was really looking forward to the Highlander Mountain Marathon 2011 Dundonnell. It was red hot at last year’s event (Gairloch was the sunniest location in the UK on that weekend) and with a small field, it meant you spent lots of time on your own. This year’s event centre was located in Ullapool and with no campsite arranged for you on the Friday evening we decided to just wild camp somewhere near the side of the road after we had registered.
The journey up north was uneventful and by 7pm we had arrived in Ullapool and had registered. Our coach pick up time was 7am the following morning. We drove out of the town centre and headed north for a couple of miles. Just as we crossed the Allt an t-Srathian, there was a minor road that headed towards Dhue. Parking up here we found a great place to camp right next to the Allt. I had forgotten to charge up the device that automatically blows up the inflatable bed so there was some fun and games holding it down on Scott’s car whilst we inflated it via the cigarette lighter socket. We chilled out for the rest of the evening then settled down for the night.
Saturday – Position: 9/13, Time: 06:49:43, Distance: 32.65km, Ascent: 1237m
We woke up early, ate breakfast and packed up. It was only a ten minute drive back to the event centre so we had plenty of time with no need to rush. Once we had parked up, we boarded the bus and set off. At this stage we still did not know where the start would actually be and my prediction of somewhere ‘north of Ullapool’ was immediately dashed as we set off south down the A835. Just as we passed Braemore the coach took a right turn and headed along the A832 towards Gairloch. There was no way the race would be in the same place as last year so maybe it was going to be somewhere near An Teallach or Fisherfield? We continued along the road, passing Little Loch Broom. You could see Badrallach across the water, the location of our camping trip, the previous year when it had rained every day.
The coach eventually parked up in a car park, just west of Durnamuck and it was ‘Game On’! We retrieved our map, dibbed in and set off. We were running in ‘B Class’ this year (last year we had raced Score) and first impression was the big distances between checkpoints. It was overcast and damp – this was going to be fun.
Our first checkpoint was located on a spur just off Carn na Beiste. I estimated it was about 3km away and with a decent sized lochan nearby, should not be too difficult to locate. We set off at reasonable pace across the wet, tussocky ground and soon we had caught up and overtaken a team that had set off a few minutes previous. As we passed by, we gave little thought but this team would become a constant ‘thorn in our side’ over the weekend. We had so much interaction with this team over the two days, we actually gave them a nickname each. It was ‘S2’ and ‘PK’.
We pushed on and headed for the east side of Loch an Eilich. From here we dropped down and skirted around a small lochan and then headed south crossing the Allt Loch na Laire Baine before heading uphill towards the checkpoint. But we could not find the checkpoint anywhere. After searching we realised something was seriously amiss so we looked at the map and deliberated. The spur was just south of the Lochan an Dubh-chadha and this was a good couple of hundred metres wide so should be visible. It did not take us long to realise that we were actually north of the lochan and not south.
We have made some errors in previous mountain marathons, but nothing as bad as this, especially on first checkpoint of day one. Little did we realise, but navigational errors would become a recurring theme throughout the weekend. Once we realised our error we set off, located the lochan and climbed up to the first checkpoint. Not a great start! S2 and PK were already heading off down to the second checkpoint so all that effort to get past them had been wasted.
The second checkpoint was located on a knoll top, located just under two kilometres south-west. You could actually see the knoll from where we were so it was just a case of taking the best route. The ground was rough and wet but we had no issues and 22 minutes later we had dibbed in and were ready for checkpoint three.
Checkpoint three had the potential to be a little tricky. It was re-entrant just north west of Loch Beag Bad an Ducharaich. Determined not to make another mistake we took a couple of moments to plan our route. There was a small burn that headed downhill from the re-entrant. We could use that as an ‘attack point’ and then head straight into the re-entrant. We dropped down towards the Gruinard River then headed south-east, skirting around Carn nan Con-esasan and Feith an Tairbh. It was not difficult to spot the burn; it ran straight down from the Bealach na h-Imrich. I followed up behind Scott, keeping an eye on my altimeter. The re-entrant was large and quite easy to spot and although we headed a little higher initially, we hit the checkpoint pretty much straight on. Other teams were not having such luck though. Realising that we were the only team to have found it, we dibbed in whilst trying not to draw attention to ourselves then moved away from the checkpoint.
