The Great Glencoe Challenge, Scotland’s toughest trekathon!
Trekking 26.2 miles through some of the most stunning and dramatic landscapes in Scotland, all the way from Glencoe to the foot of the mighty Big Yin himself – Ben Nevis.
So the plan was to trek 26.2 miles with over 5,000ft of ascent in under 12 hours whatever the elements and rugged terrain could throw at us. Oh and not forgetting battling against the estimated billions of midges hatching around the time of the start of the event – this could get nasty and this was The Great Glencoe Challenge!
Four of us were taking part and competing as a team calling ourselves A Ridge Too Far! I was the original person who came up with the idea of doing the challenge and wondered if anyone else at work might fancy join in and come along for the ride. I managed to persuade and sign up three fellow adventure seeking colleagues for the challenge. This was also a good opportunity to raise some money for charity and Jas, one of the team members, recommended we collect for The Rainbow Trust. The Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity provide vital emotional and practical support to families who have a child with a life threatening or terminal illness. They offer a unique service as they help every member of the family from diagnosis, treatment and through the bereavement process or more hopefully recovery. This to us felt like a great charity to support on our trek.
A promotional picture I took of the team to help us raise money for our chosen charity, The Rainbow Trust.
Even if I hadn’t got any volunteers I was still going to do it on my own anyway. It sounded right up my street as the sort of challenge I love to take part in. I know this area well as I grew up near Loch Lomond and in the winter months I would drive up to either Glencoe or Fort William to Ski or snow board. So I knew just how stunning the scenery was and since I hadn’t been up this neck of the woods for over 15 years (I now live north of London) I thought it about time I reacquainted myself with this amazing part of Scotland.
Apart from the physical aspect of the trek that I was really looking forward to I was also excited about taking some great landscape photographs at the same time. At the distance we were going to travel and in the limited time available to do it I wasn’t going to take a large and heavy DSLR or multiple lenses. I couldn’t anyway because of all the gear I was already carrying with me, there was just no room at the inn!
I decided to take my trusty Sony RX 100 IV and GoPro Hero4 to capture the action and the magnificence of the mountains. I also took two spare GoPro and Sony batteries (I just about used up all three GoPro batteries and only one Sony battery on the trip). Two spare 32GB cards for both cameras a self stick and Joby GorillaPod were also included in the kit list.
A time-lapse of me putting together all the gear I will be taking up to Scotland for the trekathon.
We signed up to the challenge in early January 2017 and each of us took it upon ourselves to do as much training as we could in the six months lead up to the trek. I’m more of a jogger than a rambler, walker or trekker and more accustomed to doing 10k’s and half marathons so this was going to be an interesting challenge. I have also done three marathons so I can definitely do the distance but I have never done that mileage over such rough terrain carrying a rucksack and in wet weather gear!
I broke out my trusty walking books I used on the Three Peaks challenge three years previously and had never worn since. I started to build up the mileage and although I didn’t have anything like the terrain to simulate what it would be like in Glencoe I did have a few hills and off road areas I could go marching around to practice on. So the next few months saw me go for long marches in all types of weather in full battle gear and everything I would need to carry with me on the actual day. This would help me figure out what it would be like, feel like and to get an idea of time I could expect to finish in.
My longest march was in early June and just shy of 14 miles. I started early at 05.00 and finished at 08.45. It was a beautiful summers morning. The sun was up, blue sky and not a cloud in the sky. There was a bit of a nip in the air that required a thin jacket to start with but it wasn’t long before that was off and in the backpack as the temperature started to rise. Up to six miles and I was killing it then after that I started to feel a bit of pain in the hips, lower back and I started to get hot patches on the bottom of my feet, just below my toes and the a sore patch between my big toe and the one right next to it. I should have stoped there and then to take care of it but I soldiered on as I wanted to see what time I could get. Three hours and 45 minutes later I called it quits. All in all I still felt pretty good and it was a great dry run. Although I had developed a big blister between my toes, my lower back felt as if I had been repeatedly punched in the kidneys (probably to do with rucksack positioning and my hips felt really sore (due to sitting at a desk for too long at work). That being said I though it was a great rehearsal and only a few tweaks I needed to do to be ready for the big day. I felt I could do the Trek in under eight hours and that would be my challenge.
