his was our third mountain marathon but the first time we where running the Highlander and also the first time we had competed in a ‘Score’ class. In a linear class you navigate to a series of markers that must be visited in a specific order and the fastest time (cumulative over two days) is the winner. In the score class each checkpoint is given a value in points and the aim is to visit as many checkpoints as possible, in any order, within a specific time period. The highest score (once again, cumulative over two days) wins. Markers in difficult places are worth more points and there are heavy penalties if you over run the time limit.
The 2010 event was to be held in the area around Gairloch which was pretty exciting as I have never been that far up the west coast. An added bonus was the amazing weather forecast for the weekend (It turned out that Gairloch was the sunniest place in the UK that weekend!) Scott left his car at mine and we headed off up the A9 toward Inverness in the Mazda. We made decent progress and stopped briefly to admire the awesome Slioch before heading into Gairloch itself. We where going to spend the Friday night camping at the Sands Caravan & Camping centre which was located conveniently near the event centre. After setting up our tents, registering at the event centre and grabbing something to eat, we chilled out for a while overlooking the sea and watching the sun set over Skye to the west.
Saturday – Position: 13/37, Points: 265, Time: 05:54:16
The following morning we parked up at the event centre and awaited the coach that would take us to the start. The good thing about these races is that you do not know where you are running until the race begins. In fact, we where only informed of the location a few days before the event. The coach dropped us off at the car-park for Victoria Falls just off the A832 and we walked uphill towards the start. We ‘dibbed’ in and received the map and a checklist detailing the checkpoints and their score value. The clock was ticking!
Although the location of the checkpoints are marked on the maps you still have to consult your checklist to match each one with its respective points value. Once this is completed you can then plan the best route. There are far too many checkpoints to visit each one so you have to be selective and try and balance distance and points and ensure you visit as many as possible without surpassing the time limit. It was here that we made our first (and biggest) mistake. Rather than take our time and mark on the map each checkpoint we located the highest scoring checkpoint, a 70 pointer, south-west of Loch na-h Oidhche and decided to head straight for that picking up two 10’s, a 20, 50 and 30 on the way. This looked good to us but because we had not matched all the checkpoints up with a score we failed to notice that there was a group of high scoring checkpoints to the east of our route.
We set off towards our first checkpoint (AF – 10 points) located on a bend on the Abhainn Loch na-h Oidhche. With clear blue skies, navigation was never going to be an issue and we settled into a run-walk rhythm over the tussocky terrain. It had taken 42 minutes to plan our route and dib in at the first checkpoint but the second checkpoint (AG – 10 points) was located just a short distance away on a small hill south west of the first checkpoint. The third checkpoint (PB – 20 points) was a decent distance away, we estimated about 4km but there was a decent track all the way so we where able to run all the way.
1 hour 28 minutes down and we had hit three checkpoints giving us a total of 40 points. With a 6 hour cut-off we would have to push on and gets some decent points in the bag but fortunately we where close to some high scoring checkpoints including the highest scoring, 70 points checkpoint and the checkpoint furthest away from the finish worth 50 points. The path continued towards Gorm-loch Fada and from there we where back on rough ground. The fourth checkpoint (AM – 50 points) was located south of Gorm loch na-Beinne and we did not really want to traverse all the way around to the south side where the checkpoint was located near another small lochan. The map showed a small piece of water that joined Gorm loch na-Beinne to Gorm-loch Fada and we took the gamble that we may be able to cross there.
We were not bothered about getting wet; your feet get soaked anyway. But I did not want get the contents of my rucksack wet. Fortunately the water was only waist deep and although it was slightly chilly on the ‘nether region’, we crossed without any misfortune, took a compass bearing and headed uphill to the checkpoint. The next checkpoint (AN – 30 points) was on a ring contour and this was easily located in 17 minutes. We could see people in the distance, heading in different directions but when we arrived at the high scoring checkpoint (AP – 70 points), we where the only people there. 2 hours 20 minutes and 190 points in the bag. We still had 3 hours 40 minutes remaining and we where feeling confident we could accumulate a decent score.
