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I’ve had the long-time dream of visiting Scotland and it just happens that they have some pretty amazing races there including the Loch Ness Marathon in the Highlands.
Race Recap of the Loch Ness Marathon
Since Trevor couldn’t travel with me to this race I convinced my friend Adrianne from Montana to meet me in Scotland and we both flew separately into the small airport in Inverness.
Due to the effects of a hurricane the weather was windy and raining hard which we took as normal Scottish weather. But the weather challenges weren’t the last that day.
We rented a car which had a standard transmission that Adrianne was going to drive and we started off for our first B&B. But soon we realized that between the weather, fatigue, hunger, unfamiliarity with directions, driving on the left side of the road, and a burning smell the car emitted when switching gears that this car was a poor choice.
We checked into the Arden House in the town of Kingussie, called the rental agency, and headed back to Inverness to trade in the car for an automatic. By the time we got back to Kingussie we were ready for a hot meal, a dram of whisky and an early bedtime.
The next day we had a traditional Scottish breakfast which included black pudding (a type of blood sausage consisting of pork blood, fat, and a cereal like oats), Scottish oatcakes, sausage, eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatos, and beans. Well fortified we set off for the John Muir Trust offices located in the town of Pitlochry.
We met with MTA listener Kevin Lelland who is head of development and communications at the Trust and he gave us a tour of their facility which included a great visitor’s center and art gallery. Then he took us to the mountain Schiehallion “The Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” which was part of the land they care for in the Highland Perthshire. We met with land manager Dr. Liz Auty and went for a hike around the land.
One thing that struck me about the land is the variety of colors and textures. Some of the autumn colors were beginning and we could see vivid greens, gold, browns, reds, deep purples from the heather, and many other shade and textures. There were also abundant waterfalls and sheep grazing in many fields.
I was also fascinated by old stone walls that dotted the countryside. The weather was chilly but the rain held off and we enjoyed getting some exercise and learning about the conservation efforts being done there.
The John Muir Trust is named after John Muir who was born in Scotland and emigrated to the United States as a boy. He was a great nature lover and influential in the beginning of the movement to preserve the wilderness in the US National Parks System.
He’s particularly known in California where he made his home and because he spent so much time in Yosemite National Park. Some of his famous quotes include these,
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”
“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
Mid afternoon we took off for the town of Leith which is close to Edinburgh. A former coaching client of mine named Elspeth and her family were going to host us for a couple of nights. We enjoyed meeting Elspeth, her husband Dave and two kids. After a quick dinner we went with Elspeth to a belly dance class that she teaches.
It was the first time I’d ever tried belly dance and like most things it’s more challenging than it looks (especially for someone as uncoordinated as me). It was also fairly physically demanding and I’d soon worked up a sweat (and had sore calves the next day). But I believe that it’s important to try new things and get outside of our comfort zone so it was fun to try.
On Friday we got an early start and walked from Elspeth’s house to the foot of King Arthur’s Seat which was around 2.5 miles. It’s a fairly challenging hike to the top and I was surprised that there wasn’t more of a defined path (or much signage). From the top you can see a panoramic view of the coast looking out toward the North Sea and the city of Edinburgh.
It was very windy at the top so we got a few pictures and then hiked down by the ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel which was built in the early 1400’s and by St. Margaret’s Well.
As we continued down we came across wild blackberries (or brambles as they’re called). Next we toured Holyrood Palace and Gardens which are beautifully preserved and still visited by the queen on an annual basis.
We then walked to the Royal Mile and met Elspeth for lunch at The Salt Horse which had some great food. Our next stop was the Edinburgh Museum and we enjoyed the section on Scottish history. We shopped a bit more and stopped for tea at The Elephant House which is where JK Rowling is said to have written much of the Harry Potter Series.
We also walked along Prince’s Street.
Before returning to Elspeth’s house we stopped at a Co-op and purchased some Scottish sweets for our children (and ourselves) including Scottish Tea Cakes, Irn Bru (a type of orange soda), Tunnock’s caramel wafers, and tablet (a crunchy fudge like dessert). Later we walked to a new bar in the area called Nautilus which served locally sourced foods and Scottish liquors. I tried a whisky from a distillery at the bottom of Ben Nevis that had quite a kick. All in all we were on our feet for around 13 hours that day and when I was taking my boots off that night I noticed blisters on the tops of two toes. Not the best thing to have with just a day before the marathon, especially paired with my sore calves.
On Saturday morning we toured Edinburgh Castle, an imposing fortress build into the rocky hillside, which is home to the Stone of Destiny and the Scottish Crown Jewels, ate a Scottish breakfast, walked through the Grass Market, saw the Scott Monument from a distance, said goodbye to Elspeth, and started the drive back to Inverness. It was a beautiful drive even with intermittent rain.