Ok, so training was over it was now time for the real deal. On Friday 30th June, two of us flew up from Luton and the other two flew up from Stansted airports to Glasgow airport early in the morning. We then picked up a hire car and headed on our merry way up to Fort William. We were in no hurry to get up and miss any of the spectacular scenery on the way so we stopped off at Luss, Loch Lomond for a hearty lunch at the amazing Coach House Coffee Shop (you’ve got to try the incredible Lentil soup followed by an enormous scone, cream and jam – calorific tactic). I stuck to the soup and half a scone while the other three suffered from eyes bigger than belly thinking with tummies expanding at an alarming rate! With full bellies we were back in the car heading up the narrow winding road that hugged the west side of Loch Lomond for a quick pint in the quirky but fabulous The Drovers Inn.
We’re in the hire car and we’re off on our adventure!
An M.C. Escher homage to the amazing scones at the Coach House Coffee Shop. Me taking a picture of Jas who is taking a picture of the scones, Matt is taking a picture of Paul who in turn is taking a picture of me, taking a picture of…
The Drovers Inn. A tonne of character. Time for a quick pint before heading up to Glencoe.
Don’t mind if we do. A cracking place to have a pint on the way up to the highlands.
A stop motion of the inside of the Drovers Inn.
A stop motion walk about at the incredible reception of The Drovers Inn.
Feeling absolutely stuffed we were back on track and on our way to book in to the accommodation. Inchree Chalets and Rooms is situated in the village of Onich, about halfway between the Ben Nevis and Glencoe mountain ranges and around seven miles south of Fort William. We booked ourselves in, had a quick tour of the accommodation, dumped the bags and were once again back in the car driving to Glen Nevis to race HQ to register our team for the event tomorrow morning.
I had been keeping an eye on the weather leading up to the event to see what we could possibly have to deal with on the day. On the week prior to the race, in London where we work we had temperatures as high as 33 degrees C, blue skies and hot hot hot. However it wasn’t quite like that in Fort William with average temperatures from 10-15 degrees C, light to moderate wind and moderate to heavy rain! Wow, what a difference a few hundred miles can make. Oh well, it will be what it will be and we’ll just have to cope and adapt to whatever we encounter en route. At least we know it’s going to be wet and a lot colder that what we were accustomed to.
Arriving at the registration marque in the middle of the field we had to navigate along a narrow marked off pathway to the entrance. The grass had long been trampled in turning now to thick squelching mud. In the marque, underfoot wasn’t much better and I could imagine once everyone congregates back here in the morning for the start of the race its going to be rather messy. We registered, picked up our packs and race numbers then headed into Fort William for a few last minute supplies (which we didn’t really need in the first place) then headed back to the accommodation to pack our bags, get everything ship shape for the morning, then chill out and get something to eat at the pub onsite. The dinner experience was completely unexpected. We all went for fish and chips and I thought being the safe bet in a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere the food would be average at best and just how wrong I was. I’m not joking when I say the fish and chips were FANTASTIC, some of the best I’ve ever had. The service was also fast and friendly and I for one would definitely go back to eat. We accompanied the meal with some beer and gin and tonics (you can tell just how seriously we’re taking this challenge with our healthy pre carbo loading dietary regime).
We were in bed by 22.30, not that you would think it was late as it was still so light outside being as we were a lot further north than London and we had just passed the longest day of the year, it looked more late afternoon than late at evening.
05.00. Rise and shine. A bit of porridge, check all the gear, we’re in the car and heading for Race HQ in Glen Nevis. We don’t actually start in Glen Nevis, this is where we meet up and to get chartered busses which takes us to the start, a short distance from Glencoe Village. There are three waves starting at different Times in the morning. We are the middle wave of over a hundred people starting at 08.00. It doesn’t take long for the busses to complete the transfer. We get dropped off at the side of the road and walk a short distance to where everyone is gathered for a safety briefing. About 15 minutes later we do another short walk to the official start line. The weather couldn’t have been any better. Blue sky, a light cooling breeze and the sun was up and right in front of us. However, we knew this wasn’t going to last as we were informed to expect inclement weather from around 13.00. So as they say, we had better make hay while the sun shines. We had the obligator count down from 10 and we were off to the haunting sounds from a piper, it doesn’t get much better than this.
This is it! The final count down and only 26.2 miles to go!