Checkpoint four was located on a spur top about four kilometres south-east from our current location. We had two choices here; either clockwise or anticlockwise around Loch Mor Bad an Ducharaich and Loch an Eich Dhuibh. There was nothing much in it but due to the nature of the terrain on the south side of the lochs we decided to take head clockwise. The terrain was rough and wet and we hugged the side of the Lochs but we made reasonable progress with a couple of other teams taking the same route behind us. Once we had reached the east side of Loch an Eich Dhuibh it was just a case of taking a line towards the spur. There was probably about a 200 metre climb towards the checkpoint and as we headed upwards, we noticed S2 and PK in front of us. Where had they came from? The strange thing was that they were not running together, PK was about 100 metres lower than S2. Had they fallen out?
We pushed on and hiked up the grassy hillside, passing S2 and heading up towards the steep cliffs of Shurr Ruadh. It was damp and cloudy but the amazing An Teallach could be seen towering in the distance. How I wish there was a checkpoint up there (there was for another class). I was keeping an eye on my altimeter but the spur was not difficult to notice and although the checkpoint was hidden from view, we located it easily and dibbed in. It had been a tough leg and had took us 1 hour 16 minutes. We had not travelled fast enough but at least there had not been any navigational issues.
Checkpoint six was located on the summit of Mac is Mathair at 701 metres. There was a 818 metre ridge directly in front so if we took a direct bearing it would mean an additional 100 metres of ascent to then descend down to the checkpoint. A couple of teams were heading straight for the summit or perhaps they were going to just head to the right of it and skirt round? We decided to take a different approach and head north, directly to the col between the 818 metre and 634 metre summits on the spur then skirt around and gain the remaining height to Mac is Mathair.
The ground across Coire Mor an Teallaich was wet and boggy. There was a couple of stream crossings to contend with and I was not disappointed when we reached the side of the spur to climb up to the col. We pushed up the hill and looked across towards Mac is Mathair. We had planned to maintain our height and contour into the coire then ascend about 70 metres to the col and run to the summit. There was a faint ‘trod’ that led into the coire we could use but this dropped down slightly. In fact it dropped about forty metres. Do we follow the ‘trod’ or maintain our height? We followed the trod, only because we could move quicker even though there would be more height gain. In hindsight the route selection was wrong. We should have headed directly right of the 818 metre summit and then ran down to Mac is Mathair. This was reflected by the fact that we ranked 8th fastest for this leg. It took us 48 minutes to reach the summit and just as we dibbed in, S2 and PK arrived. This felt like a dual now and I was disappointed that the time we had on them had been eroded away on the last leg.
Checkpoint Seven was a stream junction and it looked pretty straight forward. Nothing is easy in a mountain marathon and in our haste to get away from S2 and PK we just took a bearing to the stream and went straight for it, all guns blazing. What we did not take into account was the terrain and the crags that we would have to negotiate and as we crossed the Allt Doire nan Tota, we realised we had in fact dropped to low so we had to then head upwards where our progress was stopped by the crags. We dropped back down then headed back up. It was frustrating that we had rushed off from the last checkpoint. Fortunately, we hit the stream pretty straight on so we did not waste any more time. S2 and PK had took a different line. They had stayed high and then dropped down onto the checkpoint. Fair play to them, we were running faster but their route selection was excellent and every time we got past them, they would gain time and catch us back up.
Class B had been an ‘eye opener’. We had not performed well. Navigation errors had blighted us, there was no doubt about that. But we had run reasonably strong and covered over 32km. We moved to the far end of the field, away from the event centre and pitched our tent. You are provided with a meal at mid camp on the Highlander and there is a bar where you can buy cans of pop and beer. My opinion is that nutrition is a significant part of the Mountain Marathon experience and I would prefer to only be able to eat what I can carry. The organisers say that a hot meal is provided because the Highlander is held in April and Scotland can suffer inclement weather at that time of year. Regardless of my personal views, we were not going to turn down a meal so we tucked in and purchased some Coke for later and retired to the tent to chill out.
