Travelling down to the Devil O’ The Highlands run on the Friday after work we encountered someone driving at us at 70mph up the wrong side of the dual carriageway. Only Leanne’s super quick thinking and evasive action meant that we survived to tell the tale and the subsequent stunned silence spoke volumes. We just slotted in between cars who themselves were breaking wildly in an effort to avoid a pileup from the other fast lane vehicles who had also taken evasive action to avoid colliding with the apparently oblivious woman driving straight at them. We were fortunate to be continuing onwards towards Tyndrum and boy did we know it!
Arriving in Tyndrum around 9.00 we quickly found the By The Way Hostel*, having prior knowledge of it’s location thanks to its positioning at the finish of the Highland Flind race earlier in the year. Bags were quickly offloaded into the room and we set off in to Tyndrum, destined for the Real Food cafe where I enjoyed a desperately needed coffee!
I went off to sleep around 11pm and the 4am alarm was an unwelcome awakening from an unusually decent pre-race sleep. Pecan pastry, porridge and coffee started the usual pre-race routine and I was ready to leave for the race registration shortly before 5am.
The Green Welly Stop, surely one of the most famous things in Tyndrum, had kindly opened their doors (and cafe) to runners for the 4.30am – 5.30 race registration and, by the time I arrived, the place was full of runners and support crew. I saw a lot of the ‘usual’ faces for SUMS events and caught up with Colin Knox, Dave Morrow, Mike Raffan and Iain & Vicki Shanks.
Knowing the hilly nature of the route and having not quite found my race fitness since my return from 2 weeks in Menorca, I was nervous about the impending run. Unlike Canada, where I managed to get a good run in most days, Menorca was just too hot, even in the early hours of the morning and, as such, I struggled to run more than 5 or 6 miles on the 4 or 5 days that I managed a run. I felt that my lack of race fitness was all to evident in my poorer than expected showing in the recent Clyde Stride Ultramarathon where I suffered for the last 20 miles approx.
Initially, I had thought that the requirement of a support crew was a pain as I am used to the drop bags system that is in use at most other ultras. However, with my wife Leanne and her brother Ross as my support crew I actually found that it was good to look forward to meeting up with them. Further, I could be far more flexible with my hydration and nutrition without the waste that accompanies the use of drop bags. They did a great job of keeping me fed and watered and cajoled me onwards towards the finish. Thanks to them both – consider yourselves hired whenever a support crew is required 🙂
With regard to the route itself, I have Colin’s excellent blog to thank for the exact route details.
At 6 a.m. approx 130 runners set off from Brodies store in Tyndrum, headed for the first check point at Bridge of Orchy. We started climbing out of Tyndrum on the old military road from the word go – no gentle starts then!
I reached Bridge of Orchy ahead of my planned time and hoped that this would not be too early for my support crew. I ran some of the way with Dave Morrow and Vicki Shanks and I have them to thank for helping me get in to a good pace, something I always find difficult as my body objects to running for about the first 6 miles! I need not have worried – as I crossed the bridge (built around 1750), Leanne and Ross were there with everything ready. I had to laugh as Ross did his best ‘Kenny’ impression trying to escape the worst of the midgies. To say they were swarming was an understatement!
With my Powerade replenished and having thrown back some pasta, a banana and a Red Bull I set off out of Bridge of Orchy, straight in to a steep climb up on to Mam Carraigh (approx 1000ft). According to the race info, this part “Heralds the beginning of rougher country underfoot that continues more or less unabated until the end of the race”. It was at this point that I realised I was becoming oblivious to the midgie menace, even the ones intent on flying up my nose and in to my eyes! At this point I also started to really appreciate the beauty of the surrounding countryside. The Devil O’ The Highlands route really does take us through some of Scotland’s finest, and the best was still to come.
I enjoyed the view of Loch Tulla and the speed offered by the descent down to Black Rock Cottage. Next up was Rannoch Moor which I have admired for its beauty in the past. I have to admit that, on this occasion, I just got on with the job in hand and welcomed the site of the Peter Fleming cairn which signalled that the next check point was not too far away. Approaching Kingshouse, with Buachaille Etive Mor in the background, I realised I was going to have to make an unplanned pitstop at the Glencoe Ski Centre. I would later regret the time spent here, including time spent queuing, as it impacted on my chance of a sub 10 hour time. As before, my support crew were all prepared and, after yet more pasta and Red Bull, and with bottles filled, I set off for what I expected would be the toughest climb of the day, over the Devil’s Staircase.