We were near the start, maintaining a good pace and a good time to the first checkpoint five miles in, making it in a respectible 01:30:25. The terrain was mostly off road gravel track and boy was the scenery a distraction – it was stunning. We had a quick stop and Matt took off his boot to fit a plaster as he felt a blister coming on. We ate some oranges, had a couple of mini doughnuts and a sip of high energy drink before we were off once again.
A selection of images of the mighty Glencoe along the first five miles of the race.
Looking back down to Glencoe from where we started about six miles away.
We’re cracking along for the first five miles.
The terrain completely changed and from nice firm gravel paths we were now onto bog! It wasn’t the muddy sort although there was plenty of that, it was just like walking on very wet sponges and there was no escape or dryer routes around the path we had to take. This had a massive impact on our speed and progress and most of the guys found it really hard to get through especially heading up the Devils Staircase which is part of the West Highland Way route. At one stage Paul went up to his knees in a hidden sink hole (which was quite funny to watch).
Bog, bog and more bog before commencing the ascent of The Devil’s staircase.
Almost at the top of The Devil’s staircase.
I felt pretty good fitness wise but Jas, Matt and Paul found it much tougher. Jas had had an operation on his legs not that long ago and was still in the recovery stage so he was particularly finding it tough going. He pulled out his walking sticks to support him and up and over the hill we went. The wind started to pick up and the first shower of the day came in and on went the trousers, jacket and hats. Thankfully the weather didn’t last for long and we were back down to base layers (Scottish weather – four seasons in one day right!). The next stretch was along the summit and down hill into Kinlochleven to the halfway point.
The half way point was in a local leisure centre where we had the opportunity to grab some soup, a bite of pizza, fill up on water, do a kit and body check for any aches, pains and blisters.
I decided to change my damp socks for a fresh pair, put vaseline between my toes to ease the friction and talc on my feet to dry them out. Other than that I felt in pretty good shape as did everyone else. We were checked over by one of the marshals to make sure we were fit to go before seeing us off on the next part of the trek.
We were now dropping a lot of time. We spent too long at the halfway check point and instead of a quick 15 minutes it turned into half an hour. On the way down to Kinlochleven instead of a fast trek it felt at times like a steady walk and I was feeling frustrated at our time. We made the half way point in 05:09:17 so we were well off the pace to get in under eight hours that I was hoping for. I signed us up as a team and I have to respect that we will finish as a team rather than me upping the pace and taking off trying to make up time.
Oh yes. We made it this far, so we may as well keep on trucking to the end.
We were informed that for the next 45 minutes stretch there was a steady steep climb up and out Kinlochleven and we shouldn’t bother with jackets and over trousers if we could help it as it was going to get hot and sweaty. I absolutely loved it and the marshal wasn’t wrong. It was a heart pounding, sweat inducing ascent to the top. Once there it was a long slog following the contours of the mountains, so only gently ups and downs from there to the next check point.
Leaving Kinlochleven behind we get some incredible views down the loch and into the glen as the mist comes and goes revealing spectacular scenery.
The wind picked up just after we reached the top of the track, shortly followed by the rain. Back on with the wet weather gear we dug in and cracked on. This part of the trek just never seamed to stop and it went on and on and on. This gave me some great opportunities to get some amazing pictures as the low level cloud came in, mountains and glens would suddenly disappear and then mysteriously reappear for a fleeting moment giving a tantalising glimpse at a photographic opportunity which I tried to take as many opportunities as I could.
A selection of images on the way to checkpoint four. In times like these you just got to smile, keep on laughing and keen on going.
A chap sitting in a black Land Rover was awaiting us at the third checkpoint. We signed in and were on our way, although I must admit I felt a bit despondent at finding out we still had 9.7 miles to go. I had it in my head that we only had at maximum of 4-7 miles left to do. I was doing a rough calculation in my head and we may not actually get in, in under 12 hours and I really, really, didn’t want that to happen. We needed to pick up the pace and crack on.
We were steadily munching our way through our trail mix which we had put together before travelling up. The high energy snacking bags containing mixed nuts, raisons, dried fruit and seeds. With the occasional protein bar thrown in every few hours, this helped to kept energy and moral levels high throughout the day.
We finally arrived at checkpoint four, the last checkpoint before the finish, in a time of 09:20:48. Only six miles to go!!!
That’s right. The sign says six miles to go. Are we happy, yes we are.