Sunday – Position: 8/13, Time: 06:08:50, Distance: 24.55km, Ascent: 1274m
There was a generous time slot to set off the following morning but the organisers informed us that it was a decent walk to the start area so allow plenty of time. We were determined to make amends for the poor showing the previous day and one thing we wanted to avoid was another ‘dual’ with S2 and PK. As I was walking across the camping area I noticed that S2 and PK were packed up and setting off for the start area. If we allowed another 30 minutes and got to the start area just before cut off, then we could avoid them and focus on the run. Unbelievably, when we arrived at the start, S2 and PK were lingering around. Were they waiting for us, or were we being paranoid?
We dibbed in and set off up the hillside. There was a patch of muddy ground and people were ‘gingerly’ stepping around, avoiding getting muddy I suspect. Scott’s advice was to head straight through and like an idiot I did just that and ended nearly waist deep in thick, black mud. This provided great amusement to Scott and the other people nearby. I even raised a smile myself, it was not as though I was going out for a ‘night on the town’.
If Checkpoint One was bad then Checkpoint Two was a total disaster. What should have been a simple case of navigating to a nearby lochan located about a kilometre north ended up with us breaking the cardinal rule of a mountain marathon and following another team. Now this would have been great if they were going to the same checkpoint but these guys had either already visited checkpoint two or they were on another course. We had skirted past the lochan and started heading steeply downhill before we realised something was seriously wrong. By the time we had relocated and found the correct lochan we had taken 30 minutes when we should have done it in half time.
What a start. I just could not believe how poor we had been. We had not learned from the mistakes of yesterday and rather than planning the route correctly, we were rushing and making mistakes. Fortunately, even we could not mess up on Checkpoint Three. It was located on the inflow to the big Loch na h-Airbhe and as we descended the steep hillside from Beinn nam Ban, we could see the other competitors dibbing in. We dropped down successfully and dibbed in then set off to the next checkpoint.
Checkpoint Four was located in a re-entrant about three kilometres to the west. There would be close to 100 metres of ascent and some rough terrain to cross. It was at this point that Scott suggested we ‘Cracknell it’ across the tussocky ground at full pelt. ‘Cracknell it’ was a reference to James Cracknell and his amazing feats of endurance we had watched on the Discovery Channel before setting off up north. We set off running and although my heart rate was maxed out we covered the ground well and arrived at the next checkpoint in record time. Little did we know, but we had inadvertently navigated to and dibbed in at the wrong checkpoint. We were actually about a kilometre to the east of the correct checkpoint. If we had even bothered to check the checkpoint id then we would have realised our mistake.
Of the four checkpoints we had been to, we had made a total hash of three of them. Enough was enough. It was time to get a grip. No point in rushing anymore, just take our time and enjoy it. We set off towards the two lochans and for once we actually got things right. On our way we caught up with and overtook the leaders from day one with their distinctive ‘B1’ race numbers on their rucksacks. I wish I could say we passed them due to our fantastic performance between checkpoint four and five but one of the teams was hobbling pretty badly. Obviously, he had fallen and it looked like it was race over for them two guys.
We arrived at Checkpoint Five and dibbed in. Located in an amazing location, there was amazing views across Little Loch Broom. We moved away from the waterfall to a safer area to plan our route to the next checkpoint. As we set off we caught up with another team and unbelievably it was S2 and PK. Goodness, I thought these guys has left us for dead early on when we had lost lots of time on the early checkpoints. Obviously not was the case. They must have had a real nightmare on leg five.
S2 and PK set off towards Checkpoint Six and I noticed that there was people strung out heading towards Beinn Ghobhlach and then around to the bealach with Cnoc a’ Bhaid-rallaich. The checkpoint was located on a crag just on the 490 metres contour line. The bealach was about 380 metres so we decided to head straight for the bealach then ascend the extra 100 metres and contour around Beinn Ghobhlach and hopefully hit the checkpoint straight on. We probably could have run more as we skirted around the edge of Loch na h-Uidhe but the sun was beating down and in all honesty I was totally knackered. We made reasonable progress though and hit the checkpoint straight on which was great news. The views were tremendous over Annat Bay and Ullapool was a mere couple of kilometres away across Loch Broom.
