The Scottish Ultra, a new addition to the multiday running scene took place in Northern Scotland in the first week of May 2009. Hosted by the organisers of the Gobi Challenge, this multiday race offers an opportunity for adventure and for testing personal limits right here in the UK. Race Director Dave Scott kindly sent this report .
Vango Scottish Ultra 2009
The sacrifice, dedication, pain and suffering for all this years athletes ended on Thursday 7th May as the last participant crossed the finish line of Vango Scottish Ultra in the Isle of Jura Distillery. Gone was the sunshine, gentle breezes and lush green hillsides of British Ultra 2008. In their place was sheer, unadulterated raw challenge, adventure, fear and exhilaration. After a week of rain, sleet, hail, driving winds and extremely tough underfoot conditions the brave and undeniably hardy souls who took up the challenge of the Vango Scottish Ultra have earned the right to put their feet up for a couple of days.
The event was tough, at times almost unbelievably so. Not only had the route been lengthened from the previous year but the terrain had been varied to include more mountains, a seven mile beach and strength sapping ground which would test anyone even in the best of conditions. The weather was the worst seen in May for many years on the islands and featured 70mph winds, driving rain, sleet and hail and unseasonably low temperatures.
On 2nd May the athletes began to gather in the beautiful and scenic grounds of Ardbeg Distillery for pre-race briefings and registration. While the sun shone and the athletes lounged in the spacious camp tents the support team made final preparation for the week ahead. With Phil Briggs heading up safety for the event we had made some support team changes from 2008 and with an experienced group of mountain rescue personnel, mountain leaders and wilderness medics the staff were confident we could take on whatever came our way. Inclement weather contingencies for each day were finalised, Argocats, support boats, quad bikes and medical equipment was checked and deposited along the route in preparation for the challenge ahead. At 1730 the athletes filed into the distillery cooperage for an aerial fly over of the route projected onto the white-washed stone walls of the room. Next up was an extensive safety briefing followed by haggis, neeps and tatties. After a few drams the runners hit their tents early for a full nights sleep. As they did a team of four marshals made for the summit of Bheinn Bheiger high above to take up checkpoints along the route.
At 0700 on 3rd May the hill team confirmed glorious conditions on the summit and at 0800 the event exploded into life. Across the fluttering Vango banners the athletes charged, along the narrow coastal tracks of Ardtalla and toward the start of the ascent of the hills. With glorious beaches, basking seals and clear views to Ireland, mainland Scotland and the Isle of Arran spirits were high. Scarcely even a breeze interrupted the pack and soon all were forging a determined path up onto the summit ridge of Bheinn Bheiger. Up front was Andy Murray of Scotland with Robert Holding, Donnie Campbell and Rick Gannon close on his heels. Behind them a steady stream of small groups and lone runners pushed on. Soon the hill section was over and the field tackled the long, winding farm road section which would take them past legendary Loch Finlaggan and into the forest which would lead them to camp. As the day dragged on, athletes steadily arrived in camp for a well earned rest. Andy Murray was first through in just over 4 hours with Jon Mollison holding up the rear in a time of 11 hours 30 minutes. As the steam from 25 camp fires obscures the spectacular views across the Sound of Islay towards the rugged paps of Jura, the first spots of rain which will dominate the week begin to drop.
Day 2 of Vango Scottish Ultra was always set to be a tough one. The result of endless work and planning by local Niall Colthart the route would take competitors straight into the glens and mountains of northern Islay before following a rugged coastal route onto the lengthy and windswept beaches of Loch Gruinart. Thereafter the route winds through forests, along lochsides, past farms and tracks before finally arriving at Port Askaig. At a push, the last 3km could be considered easy going. The other 42km is nothing short of torturous. At 0530 the race director and safety officer walked the first 3km of the route and deemed conditions trying but reasonable enough to proceed. With low cloud, mist and heavy rain visibility would be greatly reduced and underfoot conditions tough going. At 0900 the undaunted pack once again burst across the start line straight up and into the Margadale Glen. Wind speed picked up as the morning drove on driving sleet, hail and rain directly into the path on the athletes as they battled up and over the pass. As they made their way onto the flat beach of Gruinart the full force of the Atlantic winds battered them relentlessly. While marshals and medics shivered in their storm shelters the first casualties of the race were felt. Out came local man and member of the RAF team Lewis Prentice who was escorted by quad bike from the course to a medical point. Next out was ultra legend Jon ‘Big Casino’ Watts with an injury which prevented him continuing. This was a huge loss to runners and support team alike who have grown accustomed to Big Casino’s wit and humour around camp. Cam Carter from Australia was next. Having flown from Australia to take part, Cam was struggling to adjust to the beach weather in Scotland and, displaying the early signs of hypothermia, he was withdrawn from the field. To his credit (and once we had warmed him up!) Cam mucked in around camp and became a very useful member of the support team for the duration of the event. The final casualty of the day was Jon Mollison. Jon, who lost a leg in the Falklands Conflict, was using the event to prepare for a solo rowing attempt across the Atlantic in June. Having missed two checkpoints along the route Jon was withdrawn and left to tackle the greater challenges ahead in one piece.
As the casualties were withdrawn to the warmth of a wood fire and a dram the rest of the field battled across forest, farm track and (by now) deep bog toward the finish line. Progress was considerably slower than on the previous day but towards the end of the afternoon the first athletes began to appear at camp. Despite losing a few valued members of the group along the way spirits were exceptionally high with all feeling justifiably proud of what they had done. Later that evening the safety team convened for weather assessment and potential rerouting. The forecast was again harsh and the decision was taken to alter the final 10km of the route for day 3. This would allow the toughest mountain section of the course to be tackled safely and would add 6km of undulating farm route to the end of the day.
