“I’m only going as far as Portree.”
Oh how those words would come back at me. I had in fact decided that going as far as Portree would be my limit and with good reason. Not long after the 2016 Skye Trail Ultra I came down with quinsy that literally knocked me off my feet. The following 11 months were a series of bad respiritory related illnesses including some rather serious stuff that involved hospital time. A month prior to the Skye Trail Ultra and I could barely walk up the stairs without being knackered.
And then it happened. A tiny chink of recovery and my body started to come back to life. My sights were shifted from just marshaling at Skye to doing the first section and then marshaling. The Duntulm to Portree section is nails so even to do this I set about training like a madman without over doing it. Three weeks of pretty much back to back training sessions followed by a week off before the trip.
Let’s just review what it’s all about. 69 miles (more like 74), lots and lots of climbing and seemingly all in the first 22 miles, self navigated ultra on remote Skye.
Somewhere deep down there must have been a hope that my body could go further because I dutifully packed food for all the checkpoints. Spare socks (a must), spare t-shirt (they all got stinky) and boat loads of food. Ultras really are just one long picnic. The car was fully loaded and with child care arrangements made I looked forward to the journey north of the border.
I’d forgotten just how far away Skye bloody is! Bad traffic on the A9 slowed things further and eventually after 8 hours of solid driving I pulled up at Broadford hotel just in time. The delightful Jeff Smith was briefing runners on the course and lots of keenly interested faces looked on. Little phrases I remembered from last year were picked out such as “you might die here” and “don’t fall off the 500 foot cliff”. All the little titbits you need to know
After a catch up with Jeff, Patricia, Fiona and her sister it was time to try and get some sleep. Like many people, my mind works overtime the night before a big event. Crossing to the other side of the island I parked at the inlet near Torrin alongside a few other campers. The group next to me were on the beers and chatting all night. The thought of shoving one of those bottles up their jacksie to shut them up did go through my mind. At some time around 11:30pm, under the shadow of Bla Bhienn, I got to sleep.
Beep beep. Beep beep. 1:30am and the alarm is going off. The mind is not working as I’m wondering what I’m doing here sleeping in the back of my car. Oh yeah, a little run down Skye. Whipping on the shorts and kit for the day I headed back to the village hall to be met by similarly tired faces. A huge drive followed by next to no sleep and then straight into a nearly 3 hour coach trip to Duntulm to begin a 74 mile run back to Broadford. Yeah…sleep will be an issue.
The runners on the way up were all in good spirits and they all looked in very good shape. The darkness was beginning to lift and all the talk was about the weather changing later in the day. The info signs on the way in reminded us of the amber weather warning for the area. However, at 5am in the morning in northern Skye the air was clear and the Hebrides were seen clear as day just over the water. A customary count from Jeff and then we were off and on our way.
Due to lack of fitness I’d preformed a planin my head. It was called: slow. As the rest of the pack headed off into the distance I turned my own wick down to minimum with a slow jog and then set off after them. Luckily two ladies had exactly the same idea and I settled just being in front of them. The start is lovely. Jog along a road, hook a right and then Jeff points you across a marsh filled field towards the first climb of the day. The boggy ground reminded me of home in the Cheviots so no great shakes. It was here I met a scouser who termed the phrase “my bum is pulling tongues” when we mentioned we both needed the toilet. Classic.
A steady walk up Sron Vourlin reminded meof when I saw an eagle here last year. 12 months ago I was one of the first up here. This year I’m one of the last. Never mind, all part of the plan. A bit further along the top and it was time to drop down into the Quirang and get past The Needle. If Carlsberg did stunning starts to ultras then this would be it. By the time we popped out at the road to see the marshals I’ll admit to feeling completely shattered and could not envisage even getting to Portree.
What’s next? Oh yeah the Trotternish Ridge. I LOVE it! It’s brutal and drains the legs but it’s also stunning, atmospheric and on days like this there are stunning views. Patricia’s Rassay seemed like it was in touching distance. Looking back there were mighty cliff faces, looking forward it was just the same. The ridge is like one mad practical joke. Take a series of huge mountains, let the runner be able to see the next one but then tell them you need to go really far down before you get to go up again. And repeat but make the hills bigger each and every time until finally you’re faced with The Storr.
In keeping with the strategy I zig-zagged my way up the Storr at walking pace, neevr trying to have my heart beating out my chest. After bumping in to Neil MacRitchie and another marshal the summit reared into view along with a group of walkers who must have though “what the feck are you doing?”. After taking 5 at the top I set off towards Ben Dearg only to bump into another runner at the bottom who ha dbeen searching for water. His girlfriend is an Asian lass called Emma but I can’t recall his. We had both a lusting for plain water after the sickly taste of energy drinks in the hot sun. I left his contemplating his life choices before setting off.
Ben Dearg is a place of fear from last year. In 2016 I didn’t traverse along enough and headed up the shale covered side only to end up semi crag fast as it was so steep and loose. This year I could see the guy in front of me taking a straight line up the side, teetering above the sheer drop on the left whilst standing on shale that could give way at any point. I sat with my heart in my mouth and waited until he was safely at the top before continuing around the long (but safe) way.
