LOUISE HARRISON East Highland Way Race 27th / 28th July 2019
We were on a mountain biking trip to France, during the first week of July when Jim first called and said he was considering a new long distance event covering the East Highland Way and asked whether I would be interested in taking part in a race weekend on the 27th and 28th July.
I had never heard of the East Highland Way, which is surprising given the popularity of its Western counterpart. I looked at the route, which is described as being an 82 mile route from Fort William to Aviemore. For anyone else who cares about an extra 2-3 miles on top of this distance, it actually turned out to be just shy of 85 miles!
It had taken a long time to recover after my West Highland Way attempt but Jim is very good at encouraging people to push the boat out so I eventually said ‘yes’.
Not long after that, disaster struck in the form of a car breakdown and we were stuck in France with a looming mechanics bill. I emailed Jim to let him know I wouldn’t be able to make it after all, as I wasn’t sure when we would be home or how broke we would be. Jim responded in his usually thoughtful way with suggestions about what to consider that might have caused the car trouble.
It was Friday 26th when I next heard from Jim – I was back at work in the office when the call came. Jim asked if I was sure I wouldn’t like to take part at the weekend race. He had everything arranged, a small but keen group of marshals, a reliable and friendly support crew and plenty of food and drink. I said no initially, because it was so last minute but afterward, Jim called back and was very convincing – he said that it would be well worth it and would take our mind off the lack of car (still broken down in France). He said to bring my husband Scott along too. I was undecided and phoned Scott to tell him what Jim had said. In the end, we thought “why not”??!! What could possibly go wrong?? No training, no planning, no idea. So, it was 5.30pm Friday night when we called Jim back to confirm we would be there in the morning.
We prepared our gear that night and got to bed early to be up at 4am, for the 2.5-3 hour drive over to Fort William from home. We arrived at the football ground carpark to what looked like a casual meeting of friends for a weekend run out in the hills and some friendly faces ready to provide moral and food / drink support.
Jim gave us some information about the race route and the fact that the official signage is limited so some expectation would be on us to use maps or GPS in this race.
The 9 competitors were driven to the start point outside the tourist information centre in Fort William and the race set off at 9.15am on Saturday morning. It was the strangest feeling I’ve had, starting such a long distance - further than I’ve ever been before - without having had weeks and months of planning and anxiety hanging over it.
We quickly settled into a pace that could reasonably be sustained for a long period. I was at the back, my standard position! But Scott stayed with me and eventually we found ourselves in a little pack of 4 - John, Pete, Scott and myself, jog-walking along the military road from Fort William to Spean Bridge. It was possibly about 6 miles in when the rain started. A proper West Coast drenching rain so we were all sodden, but it was at least not cold.
We reached Check Point One, 12 miles in, all in good spirits and having maintained about 4 miles per hour. We were met by a support crew with umbrellas, smiley faces and sandwiches. The day claimed the first casualty at check point 1 – Elaine just wasn’t feeling it so she called it a day.
The 4 of us in our little pack set off again and the conversation was varied. It quickly became apparent that what we all had in common was that we were there for the same reason - it was Jim’s idea. He had been so convincing when telling us how much we would enjoy taking part in the Inaugural East Highland Way Race that we found ourselves saying “yes”. I am so glad we did.
The trail from Spean Bridge, passing the other side of the river from Roybridge and Fersit was beautiful with a mixture of surroundings and surfaces underfoot. The rain had also dried up and remained warm with patches of sunshine. We met up with Stephen Morely briefly at check point 2, 24 miles in, before he headed off. It was not too long after check point 2 that we settled into more of a walk for the duration.
We had a longer stop at Moy (check point 3) arriving at 5:21pm, where I had a change of outer layer waiting. The midges were rife here so we re-Smidged, ate and moved quickly on. The latest James Bond film was being made at the time around Loch Laggan – we were permitted to pass through and were advised that we might see some stunt filming along the lochside. Super exciting but unfortunately we didn’t see anything. The track along Loch Laggan was beautiful and the afternoon/ early evening sunlight on the surrounding hills was stunning.
We arrived at check point 4 at 9:17pm, the crossing of the A86 where Albert and his granddaughter had parked up a caravan and provided us with drinks, hot dogs and cheery company. In hindsight, we may have sat a little too long here relaxing! It was so cosy and comfortable.
