Words: Jenny Tough
Photography: Kelvin Trautman // Matt Green // Ellie Green
Individual snowflakes glitter in the dusk light as we crest the ridge, a perfect knife-edge of snow sculpted by the wind, and I’m stunned. I’ve spent enough time on the trails in this region, and yet a rare view like this still takes my breath away.
‘Donkeys? What on Earth does that mean?’ Kelvin is looking back down the trail at me, making a face that suggests he thinks I have altitude sickness, but in an amusing way.
‘It means we haven’t had a night this amazing up here in a really long time – donkey’s years.’
We are nearing the Munro summit just as dusk is setting in and the colours in the sky are changing rapidly over the Highlands. A peach-orange ribbon of light slashes through layers of blue over a serene Loch Lochy. Snowy peaks surround us in all directions, a pattern of white teeth glowing in between the blue of the sky and the loch. We can see a wind farm in the distance and the turbines aren’t even turning – I haven’t seen a night this calm in the Highlands in donkeys.
I am standing thigh-deep in snow. It’s hard work forging a path to the summit, lifting our legs out of snow pockets and making each step safe as we go. Individual snowflakes glitter in the dusk light as we crest the ridge, a perfect knife-edge of snow sculpted by the wind, and I’m stunned. I’ve spent enough time on the trails in this region, and yet a rare view like this still takes my breath away. The scale of the Highlands is majestic, amplified by this unusually still scene.
To our south, we can just see Fort William where our day began. Only eight hours earlier, I’d met Kelvin – a South African photographer – off the overnight train from London to begin our challenge to run the Great Glen Way high route fast and light, adding in a couple of minor detours. Kelvin has already booked the train home from Inverness, at 18.00 on day four. That gives us precisely 81 hours to complete our 200km journey.
We have a hard deadline. When questioned about backup plans, Kelvin simply tells me ‘we cannot miss that train’. No Plan B, then.
We ran the first 32km of the Great Glen Way this afternoon before veering left to attempt a Munro summit, on a whim of ‘because-it’s-there’ route planning. My trail plan had us pencilled in for summiting at sunrise, but the weather was too perfect for sticking to plans – we knew we had to appreciate today from a mountaintop.
We tear ourselves away from the perfect mountain moment and begin the descent, donning head torches as we plunge downhill, taking the fastest route back. I slalom down the slope, feet crashing through the wet snow to swallow an entire leg on each strike, sometimes getting stuck and falling on my face – even losing a shoe on one catastrophic leap. Thank goodness snow doesn’t hurt. Kelvin is a bit more of a gazelle and makes it down without incident.
It’s pitch black when we make it down to Loch Lochy. We haven’t agreed on anywhere to bivvy, so continue running. There’s a bothy 16km away – or so we think – so we agree to go for it, conscious of the falling temperature and wet forecast.
We run along the flat trail in the dark, our way lit only by head torches, the wider landscape a mystery. As we run, our mileage now far past the arbitrary marathon limit, I begin to think about how I got here – not just here, but in the grander sense. I recall the first time I went hiking alone, teetering under the weight of a massive backpack that my mum had sewn a maple leaf on so that nothing bad would happen to me, bursting at the zips with all the stuff I thought I needed. I remember the sense of freedom. Everything I needed to survive was strapped to my back, and I could go anywhere that my legs could carry me. I was cut off from the outside world and the outside world was cut off from me.
Since then, my objectives have changed and I’ve pursued going further, faster, while shrinking my pack. Somewhere along the way I started running, more out of a pure joy of bouncing down a trail than any athletic ambitions. While my objectives have shifted, that sense of freedom sticks. Here, now, I feel that same liberty. I’m thrilled to have three more days of this ahead of me.
This section of the Great Glen Way follows the Caledonian Canal, so is thankfully flat and straight, making for efficient progress in the night. We make a brief stop to warm up with a dram on a canal barge – a random but welcome encounter – but otherwise push forward, the promise of a fireplace and a roof to sleep under spurring us onwards.
It’s 2am when we reach Glenbuck bothy, a lone shelter at the top of a gruelling track about 5km off route. It’s big, with four rooms spread over two floors, and well-equipped for a bothy. We explode our gear all over a bench; luckily the bothy is empty so no one’s sleep is disrupted by our nocturnal activity. I set about ‘cooking’ while Kelvin battles with wet sticks in the fireplace, a heroic effort at this hour and after over 60km of running. By 3am we have a roaring fire (unfortunately for one of Kelvin’s socks), and hot dinner a la dehydrated food in a bag. Minutes later we are asleep.
My legs are heavy and one hip is swollen when we wake up, but the pattering of rain assures me that the night run was worth the effort. Waking up indoors is a special treat. We don’t rush, hoping the temperature outside might rise a few degrees before we have to head out there. Thanks to our night run we are now a day ahead of my plan, ensuring that we have a good chance of finishing on time – but also that our legs will be sore for the rest of the challenge.
By late afternoon the Great Glen Way leaves the Caledonian Canal and ascends to the high route, offering views over Loch Ness to our right and the glen to our left. There’s scarcely anyone else about so early in the season. The undulating trail is a welcome relief for our legs after the long, monotonous section beside the canal, and we trudge up then sprint down short climbs, bouncing between rocks and puddles in the path. The glen is tranquil, the afternoon eerily calm and windless, and our footsteps and stamping of trekking poles rudely interrupt the silence.
I recall the first time I went hiking alone, teetering under the weight of a massive backpack that my mum had sewn a maple leaf on so that nothing bad would happen to me, bursting at the zips with all the stuff I thought I needed.
