“Your toe nails, they are not black, you cannot be a runner” said a Belgian lady in the post Jura shower queue sounding heavily offended by my shiny pink toes. Looking around it appeared mine were indeed the odd feet out. I suppose having only run a handful of times this year, including races, im really not fit to call myself a runner. I ride bikes, a lot,which transfers fairly well to running and just really love the chilled out hill race atmosphere. Plus they are way cheaper than bike races, involve far less willy waving (although there is a much higher chance of seeing one given the typical short length) and there is usually heaps of amazing cake and tea afterwoods.
Any race where you spend most of your time with your face inches from a strangers sweaty arse and dodging their phlegm, fall in bogs up to your waist and post race chat involves how many ticks you got (and asking anyone willing to help extract them in the shower) just cant be taken too seriously. I always come away from an event having discussed everything from epic running challenges to politics with the people around me whilst we pant and drip slowly up the hills. At the top of course its everyone for themselves and see you later!
The past three weekends have seen the most incredible long hill races, Slioch horseshoe, Paps of Jura and The Trottenish ridge race on Skye. Ive done a ridiculous amount of driving in comparison to actual running time, and squandered the fantastic weather in between wishing i wasn’t on outdoor instructor (slow down kids! I cant keep up) and being in bed by eight every night rather than riding my bike on dusty trails till sunset.
The Slioch horseshoe is up in the north west, just south of ullapool. Slioch itself looms up from loch maree, a striking hunk of torridonian sandstone made more impressive than usual by the swirling mists of this particular Saturday. Having only ever been up in winter I was super excited to be heading up into the clouds and even the driving rain and shortened course werent going to ruin my day.
The race starts with a nice undulating few km on a rooty moist singletrack by the loch, before a bridge takes you across the river and the climbing starts. For a while we followed the path, or rather the rocky jumbles beside the stream, before cutting off and straight up the mountain. Hands, feet and focusing on the bum in front were keys to success. The man below me forgot to do the latter and had a proper moment realising he was stuck in the middle of a very wet slippery scramble. The gradient levels out a bit at the first checkpoint and there is some stunning running past the lochans before heading upward again. The worst is over though and it wasn’t long till we made the trig and then the summit. Here the two highland hill runner ladies who id been tracking swiftly dissapeared daintily downwards, leaving me to creep and slide my way back. I accepted im rubbish at descending and promised myself id make time back up on the flat. It didn’t seem like a good idea to have a bad fall now, especially when it was hard to tell what was river and what was the path. Whilst the ladies were too far ahead i did catch up all but one of the men than passed me on the way down on the now even soggier singletrack run back to the finish. At the end theres food and a bottle of fancy beer for everyone which is of course the only reason we all came. This is a brilliant friendly race, the navigation’s not too hard and its definitely worth the drive, especially as you then have an excuse to spend your Sunday morning mooching around loch maree before the long drive home.
The middle Saturday was the Jura weekend, possibly the only Scottish series race which is three quarters English. Its a bit of an institution with whole famillys setting up camp and a festival like atmosphere. Theres even rumoured to be a Ceilidh on the Saturday night but having been asleep before it started both times I cant confirm it.
Jura is a pain to get to, even starting from the back end of argyle. Last year I got the tayvallich passenger ferry but this year their raised prices were beyond me, so I joined the ranks of loaded bikes on the ferry to port Askaig on Islay. Having two totally unsuitable bikes for touring, i chose the fat bike which always breaks the ice by bringing out the worst jokes in people. The 8 miles to Craighouse on winding singletrack roads in the sun were a dream and a good chance to stretch the legs and contemplate the following day. Last year I had a pretty miserable time and I had questioned my logic in entering again, but my usual approach is you have to try something several times before you can decide your opinion. Anyway, the sun was due to stay for the whole weekend and the bogs must be dry after so little rain right?
The Jura race consists of seven summits, plenty of leg eating bog, more scree than you thought could exist and on a good day, the best views of the west. Of course it then ruins it all by finishing with a 5km road time trial, but by then you have survived, so its all about keeping going. This year even after such a good dry spell the bog monsters were hungry, I was in up to my hips on several occasions and no one seemed to be doing much better. Advice from another highland lady, Bethan, was to push on for the first three checkpoints before you get to the paps as its the most runnable terrain. I worked hard to follow her advice and keep her in sight as her youthful legs bounded effortlessly over the rough ground. Then come the three steep climbs and descents of the paps, last year i found them pretty scary, but knowing what to expect this year was a lot better. I was happy with my choice to carry a full litre of fluid and refiled several times on route. I think hydration was key to not joining in on the mass cramps happening around me. This year I chose a much, much better line off the third pap and avoided the sliding baby heads of doom (top tip, dont go straight down, theres a higher trod) and felt happier and faster. Then it was only a short climb up to the final summit before a fast ankle turning descent to the river and the second instalment of bog for the day. It was with great relief to get to the road and feel able to run to the finish. What a great place to end a run, being able to go straight for a paddle at the end and wash off the worst of the ticks and peaty sludge.
With Jura really being a full weekend and camping, the weather plays a huge role. The course could be a navigational nightmare if fully clagged in, and the camping field would quickly become a squidgy mess but its totally worth the risk! The cake selection really is worth suffering for..
Finally, and well done if you are still reading, was Trottenish, an 18 mile jaunt over what on the map appears to be mostly grassy runnable terrain between the two selfie hotspots on the north east arm of Skye. Last year the apocalyptic weather meant we did the short version but this year the weather gods were happy, or possibly just very upset with France, and again, the sun washed over the whole weekend.
The race starts with an hours coach ride up to the Quirang and the Can you pee before the next camera arrives game. Then one group photo later we were let loose on the course. Winding its way up a narrow path to start theres lots of jostling for position and those pesky highland hill runner woman soon dissapeared. I was feeling rubbish and considered sacking the whole thing off at the second checkpoint, but then as my job is to push and challenge young folk, hopefully teaching them some resilience i felt it would be a bit hypocritical if i wasnt prepared to do the same.
The course felt hard work out to checkpoint 4, a very small field meant we were immediately spread out and I had no one in sight to hunt down. My strategy of contouring rather than following the ridge seemed questionable as the ground was much rougher lower down. I caught Bethan up briefly, it seemed she hadn’t fully recovered from Jura either but then she was gone again as i filled up with water. From checkpoint 4 things improved, five came fast and then i hedged my bets and contoured low all the way around the next summit, which although no one chose to follow me, i think was the faster option. One big final climb took us to six and then seven on the summit of the Storr. From here I thought it was all downhill to the road but unfortunately not quite, we had a couple km of undulating traversing to take us around the back of the Old man of Storr before following some elusive yellow markers to the road. Then its a short trundle along to the dam to celebrate with great soup, fudge and cooling legs in the loch. The small field went in my favour and I picked up third lady and two more bottles of fancy beer. Again the club put on fantastic food in the evening and its so nice to chat and put a face to the bum before everyone jumps in thier cars home. I really hope the trio in the campervan that wouldnt reverse made it back ok! This really is a race to do at least once, im hoping ill make it for round three next year. You should all sign up too!
The Belgian lady will be some what mollified to know that I now have one purple toe..
Sorry for the complete lack of pics, I must have been taking myself too seriously this year.