I briefly visited Arran when I was 19 and made a mental note that I should go back and explore the island more. For one reason or another these thoughts had drifted to the back of my mind. That was until last year, 20 years later, when I saw a video pop up on my social media feed advertising this event. The clips of the island took me right back there, and I was immediately interested. The April scheduling made it the perfect event to motivate me through the difficult winter months of training, so I decided to make this my first big race of the year.
With the car safely parked up by the Ardrossan harbour, I made my way onto the deck of the Cal-Mac ferry to Brodick, and spent the hour-long journey looking across the Firth of Clyde to the mist shrouded isle of Arran as it gradually grew on the horizon. It would have been nice to be able to see the mountains I would soon be running over, but that didn’t stop the excitement building as the ferry neared its destination.
The race basecamp was situated only 1km from the ferry terminal, which would have been no trouble to walk, but as I did a poor job of packing light and the organisers had put on a shuttle bus, I decided to save my energy for the days ahead. Once at basecamp, I had my race kit checked and was handed my number and wrist bands needed to access the camping area. The race HQ was a smart set up with a beer tent, food stalls, showers and an enclosed camp site with security. It seemed more like a mini festival than a race, but with cleaner toilets.
With my tent up, I started making friends with my fellow campers. I'm not the most outgoing of people, but there is such a sociable atmosphere at these events, it didn’t take long before I had plenty of people to chat to. The evening passed quickly, and I was soon tucked up in my sleeping bag with a belly full of pasta and the alarm set for 6am.
Race Day 1
Day one's route took a tour of the south of the island. This is the less mountainous end of Arran, but what the hills lacked in height they made up for in frequency, making for a good 4000 feet of ascent over the 28-mile course. Looking at the OS map, it appeared that the day’s running would mostly be on road and forest track, so should be a relatively fast course. I knew I'd have to rein myself in to make sure I left something in the legs for the 2nd day.
With 240 runners corralled into the starting pen, we were ready to go. I’d had a pretty good build up to this race, so my legs felt full of zip while I performed the usual start line routine of jogging on the spot and jumping up and down. “Don’t start too fast” I told myself “don’t be one of those fools who charges off at 5k pace for a 30 miler”. The starting hooter sounded, and I set off too fast. At about my 5k pace in fact. I immediately justified this by thinking that I was just making the most of my fresh legs for the first few miles, so I thought I'd stick with it. I soon came to my senses though, and eased off to a more comfortable pace, while letting a few of my competitors drift past me. I was happy to let them go. If they were charging off too fast, I'd see them again and if they could sustain that pace for 28 miles and run the next day, I was happy to accept that they were better than me.
The first ten miles were mostly coastal running and the scenery was a nice enough distraction to ensure that the time flew. I was soon at the first checkpoint, a village hall with a well-stocked table full of all the usual healthy snacks us runners like to eat, like cakes, crisps, sweets and energy bars. There was a selection of fruit too. These ‘pit stops’ as they called them, were nicely spaced along the route on both days, had a good range of food and drink and plenty of friendly folk on hand to help out.
Photo courtesy of MyBibNumber
The route stayed near the coast until just over half way when we headed in land and hit the section of the run that was most talked about after the event. This was a 2-mile section through the forest, following fire breaks between the trees. Unfortunately, it consisted mostly of knee deep, un-runnable bog. This was slow going and seemingly endless, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that it did give my legs a rest from the pounding of moving fast on hard ground. I also ended up with a couple of other runners for company for this section, and the camaraderie really helped. Every so often one of us would take a bad step and sink in up to our knees, the cold water prompting instant cramp in our calf muscles. One thing that really stands out in these sorts of events is that, even though we are racing, everyone looks out for each other. After a couple of miles of working together, we were more than happy to see a trail re-appear and get back to some proper running. More hills and more stunning scenery drifted past and before I knew it, I crested the hill that gave me a view of Brodick bay and the final descent to the finish line.
As I neared the finish I could hear the commentator on a loud speaker announcing my name and cheering me in. Thanks to the GPS tracker every competitor was carrying, he knew exactly who was coming next and made a big deal of every finisher. A real nice touch. This also meant that my friends and family back home could follow my progress, if they were bored enough to do so, and that supporters following their runners knew exactly where to be to cheer them on.
I crossed the line a few minutes over the 5-hour mark. I was happy with how I paced it and felt like I had pushed myself hard, but with a night to recover, thought I should have plenty left in the tank for the next day.
I soon felt fresh again after a hot shower and a bowl of meat balls and spent the next 3 hours sat by my tent with my feet up cheering the rest of the runners in. I knew it was important to keep moving to avoid my legs stiffening up, so took a wander down to the sea front and strolled as far as the chip shop to grab a fish supper for tea. The beer tent was open to all competitors and supporters, had a good choice of food and drink and had plenty of room for everyone to shelter from the occasional rain showers, so I sat myself down there for the evening to watch the folk band playing in the corner. They were good, but I bailed half way through in favour of my own tent and drifted off to sleep with the distant sound of acoustic guitar and fiddle wafting over the campsite.