The Race Expo
Prior to the marathon the race sent out regular emails and was very active on social media. They also have a very thorough website. The Loch Ness Marathon race expo was held at Bught Park in Inverness at the event village.
They had several tents set up for post-race festivities, rides, food trucks, and a large inflatable Nessie. We found a nearby car park and it was easy to get my race packet. They also had an area with vendors set up and a runner’s café with the pre-race pasta dinner going on.
I didn’t linger long because there was a MTA meet up organized by a local listener named Helen. We met up at the Eden Court Theater for dinner and it was great to meet Helen who was running the 10k the next day as well as Brian from Glasgow running his 2nd marathon, and Chris from Edinburgh.
After dinner we went to our very nice B&B just outside of Edinburgh and crashed. I hadn’t been sleeping well the previous few nights and wasn’t expecting much for the night before the marathon either.
The Baxter’s Loch Ness Marathon has been run every year since 2004 and this edition of the race was held on Sunday, 23 September 2018. It’s one of the most popular marathons in the UK and the largest marathon in Scotland. It’s also one of the most scenic marathons in the world and raises a large amount of money for charity.
They also had a 5k, 1ok and kid races the same day starting in different locations. Since this was a point to point course there were buses located at the Inverness Ice Center near Bught Park to get us to the start line. I got there promptly at 6:45am and was on the first bus (which was a comfortable climate controlled coach bus).
My seatmate was named Paul from England and this was going to be his 2nd marathon. The buses left promptly at 7:30am and we had a beautiful drive to the starting line up and around Loch Ness. I saw lots of sheep and a couple red deer along the drive.
They dropped us off at a Christmas tree farm which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. But there was the familiar line of port-a-loos and I got in the queue for those. There seemed to be a mix of runners from all over the world based on the conversations I was hearing.
The race had music playing and an announcer talking about the marathon and discouraging impatient runners from watering the trees. After the bathroom I got in line for the tea and coffee which helped dissipate the chill of the morning. The weather was clear, slightly windy and in the low 40’s (or around 5 degrees celcius). When it was time to put my bag in the bag drop truck I stood in the informal corrals and shivered a bit.
At the starting line there was a bagpipe band playing which added to the atmospheric feel and just before the start time they played their traditional starting song “I’m Gonna Be- 500 Miles” by The Proclaimers (a Scottish duo). At 10am the starting gun was fired and we were off.
The starting line was near Whitebridge, located up in the hills above Loch Ness, and the course immediately started slanting downhill which continued through around mile 10. The road wasn’t overly wide and the course felt a bit congested for the first 5 miles as runners spread out based on their pace.
In the midst of the downhills there were some rolling hilly sections. The air was crisp and fresh and I quickly warmed up. I really like wearing arm sleeves because you can pull them up if you’re cold and pull them down if you’re warm.
There were quite a few runners in some type of costume like a group of ladies in caterpillar onesies, a guy dressed in Union Jack gear, a squirrel, a guy in an elephant suit, and lots of people in kilts. There was also a man trying for the world record in full Highland Regalia.
The course followed the southern side of Loch Ness passing through three small villages. All the roads were well marked with mile signs and the course was very scenic with green hills, trees changing colors, babbling brooks, and lots of sheep and cattle in the fields. Around mile 7 views of Loch Ness came into sight and we ran near the lake until near mile 20.
From mile 18-20 there was a very challenging hill at a section of the race which can already be a bit tough. Then the route went into Inverness, crossing the River Ness by the Ness Bridge in the city center, and finished at Bught Park.
The aid stations were well supported and supplied with small water bottles and several with electrolyte drinks, and gels and blocks. There were also regular port-a-loos and medical stations. There weren’t many spectators since we were running through the country side most of the time but there were some people out in the small villages we went through and more as we got back into Inverness and closer to the finish line. The race felt well supported and the beautiful scenery made up for the few number of spectators.
I brought Generation Ucan from across the pond. I’ve done dozens and dozens of races with this a my only fuel source and it always gives me stable reneger. Use the code MTASCOTLAND for 15% off.
As we got into Inverness we ran on the opposite side of the river from the finisher’s festival and from there you could hear the announcer and crowd. I was thankful to have been warned of this and didn’t feel disillusioned when I still had 3 miles left.
The roads were lined with people in the final miles to the finish and there was a definite atmosphere of encouragement and excitement. I even saw my friend along the sideline and she managed to get a couple pictures.
The marathon was chip timed and it was great to finish under the marathon arch and cross the final timing mat. We were given a nice medal, a bag for food and gear, and then got our finisher’s shirt. I headed off to get my drop bag so I could access my jacket for some warmth. Then I went into the food tent which was nice and warm and had a live band
Post race food consisted of hot soup, rice with a meat or veggie sauce, bananas, shortbread, oatcakes, and a granola bar. They also had other food and drinks that you could purchase. After eating I met up with Adrianne and walked back to the car.
