and wrongly concluded he must have been more tempted by the route North from the rendezvous point towards "Manquhill Hill" instead. Turns out he was still in the car and had sat waiting patiently - uninspired by the early hour and the gloomy skies, it seems we were both a tad affected today! (Note to self: Stronger coffee and less porridge next time we camp to get an early start - no need to blame the beer the night before).

"I'm struggling" I told him.

"I know, I could see you coming along the road. You're leaning to one side and dragging your foot along".

I was also going much slower than usual - loss of fitness after nearly two months of resting/recovery, and the nagging ache that reminded me I couldn't risk bounding over bogs and burns in the manner I'm so used to enjoying.

Thankfully my dad was going to get his walk in after all - partly through concern for my health he decided to drive on to Sanquhar and start walking back towards me along the route of the way.

As the car drove off, the valley felt even more lonely than before, the clouds seemed more threatening (I could see rainfall in the not-too-far distance) and if I'm honest I had a sense of vulnerability that I'm just not used to.

The route took to the rough grassy hillside, gently climbing by stone walls, through a couple of bogs and gates, and I had to pay attention to where I was going because the way-marker posts weren't always obvious or indeed present! A feature of the "thistle-sign" posts along todays route is that they were all rather weather-beaten and sorry-looking, so I daresay I missed a few that had long been felled by the wind.

I recognised the hillside I was heading for from the blog I head read. (Of course the plantation pines were a little taller now than in 2003!). It was actually a relief to get onto steeper ground as my "disability" isn't so pronounced on the climbs.

At 421m, the grassy top of Manquhill Hill isn't too much higher than the valley beneath it (200m), but high enough to open up new aspects of the surrounding heavily forested area. The corbett "Cairnsmore of Carsphairn" (797m) dominates to the NW. Its hard not to use the word lonely again to describe this region - I still had 15 miles to get to the next hub of civilisation, and it was mostly going to be on similarly rounded hills divided by forested, uncultivated and barely-populated valleys. I only met two other people on "the way" today, one of them was my dad.

With Manquhill behind me I was now face-to-face with the bulk of Benbrack Hill. You can tell someone's been careful when planning the forest plantation around the route here, not to inhibit the views from the route, for which I was grateful. Shuffling up Benbrack Hill I took a breather and had a good look around, noticing the cloud was now skimming the summit above. The spits of rain that had been hitting me became harder to ignore and the wind picked up and cooled me down very quickly - time for the jacket.

Higher up, as the gradient began to level off, it was nice to see another human being coming down towards me. His first words were "are you fell-running the whole way?".

I clearly look as stupid as I am.

He was walking from Polskeoch (a bothy about 5 miles further into these hills) to Dalry (12 miles behind me), admist his 3 week backpacking hike along the way. I had a hunch that his beard was more than 3 weeks growth. As I continued up into the cloud I thought how I'd love to be doing the multi-day backpacking thing again (and possibly soon will be if my hip/glute issue is there to stay).

At the top of Benbrack stands one of the "Striding Arches", and as I jogged passed it I nearly started descending the wrong way off the hill. You're supposed to take a sharp left turn by the fence here and I probably missed an arrow on a post somewhere.

My running was a little smoother now and my mood lifted as I got back below the cloud and saw the way ahead over the next hills. I was back to enjoying doing what I enjoy, and feeling a little lucky that the rain had passed and hadn't just settled in for the day.

Surprisingly, running through forest was the exception rather than the rule today, and so it was quite a pleasant change to be routed into the trees along a heathery firebreak, arriving at Allan & Gracie's cairn (victims of the "killing-times" late 1600s). A peculiar spot, and yes, "lonely" again.

The way eventually drops down (through presently-felled forest) to the high watershed of several burns on which sits Polskeoch Bothy hidden by sitca spruce until the last few strides. I had a "nosey" inside, unsurprisingly empty and carrying the usual bothy smell, but in great condition. I leafed through the last couple of entries in the log, and couldn't help but feel the seclusion that S.U.W. hikers must feel here, especially if they'd covered the 17miles I'd just logged from Dalry (after numerous other days in remote places).

The bothy felt no less remote for being half-a-mile up the glen from Polskeoch Farm (B&B), proudly flying the Saltire. The farm sits at the terminus of a single-track tarmac road leading back down the Scaur Glen in search of civilisation. The way follows this road down for 2.5miles, and whereas in the past I'd have enjoyed striding out down the tarmac for a bit, today I was grateful to get back off onto the grassy hillside, enjoying a justifiably slower-pace as the trail gently climbs above the glen. Actually this was my favourite stretch of today's run, partly because the hillsides weren't cloaked in monotonous spruce, and also the grassy undefoot conditions were so pleasantly runnable, the way gaining height gradually and providing views both down the valley and back to where I'd been earlier.