The icy cold penetrates my body in an instant, kicking the air out of my lungs, as if Mother Nature herself has punched me in the gut. I deeply wish I hadn’t jumped into this river. I’m probably going to die. The bubbles dissipate and darkness surrounds me… then I remember to kick.
I claw my way to the surface and try to draw in a breath, but I can’t seem to achieve more than shallow, rapid breathing. I look back up at the rock that we jumped off, and then notice Kelvin, next to me, yelling something. We start swimming as fast as we can downriver to the trail exit we recce’d before this foolish bathing adventure. The water is around 6°C, and the sun has yet to come out. The current is fast and I slip on rocks trying to get out, wedging my leg between them and briefly believing that I was right – I will, indeed, die.
We clamber up the cliff back to our previous night’s bivvy spot in the forest – half-giggling, half-shivering – and rush to get dry and warm.
It takes two coffees before I’m warm enough to hit the trail again. A long climb kick-starts blood flow, so when Kelvin suggests we continue climbing beyond the high route path and see what the view is like from the ridge above, I have to agree.
An intense monochrome green floods our eyes; daylight struggles to pierce the canopy. The ground is squishy with bright green moss covering every surface. This forest is exactly what the woods look like in a fairytale. I wouldn’t be surprised if a full Disney cast of woodland creatures popped out singing for us.
We pick our way through boggy glen before clambering up rocky crags to reach the top of this utterly pointless peak. At the top we add some rocks to the cairn and enjoy more playful running along the wide ridge, our MQM Flex trainers performing brilliantly. We leap between rocks and occasionally miss and land in bog. It brings a smile to my face to run like this – more fun, less slog – and I’m energised to continue.
At the end of the day, we chance upon the perfect bivvy spot: a grassy clearing on a hill, with a stone shelter on one side, and views over Loch Ness on the other. I begin placing rocks in a circle while Kelvin looks for kindling to start a fire. I ignore the first spots of rain, but the skies open and our perfect campsite no longer looks appealing, so we repack and head uphill into the dense forest. The patter of rain on my hood switches off instantly, as if I’ve just walked indoors. We’ve entered another world in here. An intense monochrome green floods our eyes; daylight struggles to pierce the canopy. The ground is squishy with bright green moss covering every surface. This forest is exactly what the woods look like in a fairytale. I wouldn’t be surprised if a full Disney cast of woodland creatures popped out singing for us. We no longer mourn the loss of our campsite above the loch.
The forest grows up a steep hillside, but we find spaces large enough for each of us to spread out our bivvies, hoping we won’t roll downhill in the night (spoiler alert: I do). We crawl into our bivvies and lean our backs against trees while boiling dinner and enjoying a last-night dram. We’ll have about 53km to run tomorrow to make Kelvin’s train. I’m not optimistic about this prospect.
Despite the beauty and protective shelter of our fairytale forest, it’s a cold night. I wake early and decide to enjoy a coffee while watching the forest come to life, staying cosy inside my bivvy. The moody clouds of last night have disappeared; between the leafy branches high above me, I can see the last twinkling glints of a starry night fading away for dawn. It’s a calm before the storm. My already knackered legs feel intimidated by today’s heavy mileage obligation.
We decide to begin the day by climbing off-trail once more to summit Meall Fuar-mhonaidh, the Graham in whose shadow we slept last night. I wonder at Kelvin’s decision-making abilities the entire way up the climb – after all, it’s his train we’re going to miss – but can’t fault him for long. As we reach the summit, a cloud inversion develops over Loch Ness, leaving us with sun and blue sky above the white, fluffy clouds. This is exactly what I imagine heaven looks like. I pull out my camp stove so we can enjoy a summit breakfast before tearing ourselves away one last time to continue on our challenge.
The final hours can only be described as a slog. I tell myself that we’re rocking it, bounding down the trail like a pair of true runners, but I’m managing a fast shuffle at best. We’ve both slowed down considerably, but there’s no chance in stopping – not only do we have a thin margin to make Kelvin’s train home, but if I stop moving I won’t be able to start again.
We roll into Inverness late in the afternoon, watching the clock as we will our legs to continue turning. My spirits lift when I start recognising landmarks in Inverness. The castle will reveal itself soon, and the pain will all be over. I will get to sit down. I sprint towards the Great Glen Way official sign at Inverness Castle in one last surge of effort and then collapse. I consider theatrically throwing my backpack in a bin on our way to the nearest pub (we have just enough time for a pint, naturally). Just like the feeling of freedom I still get every time I start a trail, the feeling of accomplishment at the end is always as strong, no matter how many of these distance challenges I take on. We’re beaming.
Endurance challenges can appear ‘mega’ and ‘epic’, but the truth is that they are wonderfully simple: it’s just trying to run as far as you can every day, and then trying again the next day. You carry only the bare essentials and nothing more. In fact, you’re in the pursuit of having less stuff, for a change, which is remarkably refreshing in the Western world.
As Kelvin’s train pulls out of the station – apologies to passengers who had to sit near the man who hadn’t showered in four days of running – it’s a bittersweet feeling that the run is over. My legs are knackered and I’m looking forward to heading home, but leaving the trail means returning to civilisation and all the extra, un-simple stuff that comes along with it. On the trail, travelling fast and light, living simply and pushing our endurance, we are totally free. We move with nature. We are connected to what’s really important to us. We feel more alive.
Move Quickly in the Mountains with the Merrell MQM Flex – available at www.cotswoldoutdoor.com