- The 2018 Loch Ness Marathon male winner was Mohammad Abu-Rezeq in a time of 2:22:56.
- The 2018 female marathon winner was Sheena Logan in 2:51:11.
- The 2nd place male was Adam Holland with a time of 2:24:24. I read later that he’s one of the UK’s most prolific race winners having 200 marathon and ultra wins to date.
- The total number of marathon finishers was 2,810 with the final finisher coming in at 8:12:58.
- Other notable finishers include Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrat party and Jonathan Ward running as Ben the Elephant for the RAF Benevolant Fund (he finished in 4:37:30).
- Another amazing finisher of the 10k was 83 year old Antonio Countinho from Portugal who just started running at age 80.
I definitely wasn’t sure what to expect with the marathon considering I’d been dealing with heel pain since my last marathon in Alaska and the fact that I hadn’t been sleeping well the previous few nights. Sometimes the rigors of travel can do a number on your body.
But my body really liked the cooler weather and my energy levels were strong. I didn’t even mind that it rained several times and I was soaked by mile 10. Fortunately the sun would come out in between for some relief to the wetness.
My pacing strategy was to power walk the hills and run the flat sections and downhills. I was very thankful not to experience any heel pain during the race. I think one key to a more positive experience was that I felt more prepared mentally and my mantra was “I am strong, I am relaxed, I am thankful.”
I had a great time and felt very grateful to finish my 55th marathon in 4:20:14 (which although not particularly fast for me, was my fastest marathon in 2.5 years).
I felt good post race and after getting a good shower, a few snacks to eat, and a bit of rest we went out to Culloden Moor Battlefield and walked around.
It was there in April of 1746 that the Jacobite forces clashed with the English army in the last battle of the Jacobite uprising (those who supported Prince Charles Stuart’s claim to the throne). Around 700 Jacobite soldiers were killed in the few minutes of fighting. On the battlefield they had many markers and stones with the clan names engraved on them where many of those killed were buried in mass graves.
After we were back in the car it rained and we saw a beautiful rainbow over a field. The frequent rain and appearance of rainbows was something that happened frequently.
I also heard from MTA listeners from the meet up. Brian finished his marathon in 3:49 and Chris achieved his sub-4:00 goal with a time of 3:50. Congrats guys!
The rest of my trip:
The day after the marathon we did a Loch Ness Cruise out to Urquart Castle, toured the visitor’s center, and walked around the ruins. It was absolutely beautiful being out on Loch Ness and approaching the stately castle ruins by boat.
After a nice brunch we drove out to the Isle of Skye, stopping along the way to tour Eilean Donan Castle. The castle is located on a small island right by the shore with a stone bridge connecting it to the mainland. It’s owned by a family and was completely renovated starting in 1911. Many parts of the castle have been restored with artifacts while part of the castle is still private living space. There have also been many TV shows and movies filmed at this location.
Then we continued our drive to near Glen Brittle and hiked to the Fairy Pools. This is where a waterfall cascades down from the mountain collecting in these vivid blue/green pools. After a plunge in an ice cold pool for luck we hiked back to the car and went to check in at our B&B in Portree which we discovered had no heat. The radiators were broken so we had to content ourselves with a hot shower and dry clothes before seeking something to eat.
We ate at the Antlers Restaurant and sat in the bar area. We shared our table with a few people who were waiting for a table including a honeymooning couple from Michigan and an 83 year old man from Southern Scotland who had climbed all the mountains (or munros) in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Continuing my theme of eating locally I had venison, neeps & tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), and white pudding for dinner.
We spent a chilly night in our room and on our final day got an early start so we could climb to the Old Man of Storr. It was an absolutely beautiful and strenuous hike, especially as we neared the top and were nearly blown off the mountain by the high wind gusts. This was one time in my life where I was thankful not to be a lighter weight.
The Storr Mountain is the highest point on the Trotternish Ridge. It’s really hard to describe how gorgeous it is there and the pictures certainly don’t do it justice. One of the interesting things about hiking in the Highlands is that the ground often has this spongy feel- probably because it has a high water content.
We hiked around up there seeing sheep grazing by the trails, took lots of pictures, and headed down once it started to sleet and snow. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. Back in Portree we stopped for lunch at a café to warm up and then drove back toward Inverness.
Along the way we saw some Highland cattle (the breed with long horns and long wavy hair) and had to stop to take some pictures. Back in Inverness we checked into our B&B, walked to the Inverness Castle, explored around town buying a few final souvineers, and had a great dinner at the Fig & Thistle. The next day we had our long flight back home and it took me about 3-4 days to get my sleep back on schedule.
I’ve found myself wondering why I’ve been so tired this week and then remembered, “oh yea, I just ran a marathon, spent a busy week hiking and exploring, and traveled back home.” It was truly an amazing trip that I’m so grateful for.