Our next objective was two checkpoints located quite close to each other but a good 4 km away from us on the northern side of the Corbett, Baosbheinn. Two choices here, climb over the top and run along the ridge or contour around the side. We chose the second option and headed around the side. It was tough going on the ankles and there was no path but for a faint stalkers path that seemed to appear intermittently. Although it took a while to get to the checkpoint, one plus point was that our navigation was ‘spot on’ and we hit the checkpoint (BF – 25 points) straight on. Wasting no time, we headed north over huge rocky outcrops to the checkpoint nearby (BG – 35 points). Once again we navigated a good line but the long distance from the 70 pointer to take in these two checkpoints had taken a decent amount of time, 1 hour and 35 minutes.
Time soon catches up with you on these kind of races and we had just over 2 hours to get back to the finish and hopefully get in some checkpoints on the way. As the crow flies, it was a good 5 km to the finish and although under normal circumstances this would not cause any issues, we had a couple of problems. Firstly, we had run out of water, it was baking hot and we could not find any streams and I was not overkeen on taking stagnent water from the odd small pool we had seen. Secondly, Scott was suffering from cramp – probably from dehydration. We had hoped to take in a checkpoint located on a hill north-west of our current location (BG – 25 points) but I was beginning to have doubts as to whether we should attempt this.
We headed down from Baosbheinn towards the checkpoint. Regardless of whether we should take in this checkpoint it was still in our general direction so we could afford to put off our decision for a little while. Unfortunately it was difficult to progress at a decent pace. The ground was boggy and muddy and we where reduced to walking a significant amount of time. The checkpoint was tantalizingly close but to take it in would mean a fairly hefty ascent and descent so any points gained here would be lost in penalties if we exceeded the cut off time.
We pushed on and skirted around the side of the hill and headed for a col at Mullach nan Cadhaichean which would then drop us towards Lochan Druim na Fearna and hopefully some water. Fortunately luck was on our side and a stream that ran from the top of Mullach nan Cadhaichean into the Lochan provided ice cold, fresh water. With water bottles full we headed around towards the north of the lochan and the next checkpoint (BP – 10 Points). We dibbed in and checked the time, 5 hours 8 minutes down and we had little over 50 minutes to get to the finish.
At little over two kilometres this should not of been a problem but if we went directly for the last mandatory checkpoint it would mean a climb over Sithean Mor. Maybe this would of been the best option but we decided to stay low and come in from the east. Although we intially made decent progress, this was brought to a slow crawl when we approached a number of streams that fed into the River Kerry. The grass was long and the ground wet and we had no choice but to walk. With the clock ticking ever closer to the deadline, we decided the best option would be to head straight towards B8056 road and head along this, not conventional but at least we could run. We eventually hit the road with about fifteen minutes to spare and tarmac under our feet we where able to make good progress to the last checkpoint and came in at the finish in a time of 5 hours 54 minutes and 16 seconds.
We were ranked 13th out of 37 with a total score of 265 points, not bad in itself but with the leaders accumulating a massive 535 points we where a huge 270 points behind. There is no doubt that our route choice was significant. There was a number of high scoring markers within reasonable distance of the start but I also think that fatigue played its part as well. We had scored 190 points in two hours twenty minutes and then only managed 75 points in 3 hours 40. None the less, it was our first score event and only third mountain marathon so we where happy with 13th place after day one.
We pitched our tent and headed to the event tent for some food and drink. On most mountain marathons you have to be totally self-sufficient for the two day period and I have to admit that I think I would prefer it this way. Having to carry your own food certainly adds to the strategy as we found out whilst running the OMM in 2009 when we ran out of food and I hit the wall on the second day. I was not going to complain though and happily tucked into the offerings. We headed back to our tent and cooked the food we had brought with us, there was no way we where going have a repeat of the OMM on this event. With day one over we settled down for an early night in preperation for the next day.
Sunday – Position: 15/37, Points: 146, Time: 05:01:25
Although the weather was a little cooler in the morning, by the time we had eaten breakfast, packed up our gear and headed up the B8056 to the start at the intersection of the A832, the skies were blue and the sun was beginning to shine. It was definitely going be a another hot day. We dibbed in at the start, grabbed the checkpoint list and began planning our route. There was not going to be a repeat performance of yesterday where we rushed and this time we marked down the score for every checkpoint.
