Wednesday, 3 June 2015

17 hours of Skye Trail

After a six month blogging hiatus, I decided the Skye trail ultra is one adventure I want a record of, and others might too given its the first year its been held. Skye is one of three races I'm focusing on for 2015; a new less-is-more strategy for me to change things up from racing too much.

I'd signed up after reading about the difficulty and elevation of the trail. Advertised at 69 miles (but closer to 74, and only if you go the right way!) and just under 4,500 metres of ascent, it would be quality mileage ahead of UTMB this August. Fitness levels were on the whole good going into it, albeit a few minor niggles which I'd seemed to iron out. I'd had a strong Fling and felt great to the end of Loch Katrine marathon where I ran a PB. But other forms of preparation - those helpful things called sleep, rest and relaxation - didn't feature in my world over the last month or so. A case of everything happening at once, back to back weekends away and change in job with 5am wake-ups every day for weeks.

The fabulous Jamie Aarons and I drove up to Skye a few weeks before the race to recce the first and most difficult part including the Trotternish ridge and had the best and the worst of conditions; 8 hours of ridge to Portree in stunning sunshine on the Saturday followed by 3 hours in howling winds and torrential rains from Portree to Sligachan on the Sunday. The weekend also featured car camping, hours of hitchhiking back north in the pouring rain (eternally grateful to the Australian tourists who took pity on us and turned around to squeeze us in to their super-packed car), broken windscreen wipers and a mad French hitchhiker who told us he'd been 'hijacking' cars all the way from the north - but that's another post in itself!

After the recce I'd asked Jeff if he'd consider changing the logistics of registration to it having to be in the south of the island (Broadford) after midnight on the day of the race - with start time at 5am in the north (Duntulm) - and was very grateful when he offered earlier registration options for the afternoon so we could then go stay up north and get a night's sleep before the start. I think a night without sleep before even starting the ridge would not have made for a happy race for me and I ended up getting over 5 hours on Friday - probably a record for me pre-ultra. Matt, Dawn and I stayed in Staffin and lovely Dawn ferried us to the start in the middle of nowhere (sorry Duntulm) where we gathered shivering in the midsummer early morning. Freezing! And much breezier than forecast! But the ridge ahead was free of cloud and the rain was holding off so I was happy. If it had been Friday's conditions I'm not sure I would have started, having seen what was to come on the ridge.

Duntulm - Portree (26ish miles, 2,447 metres ascent)

Trotternish ridge, taken during recce
The route sets off a mile or so along an undulating single track road to reach a sharp right turn up to a track and over into the first trail-less section, a few km's of ankle-eating bog and heather. I knew what to expect and for the first in many occasions over the next 7 hours was so thankful we'd recced. I ran with Matt and Ross but as we ascended up to Sror Vourlin, the first steep section of ridge, I held no illusions about staying with them. Mark Hartree was behind me and took the lower traverse, therefore skipping ahead of me as I ran across the ridge. I then proceeded to go the wrong way - as Jamie and I did in the recce - as I just couldn't see the god damned low path we were meant to take past the Quirang. Cursing myself and seeing that several guys had followed me up there I just gritted my teeth and made headway across the top and down the slip-sliding descent - sliding sideways into bog and  to the only road crossing on the ridge until Portree, where Jeff, Fiona and Pauline had set up a water stop. I think this is the only ultra I've been given water in a china tea mug and it was awesome.

After this came miles of up-down-up-down, featuring steep climbs up a few Grahams and other wee hills (Biode Buidhe, Beinn Edra, Sgurr a Mhadaigh Ruaidh, Hartaval, The Storr, Ben Dearg and A Chorra Beinn). Again, these climbs were expected and seemed to pass so much quicker than in the recce. Sadly there were no picnics on the peaks as Jamie and I enjoyed in the sparkling sunshine that day.

The sections on the ridge tops between the hills were in parts blissful - although cloudy there were still beautiful views with the ridge stretching miles ahead, and Lewis, Harris and the Uists to the right. But it sure was windy. Some of the route looks far more runnable on map than it actually is, as even on the flats/downhills you sink deep into bog and have to jump between clumps of heather to get across.

