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...

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Great Glen Way

Distance: 73 miles (117.5km) Ascent/Descent: 1350m/1340m
Start/Finish: Fort William to Inverness
Terrain: Easy throughout
Transport: Train stations at start/end. Citylink bus serves the Great Glen
Route: Map 1 Map 2

The Great Glen Way is not remote, the route is very well marked and generally low-level with long flat sections by lochs or along towpaths, but there are two or three sustained climbs of note along Loch Ness. There's plenty info online. If I wasn't so much into trail-running I think my mode of choice would be mountain-bike. Or how about the recently added option: Canoe?

At 5:25am it was still dark. The air was mild for March and perfectly still. Fort William would have been peaceful had it not been for the bloody seagulls.

My dad and I carried the bags from the hotel to the car, and before parting ways we briefly confirmed our agreed "schedule" (still hate that word). The Premier Inn was handy for the Great Glen Way, the start of which I eventually found and so began the long day's journey to Inverness.

On my left was the estuarine mouth of the river Lochy, although I couldn't really see it. On my right the industrial estate gave way to houses and I followed the blue thistle way-markers through them, before being routed off the pavement into some trees. It was good to get away from the road and the orange glow of street-lamps. I followed the beam of the headtorch across rough grassland alongside the river, and began to feel excited about the journey ahead.

I'd had the "Great Glen Way" in mind as a good low-altitude option for this Winter, but it hadn't happened due to a fairly busy racing calendar. I guess that could explain why today my legs felt so sluggish from the outset, but this wasn't a problem, in retrospect I've concluded the enforced slow-pace helped ensure the day's success.

A wooden footbridge took me over the river and back into street-lights, and so the headtorches work was already finished for the day! There was enough daylight entering the sky to outline the summit of Ben Nevis, and by the time I'd run through Caol along the shore of Loch Linnhe to the mouth of the Caledonian Canal, I could see my way no problem.

The way follows the canal's towpath for the next 8 miles. At the bottom of the series of canal locks known as Neptunes Staircase, my dad was standing waiting for better daylight so he could hunt his first geocache of the day.

The hazy day continued to dawn as I jogged alongside the wide mirror-like canal North East. The housing estates were left behind and the hillsides of the Great Glen began to rise up. Ben Nevis with its small patches of snow was still visible over my right shoulder – this really has been a mild Winter. The impressive River Lochy was also on my right, at first it was below the tall embankment of the canal but after a few miles the canal and river came side-by-side with just a concrete sluice separating them. Although pretty, I do find canal towpaths a bit monotonous and was glad to be running rather than walking. It is however a fine place for a bike, and an even better place for a kayak and canoe. Incidentally the Great Glen “canoe trail” was being opened this very weekend!

As planned, my dad was waiting at the picnic area by Gairlochy locks, just 10.5miles into the run. We both commented on the fact it was nice not to be in a race, able to take our time, have a chat, enjoy a bit of a picnic. The weather was playing along nicely. The slower pace meant my stomach could handle whatever, and so at Gairlochy I was enjoying a cafetiere-made filter coffee.

We discussed our next meet-up at “Laggan Locks” another 12 miles up the glen, then I set off just as slowly as I arrived, firstly crossing to the other bank of the canal and following the road North uphill. This next section would take me along the NW shore of Loch Lochy – with Laggan Locks being at the head of the loch.

One of the blue thistle marker-posts directed me off into the trees along a nice gravel single-track path – here followed one of the nicer sections of the way as the path wound through the pines, re-crossed the road then dropped alongside the glassy expanse of Loch Lochy. All the colours were muted with haze and the loch merged seamlessly into the sky. I was reminded a little of the Loch Lomond section of the West Highland Way, but without the crowds, in fact I saw the first Great Glen walker of the day here, who’d obviously camped solo on the shore and was packing up his gear ready to set off. With no houses or roads in sight he’d sure found a cracker of a place to camp.

The trail did re-join the “B-road” and almost immediately a car came along to breach the peace! And then another, and a few more including a forestry van. I realised they were probably on their way to work at the logging area up the loch where I’d read a diversion was “in operation” for walkers (and not suitable for cyclists – which I can totally confirm!).

In spite of the tarmac and light traffic it was still nice scenery, the pines now replaced by birch and bracken. After passing some big houses and crossing the river Arkaig the way leaves the road at Clunes and follows a wide forest track along the steep forested slopes (yes, back to pines!). Here the Great Glen is at its deepest, with two “Munros” hidden from view somewhere above the trees. This was the first time I’d travelled up the glen on the remote N side of the loch - every other time I’ve been in a car along the A82, which unfortunately was still audible across the water. The Great Glen Way is hardly remote – but this section is probably as close as it gets, on the left of me it was just wild country all the way to the equally wild coast.