I’d actually mentally blocked the next bit. It must have been so insufferable last time that my mind went into complete denial. 3 miles of, no other way to put it, shite. Ferns, clumps of long grass and bog do their best to suck you permanently into the peat bogs of the area. Eventually I just set a course for where I knew it would end and straight lined it. Popping out on to the road resulted in a minor celebration and a bit of a dance.
Running down and through Portree is surreal. You’re on this mad endurance test with sweat coming out of every oriface and the place is packed with tourists wandering this way and that. I have come to the conclusion that Chinese tourists simply have no concept of spacial awareness as I nearly ran several over. Out the other side and on to the checkpoint. The first leg had been done in extreme heat but eventually the temperature cooled when I hit the checkpoint. The reception was friendly as usual and after an assessment of my fitness I decided to continue to Slig to recce the route for next year. My legs were OK and a slow shuffle would get my round the headland no problem I reckoned.
The rain started to spit at I wandered through the tidal area onto a long road section. In the distance was another runner called Ruiridh (will call him Big R from now on) who little would I know it would play a big part in the rest of the journey. I caught him at a junction before Peinachorrain and we chatted for a while. He was young but looked fit and had a good sense of humour. Having already told him I was pulling out at Slig he went on ahead.
Turning the corner at the headland and seeing Slig was both a joy and a curse. My ultimate phsychological battle is when you can see your objective but it never seems to get any closer! There’s a spot on the West Highland Way after Kinlochleven just like it. Negative thoughts pervade my mind and it’s hard to snap out of it. By the time I hit to campsite next to Slig I’d caught big R again and we arrived together. He looked knackered but determined to press on. I don’t know if it was him looking so knackered that gave me heart or if I was worried about him doing a night section with some dangerous bits in near Elgol. Whatever it was, I changed my mind and pressed on.
The Slig Glen is stunning. There’s no other way to describe it. A solid track takes you to places that only your feet can get you. Towering mountains on both sies and though the gaps you can make out the cuillins standing imperiously just out of reach. Big R and I discussed the need to get a shift on through the glen so that we’d hit the scary stuff before Elgol with some light. This we did and the stretch after Camasunary was some of the scariest stuff I’ve done. I don’t have a head for heights and this stretch involved a steep hill on your left, fresh air and a huge drop on your right and a tiny sheep track. Ducking in and out of trees I was actually delighted to get down to that bloody shore and start the final bit to Elgol. A small bit of navigating and we were at the checkpoint.
I actually remember manning this checkpoint with Karen last year after I’d pulled out with a dodgy knee. She was an absolute superstar and whilst big R took on several strong coffees I resupplied my food, socks and batteries. Blisters were becoming an issue and several plasters were applied. Wierdly my body was fellng stronger now than it did at the start and the decision had been made to press on to the end. With some final advice from Karen the pair of us set out into the night.
This is where it all slowed down. A walk up and past the transmission tower was easy and soon we had hit the off road sections past Glasnikile and Drinan. The rain started getting heavier and the wind was picking up. Every time we stopped a swarm of bastard bloody sucking medges would descend on us. Unfortunatey this was also the time when big R’s body was just about shutting down. Stops were frequent, his leg and hip causing massive pain and on more than one occassion he was fast asleep in the middle of the road in the dead on night in the pouring rain. Becoming even more concerned for him, encouragement was needed to get to the final checkpoint.
A full crew awaited us, guided in by a flashing light and a lovely warm campervan. Big R fell asleep as soon as he sat down and stayed that way for 25 minutes. I ate, drank a lovely hot coffee and restocked for the final leg. The marshals talked big R into doing the final section and so it was that we and our new friend Andy the sweep guided us in. Predictably it turned into a long, slow walk but it did give plenty of time to chat with Andy who is incredibly knowledgable about the area. It’s history and geogrpahy were well covered.
Boreraig would have been interesting to find in the dark but otherwise navigation was simple as the track led all the way back to Broadford. Big R dragged his knackered, bruised and battered body all the way to the finish and deserved massive respect for doing so. For myself it was a pleasure finishing the run but there was a little bit of me wanting to put the record straight for taking so long. If all things go well and the I stay healthy then I’ll be back to do exactly that next year.
In summary the Skye Trail Ultra is just amazing. The views are stunning and if you can just hang on in after the first section over the Trotternish Ridge then you have a cracking chance of completing the whole thing. Given the slow strategy I had hardly seen anyone all day other then big R and the marshals. The scenery is just fantastic and the super enthusiastic marshals help you in every which way they can. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a proepr challenge in their life.
Any tips? If you can navigate then you don’t really need to do a recce. I never felt lost once. Take boat loads of food and eat as often as you can. Have a plan at the start and stick to it – pacing is important so don’t get drawn into the speed of the person in front. Take spare socks and blister kit – my feet were wrecked by the end. Plan to sleep somewhere local as you really don’t want to try and drive home afterwards.
Tahnks again to Jeff and all the team for seeing me through the full distance. After all, I only wanted to go to Portree.