Checkpoint Seven was located on a stream bend on the Allt Uisge na Feithe. The plan was to head down and handrail the Allt down to the stream bend. Easy enough I thought. We set off at full pelt and overtook S2 and PK again. We pushed hard across the rough terrain and with PK slowing up slightly, I was confident we could drop them once and for all. Unfortunately, not wanting to overshoot the marker we took a cautious line and hit the Allt way to high and lost a lot of time scrambling down numerous mini waterfalls to the checkpoint. Just as we dibbed in, S2 and PK arrived. They had took a perfect line again!
We let S2 and PK dib and took a breather to grab some food and drink before heading off to Checkpoint Eight, located in a re-entrant to the east. The ground undulated and it was tough on our tired legs but as we approached the location where the re-entrant was located I noticed that S2 and PK up above the crag near Druim na Gaibhre. Unbelievably, they had made a navigation error and headed up to high. We found the re-entrant and quickly dibbed hoping that they would not see us. But it was too late. S2 had noticed us and soon enough, they were scrambling back down to dib in.
We had already got a good start on them and this time I was confident we could leave them. With renewed vigour we pushed as hard as we could and took a pretty decent line to Checkpoint Nine which was located on a stream bend on the Allt a’ Bhaid-fhearna. No mistakes this time, we hit the checkpoint pretty much straight on. In fact this was our best leg of the weekend, we ranked fifth on this. All of a sudden S2 came flying down from above with PK lagging behind. They had took a totally different route and had headed up initially before dropping down. By this stage they were really beginning to wind me up. No matter what we did, we could not drop them. But you have to give credit where credit is due and their route selection was top drawer. S2 was in a league way above us and we both agreed that he could easily compete in ‘A Class’. Unfortunately, PK was significantly slower otherwise I suspect they would have been finishing in the top three.
We let S2 and PK dib in and set off. They had beaten us, well mentally anyway. I suppose the best thing would have not been to get involved in this kind of battle. Pressure forces mistakes and we certainly made plenty of them. There was just one checkpoint remaining. Checkpoint Ten was located at a gate close to a jetty where we assumed we would be getting a boat back to Ullapool. We took our time and skirted around the hillside towards the checkpoint and dibbed in. When we arrived at the jetty, the queue for the boat was enormous. In the fact the boat was actually a ‘RIB’ and it could only carry six passengers so we had a long, long wait. Thankfully it was sunny and warm. I would not have been too happy if we had to sit for two hours in the wind and rain.
Finish – Position: 8/13, Time: 12:58:33, Distance: 57.20km, Ascent: 2511m
The Highlander was a tough weekend. We had covered over 57 kilometres and ascended 2511 metres. Our overall position of 8th out of 13 was not amazing but it was respectable and the constant duelling with S2 and PK were great fun. Why the names S2 and PK you may ask? Well they are abbreviations but I better not let that secret out! 🙂
|Checkpoint||Leg Rank||Leg Time||Cumulative Time|
|1 – Spur||11||01:00:33||01:00:33|
|2 – Knoll top||6||00:22:25||01:22:58|
|3 – Re-entrant||6||00:42:51||02:05:49|
|4 – Spur top||9||01:16:43||03:22:32|
|5 – Loch (outflow)||6||00:31:10||03:53:42|
|6 – Summit Cairn||8||00:48:29||04:42:11|
|7 – Stream Junction||9||00:34:42||05:16:53|
|8 – Rocky Knoll||7||00:17:22||05:34:15|
|9 – Stream Bend||8||00:25:52||06:00:07|
|10 – Bridge||8||00:24:29||06:24:36|
|11 – Bridge||9||00:15:32||06:40:08|
|Checkpoint||Leg Rank||Leg Time||Cumulative Time|
|1 – Middle lochan||9||00:44:38||00:44:38|
|2 – Lochan (NE End)||12||00:30:28||01:15:06|
|3 – Inflow lochan||8||00:17:42||01:32:48|
|4 – Re-entrant||9||00:44:04||02:16:52|
|5 – Waterfall Top||9||00:49:55||03:06:47|
|6 – Crag||7||00:45:27||03:52:14|
|7 – Steam bend||8||00:38:43||04:30:57|
|8 – Re-entrant||8||00:37:52||05:08:49|
|9 – Stream junction||5||00:24:18||05:33:07|
|10 – Gate||9||00:06:41||06:07:34|