I said hello to two more walkers along this forest road, and a forest worker, then reached a red/white striped tape across the path and an arrow directing me to the start of the temporary (I hope) diversion.

The diversion was a bit of a monster! Straight up the mossy, twiggy steep side of the forest. The route was marked by both tape and skid marks where victims had slid through the moss on their boots and arse. I power-walked up the diversion and it was over in 10 minutes, with the bonus that I was now 150m higher above the loch with views over the harvested forest, across the glen, and with a fast runnable descent along a dirt road to enjoy.
A couple of miles later at the end of the loch I was reunited with the Caledonian Canal where it enters the loch at Laggan. My dad was already set-up in the picnic area beyond, the stove having been put to good use as there was French onion soup and more filter coffee waiting. Nice.

The next part was what I’d been looking forward to most – 8.5miles from Laggan Locks to Fort Augustus with 4 miles along the “remote” side of the narrow Loch Oich. Even next to the A82 road this is a fine part of the route. At first the way follows more towpath, and “the Avenue” – a nice gravel path through trees, then it crosses the A82 around the back of the “Great Glen Holiday Park” on an access road over the marshy watershed of the glen. Ironically it was downhill to Inverness from here along the canal, but uphill (then down) a few times along the way.

Now following the course of an old railway line, I noticed the remains of a station platform beneath grass and trees. An adjacent interpretation board showed a picture of how this station looked back in 1938 when in use! There are a lot of these tall blue pillars with pictures and text along the Great Glen Way, which is good news for those walking the route, although maybe it would make reading the “guide book” redundant! I personally like to read up on established routes before running them, and especially enjoy other people’s journals/blogs as I get more out of the journey (both before and during).

After taking in Loch Oich and having a last glance South back over its glassy water (title photo) it was onwards past Bridge of Oich where were a group were gathered and preparing for a paddle - the Great Glen Canoe Trail was formally opening today.

After visiting the pretty canal locks of Cullochy and Kytra I arrived at Fort Augustus - passing the now tired-looking Chalet Park where I'd spent my October holiday as a child (and remember wishing my dad would take me up the forested hill with the trig point behind - well I guess he's now making up for not doing so!)

Marmite Crisps were going down a treat - not your typical runner's food but like most ultra runners say its just a case of eating whatever works at the time. A banana (a bit less unusual I guess) was also had. And another filter coffee, which unfortunately is a diuretic. But tasted great. We had a fair break here, I mentioned only 39 miles to go and my dad said "What!?". Even I kind of felt Fort Augustus was half-way, and having now completed the route it still feels like it was half-way, but in terms of both distance and climbing effort it was far short.
It was a bit more difficult to get moving this time after the long break, but the break was worth it for both me and my dad's sake (its not a race!) and a sharp uphill back into forest soon sorted me out. I saw my third and penultimate group of fellow "wayers" here, older chaps with sticks and backpacks, and looking like they were already thinking about their next pint (and if I'd been with them they'd have just finished one before leaving town). The sun was cheering the glen up now, and warming the air quickly. After climbing a little up the side of the glen, a nice view opened out over the head of Loch Ness.

The forest track contoured around the hillside and dog-legging before dropping down into Invermoriston - which I think my dad & I agreed was one of the highlights of the day. Just a nice wee place. Maybe the sunshine helped, but we both enjoyed relaxing at a picnic table by the highland coos, Telford's old stone bridge and the inviting-looking Inn within view. It was also nice to hear from back home where Lesley had run a good time at her first "Park-run".
I'd warned my dad about how I might be feeling during the next bit - a long (14 mile) hilly stint to Drumnadrochit on legs that had already covered over 40 miles. I felt confident enough to text my mate Sandy who lives nearby and let him know I should be there sometime after 3pm if he was still keen and able to meet up.
I gained even more confidence as I hit the steep hillside and found some hidden energy from somewhere - in fact my garmin claimed I'd done a 9-min-mile up this so it wasn't imagined. I'd only just told my dad the key to cracking this next bit (for both of us) was "patience". I had to remind myself this a few times but knew I had a stupid care-free smile on my face, having a "high". I really don't take fitness and health for granted and as corny as it sounds I'm finding at times the trail-running feels like some kind of "celebration of life". Or perhaps those are just the lame words of an endorphin junkie.