The checkpoints where in a more compact area for day 2 but their locations looked a little more technical and we had 5 hours rather than 6 hours on day One. Our plan was to avoid the high scoring checkpoints to the north-east and the two ’20 point’ checkpoints to the south-east. Instead we would ‘knock-off’ the three nearby 10 pointers and then head into the central band of checkpoints and work our way north-west to the finish where there was a group of six checkpoints in a 2.5km square that we could collect if we had the time.
The three ’10 point’ checkpoints where located north-east of Meall Aundrary. As we ran along the path that heads down toward Loch Bad an Sglalaig it seemed that a lot of other people had the same idea but where the majority of people headed up Allt an Torra Leith taking a direct line towards the checkpoints, we decided to stay on the path and took a longer but hopefully faster route. I am not sure if there was any benefit in this but with 1 hour 9 minutes down we had ‘dibbed’ the first three checkpoints (Compare this to the leaders who visited the same three checkpoints in 51 minutes).
We pushed on towards Loch Dubh Dughaill and the next checkpoint worth 15 points. Although the ground was rough, we made good progress and hit the checkpoint spot on. We continued travelling north-east and traversed around the edge of Loch na Fiethe Mugaig towards the next checkpoint, a 25 pointer on Meallan an Aird-sheilg. Once again we navigated well although I suspect this was a lot to do with the good weather conditions rather than our skill with a map and compass.
With Day two being an hour shorter than day one and 2 hours 21 minutes down we were pretty much halfway to the cut off time of 5 hours. It was time to start working our way back towards the finish. Our next objective was a 35 pointer on the summit of Meall an Spardain, the highest point on our route at 415 metres. Once on the summit we could clearly see the next checkpoint, a 25 pointer on Meallan Mhic Aonghais but to reach it we had to drop down, then head up over a small peak then back down to the bealach and then up to the summit. Phew!
Although we where pretty tired we managed this without any issues and with 90 minutes remaining we decided to head for a 15 point checkpoint next to a small lochan close to the Allt Eas Ghairbh Ghraid. This would be easy we thought and this complacency brought our first mistake of the weekend. Glancing at the map, I thought the lochan was located in a re-entrant parrallel to the Allt. We fully expected to see the lochan from the Allt so we put our maps away and headed down. It was only when we had dropped significant height and could see the A832 did we realise we had made a mistake and travelled to far. The lochan was in fact elevated by ten metres and there was no way we would of seen it from the Allt. It was a basic schoolboy map reading error and I was really annoyed, especially as we had hit every other checkpoint ‘spot-on’ during the last two days.
We had a decision to make. Do we continue or track back for the checkpoint? There was another checkpoint worth 10 points near the finish, maybe we would still have time to track back and get the 15 pointer then grab the 10 pointer before the mandatory 5 point checkpoint near the finish. To speed things up, we decided to leave our bags and run back uphill, nail the checkpoint and then come back down and continue. What we did not realise was how far we had dropped down the hill and by the time we located the lochan and ‘dibbed in’ we only had 50 minutes remaining and our bags where half a kilometre down the hill. It was now ‘touch and go’ as to whether we would make the finish without passing the 5 hour mark and incurring penalties. The only solution was to head directly west, traverse a fence and head through a quarry, into a wooded area and then hopefully pick up a path that would lead us to the last checkpoint and the finish.
There was no one working in the quarry fortunately and we made good speed. We dashed through the wooded area and picked up the path and promptly ran past the last marker. Disaster! That cost us another 5 minutes and we where now really cutting it fine. We ran down the hill as fast as we could and back along the road to the finish but unfortunately we just failed to make the 5 hour mark and finished in a time of 5 hours, 1 minute and 25 seconds meaning a penalty of 4 points. Our finishing points for day two was 146 and gave us a position of 15th out of 37 teams.
Finish – Position: 13/37, Points: 411, Time: 10:55:41
We managed to finish overall 13th out 37 teams which was pretty reasonable position considering it was our first score event. Due to the small field size, the amazing weather and location, the Highlander ranks as one of the best races I have ran.