We headed off into the night, Pete, John, Scott and myself. Pete and I talked a little bit about family and work but from the tarmac leading up to Laggan town, as the darkness settled in fully, I was walking along on my own, Scott and John a short way ahead, Pete a short way behind. It was a funny little group, mindful of each other and still ‘together’ but not having to stay side by side. My navigational skills are basic at best, so I was very happy to be with a group heading out in the dark, especially with John Vernon who has a wealth of knowledge and experience.
There was an open public toilet at Laggan, which we arrived at around midnight if my memory serves. It was a really nice opportunity to use proper facilities and wash my hands with soap! Its such a lovely feeling, having fresh clean hands after some 15 hours on the go.
The route continued along the main road for a short stretch before heading at up toward Balgowan, where we arrived at 4 minutes past midnight and from there onto the moors. At Balgowan we were met at the roadside by Jim who had Steve Morley and Gary Grant waiting for us in Jim’s car. Jim had suggested that given the terrain we would be heading onto, the limited signage and the darkness, that it would be in everyone’s interest to move together, so we were ‘grouped’ for this part of the race.
The moorland was a real mixture of experiences and emotions for me. It felt like a proper adventure – out in the dark with a small group, not too sure where we were or whether we would make it. Fantastic! The track varied from rough off-road track to faint boggy single track. And there were frogs, lots and lots of frogs. Moving through the dark and then into the very early morning is special – the world has a lovely light and quiet to it that most of us rarely share. Half way through this moor section we had a short stop at the ‘bothy’ which was open. In adverse weather the bothy could be a godsend.
If it had not been for John particularly, but all the group, I would not have managed to make my way through the night section. John was the navigator and the others all served to provide entertainment and company to pass the time and help distract from painful legs. It’s quite a powerful experience, to trust and rely on folk you just met and to hope you can offer something in return. We were met as we came off the moors by George at check point 5 at 02:43 am, who had more food and hot drinks ready – a very welcome sight as we proceeded through the darkness with the growing realisation we were not lost in the bog!
Sunday daylight started to break as we descended to Newtonmore and then up and over to Kingussie.
The trail was really lovely in the morning on this section though I have to admit, the sleep deprivation was really starting to bite. I am not sure how he did it, but Gary got a burst of enthusiasm as we arrived at Kingussie and disappeared off into the distance at a gentle jog. The rest of us continued to walk but I was nodding off a bit as we approached Ruthven Barracks, by this time it was 6:15am.
Coffee was served by Ian at Ruthven, check point 6, and that pepped me right up. The check point at Ruthven was supposed to be the last however Jim was aware that it would be a long stretch to the finish – 17 miles - so arranged for a final water / feed point at Feshiebridge, which was a real boost.
The trails and tracks from Ruthven to Aviemore, partly on the Badenoch Way, were lovely – really pretty and interesting underfoot. The 5 of us (John, Scott, Pete, Steve and I) all stayed together for the remainder of the event. I suspect that we all struggled at times with the fatigue, the pain and perhaps even moving at a pace that was not our own, which can be a challenge in itself. Working as a team was what got us through the just over 29-hour adventure (there were faster times of course – Steve Bell finished in first place in 17hours 43 mins, so a route for speedsters too!)
Jim and his superb team of volunteers met us at the finish line at the Information centre in Aviemore and loaded us into cars, drove us to the community pool for a shower and change of clothes, before transporting everyone back to their cars in Fort William.
For me, apart from being a fantastic adventure and opportunity to push myself into something without overthinking it, this was a weekend to boost my confidence up after having not completed the full West Highland Way Challenge. I managed to master the fatigue and now have solid evidence that if you set mind to it, you can keep moving forward.
If this route were to be made into an permanent race, I would recommend it to anyone who is not too sure about the West Highland Way – it gives ‘time on your feet’ and a less technical, less hilly route to build up confidence and strength. In its own right, it is also a beautiful and challenging route. There are less ‘facilities’ on the route, so anyone contemplating it would need to consider what they would need to carry to do what they must, without adversely impacting on the environment!
As usual, I would like to thank Jim for his endless enthusiasm and encouragement. His inclusive and positive nature is remarkable, and it is what keeps me coming back for more.
And massive thanks also to the thoughtful and dedicated team of marshals – Jim D, Albert, Ann, Jim R, George and Ian (I hope I haven’t missed anyone!) – without whom this adventure would not have been possible. Everyone involved in the weekend has contributed to a highly enjoyable experience. Scott and I both feel privileged to have been invited (even though we were fairly beat up afterward!) to the ‘Inaugural’ East Highland Way Race.
See you all again soon.