I would soon be able to see down the otherside of "cloud hill" into upper Nithsdale and civilisation! As I noted from other's accounts of walking the way, you see Sanquhar a lot sooner than you reach it. My dad was on his way up from there, and we met about 3miles above town. I was glad he did get a walk in before the weather deteriorated as forecast.

My supportive dad squinting into the gale (Sanquhar behind)

I continued down into town, located the car as had been described (although I lost my Southern Upland Way by the river), and guzzled some water with half a nuun tablet. I felt great considering, and only had 7.4miles to go to Wanlockhead. Given the short distance remaining I decided to head off without the pack and really enjoyed the immediate feeling of lightness as I headed out of town and back up into the hills.

I was now entering the Lowther Hills, and what was particularly nice was being able to look back over town at the range I'd been running through earlier. I was really enjoying this now, even though the hills ahead were dark and the clouds upon themeven darker. I'd taken my jacket with me and was way-too-warm at first but knew that would change as I climbed back up above 400m. I stopped and took once last look behind me over Nithsdale before dropping down the remote side of the hill into a den with an abandoned farmhouse labelled "Cogshead" on the map. With only 3.5miles to go, and with my over-enthused pace, I "hit the wall" as marathoners know-it and started to struggle as the route climbed back out of the den almost summiting the 515m Glengaber Hill, the wind and light-rain really buffetting me now. I managed to keep the run going though, and was glad to be dropping down to the Wanlock Water beneath the scars of bygone lead-mining. The gusts of wind twice brought me to a standstill, and I was dizzy with low blood-sugar, but Wanlockhead was now in sight and soon I was enjoying a pot of tea and some soup with my dad in the Mining Museum Cafe.

Southern Upland Way Stages: Prev [1] [2] [3] 4 [5] [6] Next

Monday, 16 May 2011

Anoach & Rannoch

Distance: 28 miles (45km) Ascent/Descent: 1820m/1870m
Start/Finish: Dalwhinnie to Rannoch Stn
Terrain: 40% gravel/surfaced road, 30% hillside, 30% ridge-top trails
Transport: train stations at start/end. citylink bus services both places
Route: Route Map | Garmin Course

One of my first ever "ultra-distance" runs was from Dalwhinnie to Ft. William - accompanied by a chap Mike Thompson as part of our training for the West Highland Way race back in November 2008 (see photo below). And what a fantastic introduction to long distance routes - from the very remote Ben Alder Forest to the much more populous but very scenic Glen Nevis. The route described in my blog below follows the same good track as far as Loch Pattack, but for added stupidity I took in the "Anoach Four" ridge of Munros to the North of the Bealach Dubh, dropped down to the Bealach then went Munro bagging again on my way down to Rannoch. The sensible way is of course to camp or stay in Culra Bothy or Ben Alder Cottage en-route. And/or use a bicycle.

(A Wintery Ben Alder during Dalwhinnie-Ft. William run, Nov 2008)

Again I was teamed up with my dad for another weekend of outdoorsy madness. We drove to Pitlochry Station with unstable clouds above, as forecast, but the day promised to deliver fine views when you weren't up in the clouds, or getting soaked by every kind of precipitation known to man.
Nice to meet cyclists and other walkers waiting for the train. My dad was driving off to a point near Rannoch Station, he was doing his first "Solo" climb of a Munro for years (Carn Dearg) and I was hoping to catch up with him much later on during his descent, all things going well. We had a walkie-talkie each.

I was a bit confused on disembarking the train at Dalwhinnie as the sun was shining - that's not what usually happens here. Jogging back over the railway tracks and onto the NW shore of Loch Ericht, I got the much-anticipated feeling of "heading out into the wilds", and it felt damn good. Of course, the estate landy track is very much a road these days so its hardly wild at all - but as you walk, pedal or in my case run down it, you know that the place it takes you is very remote and embraced by some fine mountains and corries.

The track eventually (6-7miles) climbs gently away from the loch then descends towards Loch Pattack - those not heading for the Anoach Ridge would most likely turn-off the path onto a lesser track directly towards Culra Bothy and the wonderful Bealach Dubh beyond.

As I passed the curious estate ponies, I noticed the hillside beyond Loch Pattack became psychedelic. I was looking through a very low-angled rainbow - lots of sunny rain going on today.