When we approached A Chorra Beinn I felt in much better shape than I had on the recce - having tackled it shortly after the Fling and struggled with energy at points. I knew we had to traverse around it and told Mark Caldwell as much, who was running close by. Despite this we saw a few guys right up ahead scrambling up the crags of the peak, it looked super steep and I didn't fancy it at all so stuck to the traverse. After this you have to head back up high to meet the ridge again and a few bog dives were to follow as my legs grew tired of the constant battle through it. Shortly after came the crazy boggy few miles descent into Portree, I was glad to have Mark there for some chat and distraction through this and was delighted we were on for six hours approaching the town, when during recce it had taken 8.

Portree - Sligachan (12 miles, 370 metres ascent)
After a few minutes refuelling at the CP, which was manned by Jeff, Fiona Rennie and Pauline Walker and based at the south end of Portree at Aros Heritage Centre, I set off along the few miles of waterlogged coastal estuary to reach the longest road section of the course. 10k until another 5k of gnarly coastal trail to Sligachan. I normally hate tarmac but here it was bliss. No bog scrambling, no ankle twisting and some gentle inclines to break up the monotony. But here I felt the first tweaks of my IT band on the downhills and had the sinking feeling that I was only 30 miles in and it was early to be having this type of pain. It was unlikely to get any better and I was beginning to significantly favour my right side  - would I have to pull out later on? It had bothered my a few weeks back in the Pentlands when I'd cut a run short and having rested for a good few days I'd hoped it'd cleared up.

Soon I was back on the 5k coastal trail skipping over stones and streams and seeing Sligachan sparkling at the other side of the bay - when Jamie and I had run this last time it was grim, high winds, torrential rain and much like running up a river, so anything was better and I knew not to expect a fast section.

Sligachan CP at the hotel was a peaceful stop, just with one marshal to greet me. I ate well here again - nuts, banana, Dawn's amazing flapjacks - and forced myself along for the section I had never been on and was most looking forward to.

Sligachan - Elgol (12 miles, 570 metres ascent)

In Jamie's words the first section, around 8 miles to Camusanary, was "beautiful and runnable, but basically like running through a river with stones of various sizes underneath. You're going through the valley of cuillins, going somewhere only your feet can take you. Pretty special". And it was. Gorgeous single track, surrounded on all sides by imposing, dramatic mountains. By now mid afternoon, the sun made an unexpected appearance and it was all of a sudden pretty warm. I could see the bobbing red top of Carnethy's Mark Hartree and I was sure I could catch him...he seemed to be slowing. But before long my ITB was nagging at me badly and it was me who was steadying my pace and all consumed with it mentally.

I reached the cottage at Camusanary and knew I had to take the left hand fork of the trail, where it soon led up and away from the shore. Unfortunately in a few hundred metres there was another junction, with one wide well-trodden trail winding up into the hills and another faint path carrying on around the coast. I took the wide one for half a km or so before realising it wasn't right, the path led right away from the coast, not just above it like the correct one was meant to. If this weren't enough I stepped in a boggy puddle so deep that it splashed right over my head, covering myself in rank water and losing my soft flasks in the process. Fishing them out I headed uphill to the crazily narrow path, which was barely joggable due to steep drop offs, boulders and overhanging trees and undergrowth. I was losing time here and constantly re-working targets in my head. I met a couple of lovely walkers heading towards me who shouted that Elgol was a km away - thank the lord  - and soon I dropped out onto a steep road descent down to the bay where the CP was. For once I let myself sit down in the camp chair and breath. I think this was Lois Simpson's cunning plan to lure runners into staying longer and giving her some chat  - she had been on her own for an age and was so cheery, it was great to chat after running in solitude for 12 miles and knowing I had over 22 still to go on my own. I re-fuelled well again and pulled myself up to start along the road.