Day 3 begins with some bad news. Dean Loader, a firefighter from South Wales and clearly a very fit and capable athlete who lacks nothing in determination and ability is reluctantly withdrawn from the event. After a session with Bob, the camp physiotherapist, Dean is deemed to have suffered a soft tissue injury which means he cannot continue. He is clearly gutted but takes things well. Impressively, he shrugs off his personal disappointment swiftly and turns his attentions to boosting the spirits of not only his team but the rest of the guys as well. His withdrawal leaves 19 in the pack and at 0800 they take off. Several hours earlier teams of marshals, mountain leaders and medics had deployed into the hills from both sides. At 0700 rising rivers were reported and additional marshals were deployed to man unscheduled river crossings. The first 10km was a quick hop, skip and a jump along a mountainside track before the participants headed into the wilds of the Paps of Jura. Conditions here were fierce with the ubiquitous high winds, rain and some hail affecting visibility and giving the athletes a true Scottish mountain experience. Up and over the high pass they trudged before descending through the Glen which would take them out of the days mountain section. As the first of them appeared off the hill the river which all must cross had swollen to waist height. With only Richard Shaw from Fife deciding to go for a swim the rest crossed safely and were soon charging along an 11km coastal road stretch to base. Andy Murray, Robert, Donnie and Rick continue to dominate the front (among them they have victories in Gobi Challenge and Sahara Challenge and enjoy a real quality and close run battle). Behind them the teams from Wales and Fife make steady progress as do many individual athletes. Soon all are in and given the luxury of a large farm shed to bed down in for the evening. The accommodation gives everyone an opportunity to mingle out of the rain and the evening once again passes in high spirits.
That evening the safety meeting reveals continually worsening weather featuring 70mph winds heading against us. An integral safety feature of day 4 is boat cover using both of the team boats to deploy marshals and equipment and withdraw casualties. With conditions preventing this being conducted safely the decision is taken to implement the stage ‘B’ route – a longer and in many ways tougher alternative but one that would remove the variable of failed boat cover. The route will see the athletes tackle a 50km section of narrow farm road, track and mountain which will climax with views over the Corryvreckan whirlpool – one of the most treacherous sections of water in the world. The news is revealed to all at the pre stage briefing and start time set for 0800.
Right on cue the winds for day 4 pick up and rattle the barn through the night. At 0700 participants drag themselves from their warm sleeping bags and shake out the aches, strains and cold from tired limbs. Soon they are off on what will be the longest, most exposed and coldest section of the event. It’s a relatively straightforward linear slog but with conditions as they are casualties are reported within a few hours. First is Craig Oswald. Suffering from the effects of low temperatures and high winds he is held by a safety marshal and subsequently withdrawn. Aaron Henning, an extremely positive athlete who has lost four stone to take part goes down and is withdrawn. He is closely followed by Graeme Roberts, a very fit and experienced athlete who has succumbed to an injury. As the guys are evacuated to camp the rest of the pack heads slowly toward camp. Again the front pack dominates with strong performances from Craig Liddle and Michael Evans who seem to be getting stronger as the week goes by. Behind them American Murray Resinski makes steady progress and seems to relish the worsening weather. Andy Willday and Jo Kilkenny are also looking strong while Rob Lewis, arguably the physically strongest member of the pack succumbs to a painful foot injury. Only sheer strength of will gets him through. It’s a similar story for Justin Maclaurin who likewise struggles through the pain barrier. At the back, Tony Gilmour and Mark Caddy continue on in steady fashion.
Late in the day the final athlete returns to camp for a well earned cup of hot chocolate.
With weather continuing to worsen the evenings safety meeting results in a decision to condense the planned final day short ‘glory run’ into day 5. This will see a longer day than planned but one that will allow all to get over the finish line. Again the ‘B’ route is implemented and again this will be a harder slog on all. Nonetheless spirits are high with the knowledge that the day will see the athletes over the finish line for the final time. The course is revealed and maps distributed. It’s just a short one to finish, only 30km of mountain, beach and road to the finish line!
Day 5 begins pleasantly enough and it seems the weather Gods have finally shined upon us. With stunning views across the sea and up into the mountains the pack sets off on an arduous, steep and twisting route to the base of the mountains. From there they push back up into the Glen before climbing steeply to a bealach. From there they descend for a short beach section before hitting some road miles (the original day 6 route) for a short run to the Isle of Jura Distillery. Here they will finish once and for all.
To the noise of the pipes, the smell of whisky and the noise of cheering locals Rick Gannon thunders over the finish line. Over the next two hours he is joined by an emotional, spirited and very proud pack of athletes and support staff. The Vango Scottish Ultra 2009 is over. Throughout the afternoon and evening prizes are distributed, drams and venison consumed and stories fondly recollected. The buzz around camp is electric as the enormity of the completed task realised. Within an hour of finish three of those who were forced to withdraw have signed up for 2010 where the weather can only improve….
An amazing week! Extremely trying conditions which were undoubtedly made durable by the quality of those taking part. Raw, unyielding and genuinely remote ‘expedition’ style events like Scottish Ultra attract the highest calibre of participant and this year was no exception. This was no mere long road or canal side stroll but a genuinely wild experience. Both myself and the support team (who have been involved in numerous races, trips and expeditions) struggled to recall a group as solid as the one who endured Scottish Ultra 2009. From the outset there was nothing easy about this event. Routes were tough, distances long and conditions generally trying. That so many got through in such high spirits and with such modesty was testament to their quality. Myself, Phil, Niall and the rest of the team were genuinely proud and very much humbled to have been involved with all those who took part. Maximum respect to you all!!
Race Director, David Scott
Full results available at www.scottishultra.com/Results2009