Like so many others, I was welcoming the change in the forecast. At the beginning of the week the forecast had been for heavy rain, which would have been bad enough for the runners but awful for the support crews. However, as the week progressed, this was amended to showers and sunny spells. This I could live with. Far too many of this years runs have been done in the heat. Unfortunately, the rain held off until I was approx 3 miles from Fort William and, instead, ‘sunny spells’ were replaced with baking heat and it would appear that the peaks of the temperatures were reserved for the big climbs of the day!
The route continued down to Kingshouse and then to a climb along the side of Beinn a Chrulaiste where I really started to feel the heat. Arriving at Altnafeadh, and with the Devil’s Staircase (849ft but feels like so much more!) looming, the temperature continued to rise. The height gained is all the more impressive when you consider the view of Buachaille Etive Mor that you had at the bottom against the amazing view from the top. This is the highest point of the whole route at 1798ft. Again I was glad of some company on the ascent from Dave and Vicki and also from Iain who was supporting both Dave and Vicki and, in climbing the Devil’s Staircase with them surely went above and beyond the call of duty!
Once over the Devil’s Staircase the descent down into Kinlochleven began. This should have been the ‘easy’ part, but with treacherous terrain underfoot and legs burning from the ascent, it was all I could do not to ‘fall’ down the path which in sections appeared as steep as to ‘throw’ you down towards Kinlochleven.
My team were patiently waiting in Kinlochleven for me and again made sure that everything was topped up and ready to go. This was going to be it until Fort William which I knew was going to be some time away.
The climb out of Kinlochleven was brutal… and unexpected. I really should have checked the map a bit more carefully and then the climb, with a full stomach from the last check point, would not have been such a surprise. As it was, I found this climb to be even worse than the Devil’s Staircase. The route, up to the Lairig Mor (the high pass) climbs approx 1100ft. However, as before, the views from the top more than made up for it.
I spoke with a few runners on this stretch and also with members of the Wilderness Mountain Rescue Team who offered words of support and ice cold water which was much appreciated.
It was not until the latter stages of the run that I managed to get lost. Looking behind me, I could see 2-3 runners in the distance. Determined not to be caught, this spurred me onwards and I stopped only briefly to take in the sheer beauty of Ben Nevis. I descended down towards Fort William, realising that I might just get a sub 10 hour time. However, I took a path to the right and ended up running the long way to the finish, on the pavement by the side of the road. If I had kept going down the forest track I would have seen a spray painted sign which indicated that the finish was this way – doh! As it was, the people that I had seen in the distance finished before me, coming in just under 10 hours. I finished in 10 hours, 3 minutes and 9 seconds!
The Saturday before the Devil I had not even managed to run 3 miles without stopping as my calves felt that they were about to snap and/or combust. As such, I set myself the target of finishing the run within the allocated 12 hours. From looking at results from the previous year, I had set myself a 10 hour 30 minute ‘perfect day’ target time on the Friday. Thus, while I did not get the sub 10 hour time, I really can’t complain with the time I did get.
After the run we stopped off at Morrisons so that I could have my, as of this year, traditional apres run beer. As most of you will know, I generally abstain from drinking so these are the only times I ever drink alcohol! It tasted great at the time but unfortunately I required an emergency pit stop at Spean Bridge to deposit it by the roadside – doh! Heading back to Ellon via Aviemore, we stopped off at Roos for a meal as a way of saying thanks to my support crew. Fortunately, this did stay down!
So, after my first, somewhat long-winded first attempt at a race report, I can only conclude by saying the Devil was everything I expected and a whole lot more. I loved it and I will be back for more next year, hopefully with the same support crew (hint, hint guys!). It was great to have the opportunity to run in such beautiful surroundings and to see everyone again. As I mentioned before, it was also great to see my Wife and her brother at each of the check points. I am used to seeing them only at the start and finish and this made them feel part of the day. Thanks as always for your support of my running 🙂
Hopefully see you all at the Speyside Ultramarathon at the end of the month!
* An excellent choice of accommodation which appeared to be almost entirely filled with runners and support crew. One of the owners, Kirsty, was also running in the Devil O’ The Highlands. Have already booked in for next year’s Devil O’ The Highlands!
This list of safety equipment is to be carried by each competitor and a duplicate copy is also advised to be carried by the backup team:
- Space Blanket
- Full body waterproof clothing
- Tyndrum (Booking in for the start of the race)
- Bridge of Orchy (Checkpoint 1)
- White Cottage Glencoe (Down from Ski Center) (Checkpoint 2)
- Kinlochleven (Checkpoint 3)
- Fort William (Checkpoint 4 and Finish)
- Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy: 7 miles (11.2 km)
- Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse: 12 miles (19.2 km)
- Kingshouse to Kinlochleven: 9 miles (14.4 km)
- Kinlochleven to Fort William: 16 miles (24 km)
Devil O’ The Highlands Elevation Profile