Its little credit to the imagination of those tasked with naming Scottish mountains that both my first and last hill of the day were "Carn Deargs". Red Hill. My route choice onto the ridge of Carn Dearg No. 1 was a tad unorthodox (if orthodox is defined by the SMC books or munro-bagging websites), in that I decided to abandon the track at the top of Loch Pattack and pick my way up through the heather, moving from one burn to the next trying to find the easiest ground. This worked out ok as the going wasn't too steep until higher-up, by which point I was on exposed, windclipped terrain and knew I could look forward to much easier running from then on! In theory. In practise, it was me who got windclipped, and I was very quickly putting on hat, gloves, and after spinning around like a dog chasing its tail I finally got my other arm into the goretex too. The mountain forecast had warned of extreme gales and severe windchill, and snow on the summits, and possible thunderstorms, and for the likes of me and my dad the intent of such warnings never fully sink in until we're sober and 850m up a 1100m mountain and unable to individually move our fingers. The cloud was rushing past just metres above my hood. Was I still having fun? Not as much as I had been earlier, due to a bit of dread about trying to run into that cold gale along a high-altitude ridge for the next 5 miles. I soon cheered back up again, because after ascending into the cloud, picking up traces of Munro-baggers path, then cresting the boulder-strewn summit of Carn Dearg, the cloud lifted to reveal a stunning view of Lancet Edge and Ben Alder's Short and Long Leachas, all in partial sunshine (title photo). Even the conical Schiehallion could be seen, and later today the knobbles of Glencoe - visibility was excellent between the clouds and the squalls. (Hint: Don't look for the knobbles of Glencoe on a map).

I was grateful for the shelter afforded by the mass of Gael Charn ahead, so I stopped and admired the situation and enjoyed feeling my fingers again. Loch an Sgoir beneath me, Lancet Edge beyond, Long Leachas beyond that.

My route ahead looked inspiring, with a narrow waterfall cutting its way down the cliff to the left like a strike of lightening, two lochan-filled corries glimmering beneath me, one to each side, and a stony ridge ahead which I was chuffed to manage to run up without resorting to a walk. Just before I was back in the cloud I could see I was now above Lancet edge, and level with the banks of old snow. Very quickly I was upon the plateau, and glad to let the Garmin keep me on a bearing straight for the summit cairn about 1/2 mile away, surrounded by small drifts of fresh snow at 1132m.

Again the cloud was kind enough to lift briefly for me, and I could see Anoach Beag ahead, and Beinn Eibhinn beyond. Fortunately the uphill bits were sheltered from that wind so it wasn't as tough as I feared, and I was getting a lot more views and sunshine than I'd expected today.
I got briefly disorientated on descending Beinn Eibhinn in cloud as the ridge curves subtly Northwards and although I'd cut off to the left I was actually still running more W, not S like I imagined. My excuse is I was too busy picking my way through the boulders! But at least I got an unexpected view of forest above Fersit and the reservior once beneath the cloud, which fortunately I recognised as not being Loch Ossian! I corrected my course, apologised to my garmin for ignoring it and descended rapidly into much warmer climes of the Uisge Labhair glen. I took an overdue drink from a burn and refilled the hydration bladder from it, along with a Nuun tablet. Got down to the river, decided the best way across was to get wet feet so just waded through it then started piking my way S and SW up the hellishly heathery slopes of Sgor Choinnich. Bad route choice. I was heather bashing, and after 21miles of running I no longer had the strength to keep it going so was reduced to a walk-jog-gasp-look-at-the-scenery-a-lot-more method of progress. Once back onto the windclipped higher hillside (and putting the goretex back on as the rain came down) I was able to get into a shuffling jog again but it wasn't as enjoyable as before - I was burning fat now, and last night's bottle of Leffe. I could see Carn Dearg No. 2 in the distance. Walkie talkies work best with line-of-sight so I decided to try make contact with me dad. Contact made - he was sheltering at the summit cairn, good on him! He was also cold so he said he'd start his descent back S along the ridge towards the car parked at the base of "the Road to the Isles". It was re-assuring to make that contact though, and know we were both okay.

Briefly back into cloud for the last time, I ascended the "top" of Sgor Chonnich then took a run at the shapely Sgor Gaibhre, reaching the top with relief rather than elation.

Certainly felt good to be stretching the stride back out down the other side, W towards Mam Ban (thank you Wham). Rain showers, still accompanied by sunshine, now turned to hail as I made my way onwards to Carn Dearg No. 2 where my dad had been radioed earlier.

The hail passed and it was much nicer to us from then on. I made good progress down the ridge and soon caught up with my dad, who seemed to have taken my hip injury off me. We made our way safely off the hill from there after a very long, testing, but satisfyingly adventurous day out in the Scottish wilds.