We are back in the West Highlands! It’s been six months since our last visit and the conditions are currently a world away from what we faced back then. The sun is shining and the loch is glassily calm. The runners will have a thankfully peaceful night as they try and grab as much nervous sleep as they can ahead of the race starting tomorrow morning.
Rather than our usual pre-race round-up, we thought we’d bring you some insight from a previous Highland Ultra finisher. Black Trail Runners’ co-founder Sonny Peart has joined our race team for this event and we could think of no more eloquent a person to fill you in on the action on arrival day.
Over to Sonny…
It’s the day before the second running of the Highland Ultra, and the runners have been arriving on Knoydart, by ferry from Mallaig, in batches all day. In each face I recognise the excitement and trepidation I felt myself last October when I took part in the first running of the event.
If Mallaig has an end of earth feel to it, in common with many port towns, but magnified, at least in the eyes of this Londoner, by its extreme northern latitude, then Inverie feels like the world beyond the world. Some kind of extra dimension, brought into existence to test our credulity.
Every ultramarathon is difficult. The Highland Ultra participants stepping off the ferry face several extra difficulties.
There’s the difficulty of interpreting the landscape. Its geography, history and climate. All seem inaccessible. They see the loch, the rocky peaks, the glacier-carved glens, the sparse vegetation, the many streams and rivers, the beaches and rocky shores. But what is it exactly they see? How did this place achieve this state? What does it represent? Only the fact of its beauty is apparent.
There’s the difficulty of explaining the event to others. What it is, or even where it is. It’s a three-day self-supported foot-race, over 125km with thousands of feet of elevation. It’s on a peninsular in the West Highlands that is on the mainland but can only be reached by boat. It’s what? It’s where?
There’s the difficulty of preparing for the event. Not only the physical preparation, but the logistical preparation. How do you assemble the mandatory kit? What else do you bring? How do you pack the bags you need? What do you plan to eat? What contingencies do you prepare for? At what point, if any, do you feel confident you’ve done all you can?
This uncertainty translates into the nervous energy of kit check, when you unpack all that careful packing for inspection. I spent much of the morning and afternoon checking the kit of participants, going through the lengthy checklist of items they are deemed to require to spend three days and nights in the many terrains and weather systems they will encounter of the next few days. I’ve seen the range of participants, from first-time ultra-runners to experienced multi-day eventers. There’s the experienced fell runner competing in their first ultra. There are a pair of dutchmen with their military gear. There are the twin sisters, confident and business-like, with plenty of experience of Scotland and Beyond the Ultimate events. There’s the triathlete turned podcaster, excited and meticulous. I try to use humour to calm nerves; I don’t always succeed.
Most runners, when asked, say they’re looking forward to it. Some say they just want to enjoy it. The trepidation seems to linger behind every eye. I tell them they’ll love it. And I believe it, even if they don’t.
Every running of an ultra is different. The weather looks set to be much more benign than last October. The whole peninsular seems much less intimidating than in October. Perhaps because I have been here before, and have a good idea of what lies ahead for the runners. Or perhaps because now there is a coffee shop, a general store, and a pub. All doing brisk trade, looking out over Loch Nevis, shimmering silver under a matchless spring sky, with views stretching west to Skye and the suggestion of a vastness beyond. In truth, the conditions for running could not be any better. At least today. But the race starts tomorrow, and goes on for three days, and weather can be changeable and unpredictable, particularly in a place like Knoydart, of extreme topology and multiple micro-climates. Nothing is certain.
Almost nothing. No matter what happens, every runner will have an experience they will never forget.
This morning before breakfast I went for a run, along part of the route the runners will take tomorrow, up the valley towards Barrisdale. Unlike last October, I was fresh from a full night’s sleep, and unencumbered by a pack. Unlike last October, I didn’t already have 25km of running in my legs, and I didn’t have another 35km to do. Unlike last October, the sky was a matchless azure, and the rising sun dazzled and illuminated. Unlike last October, I took the time to climb the rough knoll where the Knoydart monument stands, inscrutable and mysterious, casting its cruciform shadow up or down the valley as time dictates. The air was warm and lucid; almost painfully clear. It was glorious.
It was a breath-taking moment. One of many that Knoydart has given me. One of many that this year’s runners will experience. Arrival in Mallaig, at the end of the Road to the Isles. The ferry across Loch Nevis to Inverie. Their first view of the Long Beach campsite. Their first waist-deep bog. Their first view of the monument. Their first wade across an ice-clear river. Their first 360 degree view from a Highland peak.
On the run out to the monument, I didn’t see a single person. On the way back, I saw fellow-volunteer Harry, heading out where I had just been. He told me later I had looked like the happiest many in the world. It’s not a description I would usually associate with myself, but now it didn’t seem wrong. I felt gratitude to be in this place. I felt gratitude to experience this event from the other side, to feel the excitement and experience the view without the effort of running 125km. At the same time, I felt a little bit of envy of the runners, who do not know exactly what awaits, who are experiencing all of this for the first time, in real-time, who will be sleeping in their tents tonight with so many breath-taking moments to come.
Join us at 08:15 tomorrow morning for the start of the race. We’ll provide coverage throughout on Facebook,Instagram and Twitter whenever we find a sliver of 4G out in the hills. You can follow the runners throughout the whole race via our live GPS tracker.