So off we jolly well went as there was no time to lose. We were still in good spirits and although the pace had dropped we were still moving reasonably well, with only a few aches and pains and just a couple of blisters we were still in pretty good nick for this far in. You could describe the weather for this part of the trek as a wee bit dank and slightly dreach!
As we got within a few miles of the finish we could make out the mighty Ben in the distance. It looked even more spectacular as we only managed to catch glimpses through the rolling mist which only offered up small tantalising sneaky peaks of it’s magnificence.
The scenery changed dramatically from the bracken and scarred rocky cliff sides that we had grown accustomed to. The new vista can only can be described as a decimated woodland. It looked as if this section had been part of a war zone and been napalmed! Almost all the trees in the surrounding woodland had been cut down leaving just the stumps and bits of tree everywhere. It looked rather brutal compared to the previous stunning scenery and I suppose it may be down to managed woodland and it was this areas turn to be harvest for the value in the timber.
Are we there yet… Nearly!
One last sneaky hill to climb through midge alley before the finish. The midges had thus far been keeping a low profile, but walking through this dank bogy woodland area was a favourite breeding ground for the mighty wee beastie and my legs started to get chomped! I wasn’t stopping or hanging around, you need to keep up the pace to keep the black mist a bay. We reached the top of a ridge and could make out race HQ and the massive marque in Glen Nevis about two miles away. Woo-hoo, we could taste the beer and hog roast from here. Our spirits were high as we moved ever closer to the finish line.
We crossed the finish line in 11:30:49 with just under 29 minutes to spare before the 12 hour cut off point. We were cheered across the finish line and each of us received a well earned medal and goodie bag containing a can of Irn-Bru, an energy bar, a Tunnock’s caramel wafer biscuit, Sun cream face protector and a couple of other useful bits. There was a vital ingredient missing from the goodie bag – beer! I spotted the bar in the middle of the marque straight away and made a b-line straight for it. Four pints of Best if you please my good man! And in no time at all we were reminiscing our 26.2 miles while downing a very refreshing pint. It was then onto devouring the fab hog roast with second helpings shortly after. Finally it was time to call our loved ones and let them know we were still alive and in relatively good shape!
At long last, the finishing line is in sight.
There was a good atmosphere in the marquee. Most people looked pretty frazzled, slightly spaced out but also had a real proud look of accomplishment about them. There were a few people limping, clutching legs and massaging stiff joints, aching feet and attending to blisters. We Hung around for a while, swapped war stories with our fellow trekkers and listened to the way too loud live band blast out some ear piercing toe tapping (that’s if you had the energy and not suffering from a stinging blister on your foot) Scottish tunes.
Well done boys and a well earned beer as well.
The medal is priceless.
It was time to head back to the accommodation and claim that well earned shower, get out our damp clothes and kick those bloody boots off. We had time to have a couple of rather nice gin and tonics at the onsite bar which hit the spot just in the right place. Exhausted, we retired to our beds happy trekkers.
The next day we packed up and shipped out, following the spectacular road once more back through Glencoe heading for Glasgow airport and back home to England.
We all agreed that we thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. The organisation was brilliant and the scenery was stunning. Would we do it again… Too right we would, we’ll be back next year.
Gear taken on the trek
1x Backpack rain cover
1x 30 litre backpack
1x Light weight fleece
2x Smart wool walking socks
1x Trail mix (nuts/raisons/dried fruit)
3x Cliff energy bars
1x Long shorts
1x Ronhill leggings
2x long sleeve, zip neck running tops
1x Endura Flyte cycle jacket
1x Sun glasses
1x 3 season walking boots
1x 3 litre Camelbak bladder
1x GoPro Hero4 camera with waterproof housing
2x Spare GoPro batteries
1x Selfi stick
1x Peak Design Capture Clip
1x Joby GorillaPod tripod
1x Sony Rx 100 IV camera
1x G-shock watch
1x Garmin sports watch
1x Midge hood
1x Mobile phone
1x Baseball cap
1x Beanie hat
1x Waterproof stuff pouch
1x Small hand towel
1x Small bag of Talcum powder
1x neck neck warmer
Team name: A ridge too Far
Competitors name: Michael Dick
Finish time: 11:30:49
Race No: 241
Category: Over 40
Checkpoint 1: 01:30:25
Checkpoint 2: 05:09:17 (half way point)
Checkpoint 3: 09:20:48