Race Day 2
This was the big one. 30 miles with 7000 feet of ascent over the mountains on the northern end of the island. Getting up at 05:30 wasn’t pleasant, but after my traditional pre-race breakfast of coffee and porridge, I was soon over it. I'd been looking forward to this stage the most. I love running in the mountains and this stage passed over the biggest ones Arran has to offer. First, we would climb to the top of Caisteal Abhail, Arran’s 2nd highest mountain, before heading down to Lochranza. After 10 miles of costal running we would then tackle Goat Fell, the island’s highest summit.
The start was a much gentler affair than the day before and I settled into a comfortable pace as we headed up Glen Rosa. A gradual, runnable climb for about 6 miles before turning left up a steep zig zagging path that had even the leaders walking. The forecast was bad, but the weather was holding nicely. Dark clouds were all around, but the summits were clear, and my legs were nicely warmed up by the climb out of the glen, making it a joy to be running on the high mountain ridges.
The mountain terrain was a challenge but the route on both days was well signed and marshalled, with all the tricky sections marked out with a line of little orange flags, so no navigation was required. The big climb had spread the field out to the extent that I was running alone, out of sight of the runners in front and behind. Loving the big mountain scenery and enjoying the challenge of the tough terrain, all I had to do was concentrate on my own running and let the miles drift by.
With a difficult 12 miles completed, I hit the coast and had a relatively flat 10-mile section to cover before the last big climb. Passing the half way point meant I was in unknown territory. I’d never run more than 15 miles the day after a long run, so I was relieved to find my legs still felt full of energy, albeit when maintaining a slow pace. I plodded on, trying to make the most of the easier ground knowing full well what was ahead.
After a tricky river crossing and with two thirds of the day's route done, we turned inland for the gradual climb up Glen Sannox. I had gained a bit of time over the two runners in front of me on the coastal section and now had them in my sights, but they were climbing well and keeping their advantage. We were all running increasingly slowly as the gradient rose, until we were reduced to a walk for the steep climb up to the pass known as the Saddle. There was some easy scrambling to reach the pass and a couple of mountain guides on hand to help where needed. I was informed by the marshal at the Saddle that I was in the top 10 which came as a surprise and gave me a real lift.
Photo courtesy of MyBibNumber
I was still feeling strong so pushed hard on the steep climb to the summit of Goat Fell, the highest point on the island. It was at this point that the weather really closed in and I was soon in full waterproofs and just about keeping warm. I once again found myself in a group of 3 runners and I was glad of the company as, despite the well-marked course, we had strayed from the correct route. With the visibility low it was good to have three pairs of eyes looking out for the little orange flags, and each other. We managed to get back on course after a couple of dead ends, didn’t lose too much time and, more importantly, stayed safe. Once on the big tourist path down from the mountain, we got back to racing. The final descent was long, and this is where I began to tire. I got caught by a few runners who were finishing strongly. I tried to stick with them as they passed me, but as soon as I tried to up my pace my legs began to cramp, so I settled back to my original pace and saw myself to the line after just over 8 hours of running.
It was tight at the top of the men’s race, with the top three finishing within 2 minutes of each other over the two days. David Hellard was the overall victor and had to work hard to stay ahead of Kevin McCool and Mathew Aymard. Clair Briggs was a more comfortable winner of the women’s race, with just under 2 hours between her and the 2nd place finisher. A very impressive performance. While I was outside the top ten on both individual stages, my consistency paid off and I was delighted with 8th place overall.
Photo courtesy of MyBibNumber
The bad weather and difficult running conditions made for an interesting day, but it did take its toll, with approximately half the field having to take the low route back from the Saddle. I think the serious terrain on day two was a surprise to a lot of people after the relatively benign first day. The decision to take the low route didn’t diminish from anyone’s sense of achievement however, as it still covered the same distance and all finishers received the same medal. Whilst you don’t need it, I'd recommend either having some good experience of mountain running or walking before entering this one, so you can make the most of the experience. Don’t be put off though as everyone was well looked after, more so than any other event I have taken part in, and the tougher the challenge, the bigger the grin on your face at the end of it!
All in all, this event was fantastically well-run, had a very friendly atmosphere, and while I thought at first it was expensive to enter, I always felt I was getting good value for money. The routes on both days covered a broad range of terrain, remained interesting throughout and gave a good taste of the island. The event ended, with a bunch of tired but very happy runners, all strangers just two days before, sharing their stories of the day’s efforts over a beer (or five), before saying goodbye to the island and to an epic weekend.
Next year’s race has been scheduled for the 13th and 14th of April. All the details can be found here; http://ratrace.com/uta/
The official race photos were by Mybibnumber, who had numerous photographers along the route. They found some excellent spots to both snap away and give everyone a good shout of support as they ran by. https://www.mybibnumber.com/