Back on Planet Earth there was a long switch-back forest road with a runner on it making his way up to a collection of buildings called Grotaig. The forest track ended and some fun rocky single-track continued downhill then back up, quite steeply, eventually arriving at the aforementioned place where a road terminated with car park. A black Landrover was moving slowly towards me.
It was Sandy! His son David was sitting shyly in the back. We chatted briefly, he'd received my "text" and headed down here to meet-up. He said I was looking well (I had warned him I might have dropped-out before reaching here) and I let him know I did indeed feel fine, understandably tired but still enjoying my day. Originally he'd wanted to run a leg of this journey with me but bad timing on my part denied us. He was still keen to meet back up at Arbriachan Forest (a few miles North of Drum) and so I was soon on may way again, following tarmac on high moorland, taking time to look back at the fine profile of the "corbett" Meall Fuar-Mhonaidh, which I've still yet to climb (perhaps with Sandy one day?).
By the time I arrived at Drumnadrochit I was paying for the speed and the run had become more shuffle-like as I cut across the town car park towards my dad and the ubiquitous picnic table. I was now into the inevitable "countdown" mindset - 18 miles to Inverness (which after 55 miles takes a bit longer than a marathon-training run, and also involved a 360m ascent to the highest point of the way)! Dad mentioned later he could see I was having to psyche myself to get going again. The hardest part was actually taking the jacket back off as it was getting cool sitting around in spite of the sun.
And so ensued a pavement shuffle along the A82 for a mile or two, and the sweat was pouring off again (a good thing!). The trail climbed up above fields away from the noisy road, and I found myself struggling to open and close a plethora of gates. At one of them I stopped for a photo-breather looking back over the loch towards Urquhart Castle.

Back into forest, I knew I was upon the final dreaded climb. I was still able to run most of it as the gradient wasn't too bad, just a couple of short steep pulls lower down. This was the most varied part of the route, I felt, going from loch-side town to fields, then forest, then out onto moorland above the glen. I knew about the "Highest Point of the Way" post from others' reports, and was looking forward to seeing it. I wanted to give it a hug.
I was now in the Abriachan Community Woodland and I can't highlight enough how valuable this place is to walkers on the Great Glen who wish to break up the long 18mile stretch between Inverness and Drum - there's a campsite and a cafe here, and its a really cool place so take note!
Sandy met me as I descended the forest track towards the road, he put David on his shoulders and ran alongside (quite impressive - and David was loving it!). He reminded me it was mostly downhill to Inverness from here, and was going to meet me for a pint there later. Fantastic!
The pint was going to taste amazing after all this. It was only another mile before I met my dad on the single-track-road that would form the route of the Way for the next 3 miles. He'd found a parking space (and a couple of geocaches). And he was so obviously as knackered as me. We'd both been up since silly-o-clock. After more (mmm) marmite crisps and full-fat coke I set about completing the last 11 miles of the journey. I knew that by this stage the idea of running on easy tarmac would be welcome rather than boring, and so it was I logged my fastest miles of the day, now wearing my dad's day-glow yellow top as the sun was now very low. I was surprised to get routed off the road by a waymarker post well before Blackford (obviously a new addition since my map). Then it was an easy run down into Inverness through heather-carpeted forest on a trail that reminded me of Rothiemurchus (Cairngorms).

I got my first glimpse of Inverness from behind a pond. My mobile rang - stopped, then started again. It was Sandy, trying to locate me so we could run the last wee bit of the route after all! We met about two miles from the finish - I'd just descended through the grounds of a Victorian Mental Hospital where they probably would have locked up ultra-runners (particularly vegetarian ones) but fortunately the world is more tolerant these days. After the last stretch of canal for today (running in the direction of Ft. William I might add!) we joined the Inverness half-marathon route beside the running track and stadium - Sandy had just run his PB there two weeks before, and so I bored him with stories of all the PBs I'd run in Inverness and how the track rekindled great memories for me.
We also passed the tree beside the start line where usually in March all the runners huddle together for shelter as bare arms, legs and faces are battered by strong winds and sleet. Timing had been perfect in terms of daylight - we ran over a multi-coloured lit suspension bridge and through the fairly-lights (which Sandy hates) on the island where the outdoor theatre is, then on the final home stretch to the castle. My dad stood shivering. He'd quite rightly already had a couple of pints in the Castle Tavern nearby. After the customary finish photo by the Great Glen Way post, it was time for some beer. The barmaid was a star, seeing me shivering in my inapropriate-for-pub running gear she grabbed a couple of blankets for me. Another cracker of a weekend had - thanks to Sandy and my dad for their support (Sandy had supported my West Highland Way race in 2009).