Elgol - Broadford (23 miles, 1077 metres ascent)
I suddenly realised my ITB had gone silent and thanked my body. Again, this section was one I hadn't recced and was curious about as I knew it had a decent level of ascent and seemed a very long split to negotiate and navigate when at my most tired of the day. But I loved the first four miles, a few undulating on the road before hitting a rough forestry track past cool woods and fields, then a long climb on road again. I was still running the road climbs, much preferable than stopping and starting. The first tricky section was also the first I'd seen marked with signage, a left turn off the road past Kirkibost to a faint path leading up the side of forestry. After a mile or so what path there was next to the forest was entirely blocked by felled trees. One I could squeeze under only to become trapped in between several more which were completely impassable. Having had the signage point us this way I wondered if Jeff knew these trees were down and where we were supposed to go - I decided against heading the wrong direction into thick forestry and instead clambered up the tall deer fence to the right, before having to clamber back over it further down the line to search for the trail again. It kept petering out and I could only hope - backed up by the map - that I was heading in the right general direction, reassured a few miles later when I ended up back on a defined track winding gently downhill to the road across the bay from Torrin. Soon I could see Mark ahead again stopped at an extra water station Jeff had organised, manned by John Munro. Before I could reach it he'd set off again, I'm sure my presence was helping his pace and he was trying to avoid being chicked. John gave good pointers on the route ahead, re-filled my water and I grabbed another flapjack and banana. Just over a half marathon to go.

Another few miles into the small village of Torrin and a long, slow climb on the road up to a right turn after the quarry, after taking too early a right turn and having to ask a farmer I discovered the correct turn was actually signposted for the race too. This road led a mile down to another stretch of coastal path and a final 8 miles to Broadford, varying between track, trail, beach and final climb across a hillside.

From the road, 3 miles took me to Suisnish and a farm where the path played another disappearing act - after a few minutes of faffing about up and down a field I spotted a fairly obvious path over a fence at the top of the hill and with a sigh of relief got going again. This beautiful single track rose above some dramatic beaches, rock formations and waterfalls and reminded me of the coastal trail from Pennyghael to Carsaig on Mull. Another few miles and I'd reached the ruined village of Boreig, and here I knew there was significant climb before reaching 'the best 7k of your day' as Jamie had put it, into Broadford. Not a soul around here, just an audience of sheep and their lambs lining the trail and racing away. Traversing around Boreig I took what I thought was the right path up a hill but the path quickly became rocky and scrambly and I found I was completing a circle of this hill - with dismay I saw a few hundred feet below what looked like a wider path running next to the river, which I should have been closer to. Down I scrambled, through the most razor blade heather I'd experienced all day. My legs were shredded and by the time I finished I looked like I'd had a few bloody falls.
Matt and I at finish (he'd been there a while!)

The 7k didn't disappoint, it was special - either flattish or downhill, like the Larig Mor but easier to run on. It was after 9 and the sun was setting across Broadford bay ahead. I knew my multiple detours had taken away my chances of finishing in the 16 hour bracket but I covered the section in 35 mins and my legs felt strong. I finished in Broadford in 17:00 on the nose, first girl and sixth overall. And met by Helen, Fiona, Pauline, Matt and Dawn - what a amazing welcoming committee they were! I was delighted for Matt, who won in an impressive 13:56, with Ross Christie second in 14:50 and James Killingbeck and Bryan Grant joint third 16:05. Annie Garcia was second lady in 23:39 and Angela Bronn third 23:55. I'm still amazed by the selfless support given by Jeff and all the marshals, they were up for the entire weekend with no sleep whatsoever and were cheerful right to the end - I know which I'd find harder. Thank you guys :-)

Tips for the race if you fancy it in the future....recce recce recce...get sleep before...soak up the solitude...look up and all around you, its one special island (a close second to Mull of course!)

And Mark Hartree....until next time!


  1. Cracking report, and reading it really makes me want to run all of this route, but come race day I'll stick with the high viz and clipboard, it's not as hard as running, honest. xx

  2. Only one word comes to mind from your race, EPIC!!

    Well done on another great race. The route sounds stunning, tough and beautiful in equal measure. Makes the WHWR seem so tame in comparison.

  3. What a fantastic report! I love this quote from your friend "You're going through the valley of cuillins, going somewhere only your feet can take you. Pretty special". I have been to Skye but never run there, now that's all I want to do!

    Congratulations :)

  4. this is' an amazing 'article . i wish you're fun with my comment,maybe this blog will be a big blog someday i hope.thank you .

  5. thank you folks...a pretty spectacular trail all things considered! I don't know Fiona...those midges!! xx


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