Get yourself a cup of tea, it's one of Adam's long, atmospheric walk throughs of an incredible experience...
I am a big fan of Rat Race events; they are epic, challenging, and take place in some of the most stunning landscapes in the UK. So I was really excited to enter the inaugural Ultra Tour of Arran: a two day trail running event on what has been dubbed ‘Scotland in miniature’ with both days’ challenges at ultra distance and requiring us to tackle some incredible terrain.
Arran is not the easiest location to get to and definitely requires some forward planning. With registration taking place on the Friday prior to the event, as usual, it was important for us to give ourselves enough time to get there.
About that; Amie and I had good intentions of dropping Vincent (Amie’s son) with my parents and getting on the road for the estimated 6 hour drive to the Androssan Ferry terminal by 10am. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and so it seemed was the road to Androssan. Amie had a last minute call into work to sort out some paperwork before we could get on our way; with this done we finally left at midday. With our chance at the 6:30 ferry gone, we were now targeting the 8:30 ferry (the last of the day) to ensure we made it to the island and registration by 10pm. With traffic not playing ball and sat-nav estimates varying wildly from an 8-9pm arrival at the ferry terminal, we frantically tried to arrange for someone else to be able to collect our packs should we miss the last ferry. Some inventive driving however ensured we arrived at the terminal just in time.
I would advise anyone to leave more time than we did, or look at flight and car hire options (just don’t sleep through your flight *cough* Allie *cough*). We didn’t do this because I decided we needed a tent the size of a house. Also, due to my expert forward planning, we were travelling as foot passengers on the ferry and leaving the car in the car park. If you have a tent that weighs in at 35kg along with a weekend’s worth of food and race kit for two people, book ahead and take your car. You will thank me later.
The ferry crossing saw us meet up with Bad Boy Running luminaries Allie and G-law then proceed to enjoy some well earned ciders; perfect ultra marathon preparation.
Rat Race had laid on a free shuttle bus for foot passengers to the camping and registration area. This was great planning and showed that Rat Race really do think about their participants needs. Rat Race owner Jim Mee also manned it; it is always great to see owners and RDs getting involved at this level and it really speaks of his commitment to quality. Once off the shuttle, registration was easy, with the mandatory kit check carried out efficiently, allowing us to move quickly into the camping area to set up my palace in the dark. The camping area was well spaced out and even though we were some of the last to arrive we managed to find plenty of room to set up the tent. We tried to get a good night’s sleep before the early start, but were not helped by forgetting the hose to pump up the airbed.
After intermittent sleep, a morning coffee and collection of my race tracker (The Ultra tour of Arran is live GPS tracked rather than chip timed) it was off to the beach front at Broddick for the race briefing and start of the first day. For day one, the route comprised 28 miles of the south island with around 1200m of elevation - and this was the easy day. After a quick start along the promenade we were quickly into the woods and heading back towards the coast. The trails were beautiful and some of the views breath-taking - with the terrain constantly changing underfoot you had to be careful not to become too distracted. Once onto the beach we had to deal with mud, boulders, moss covered rocks, low hanging branches and sudden course markings directing you back into the woods along a winding wooden boardwalk - all of which, in trail shoes, can be quite slippery, but my Scotts held firm. This continued for a few miles until a final veer into the woods climbed back to the road and the approach to the first of Rat Races famously well stocked pit stops. Red bull, Jaffa cakes, Haribo, crisps and even tea in china mugs! Nobody does a pit stop quite like these guys and again it was great to see Jim here helping out and congratulating all the runners.
We then set off into the forest before a hard slog up a number of dusty switchbacks towards the Giants Graves; two Neolithic tombs in a clearing at the top of the hill with a stunning view over Whiting Bay. There was a great route along the top of the hill before a fun descent taking in forest trails, fields and shale paths which brought us back to sea level near Kildonan. After a jaunt along the seafront and another of Rat Race’s fantastic pit stops to refill water and isotonic, it was time to head back into the forest. More climbs ensued but the surroundings were magical; the trees and ground were covered in a thick green moss and filled with mist. It felt like running through a scene from a great fantasy epic. It felt too beautiful to be real, but it was and it was wonderful. The fantasy landscape then opened to a beautiful loch and just as I took in the wonderful surroundings, it struck! Where the ground was previously solid, the bog of eternal doom tried to swallow my leg whole. The next 3 miles round this loch and between the trees were either hilarious fun as you watched people try to pick their way through before suddenly losing a leg, or incredibly frustrating if it was your leg that was sucked in.
It was at this time that a Welsh bombshell with the voice of an angel saved me; realising I had forgot my headphones, I put my playlist on speaker and Bonnie Tyler wailed. With power ballads propelling me forwards I had a newfound energy to tackle the bog and the final miles of the course. The music stayed with me to the finish line and the sight of confused runners ahead trying to figure out why classics like Eye of the Tiger were suddenly chasing them down was amusing me no end. There were more technical woodland trails passing waterfalls and stunning views of the mountain we would be tackling on day two before the campsite and finish line came back into view. Crossing that line tired, beaten up but beaming from ear to ear after a stunning day out was a wonderful feeling. Then I remembered I had to do it all again the next day, except further, and harder.
Day 2 started an hour earlier than day 1, so with aching bodies from a tough first day it was back to the registration tent to collect the GPS tracker that had been charging overnight. There was an option at this point for those that felt like it would be too much to continue to call it a day, move into the 1 day results and collect their medal at the table. A few pained looking souls did avail themselves of this option and it was a brave choice to listen to their bodies in that situation, as the FOMO must have been huge!
After a short briefing (and a small mishap with the starting arch) we were off again for the second day of our tour where we would be taking in the peaks of the north, specifically Goat Fell. The start took us on a short, winding, wooden boardwalk before depositing us on the beach for a stretch along some energy sapping sand. Just what we needed at the start of a day that would involve 30 miles, 2 gruelling ascents with elevation totalling over 2250 metres. Once off the sand the hills started in earnest, along a narrowing gravel path that then dropped into the base of a valley between Goat Fell and Beinn Tarsuinn. The weather was perfect; clear blue skies and a mild breeze allowed us to take in the beauty of our surroundings as the valley stretched onwards towards our first ascent of the day, Cir Mhor. It was a technical climb going through streams, over wet rocks, through snow and mud and going up all the time. As we hit the first false summit the cloud started to come in to reduce visibility, and the high winds dropped the balmy temperatures to a chill. From here, the climb to the peak of Caisteal Abhail was a rocky and jagged ridge line with a steep drop either side; not one for the faint hearted, especially with the wind almost blowing us sideways. I loved it, this was real, challenging running but I did wish for a pair of cheat sticks that the few smug people passing me were using. It wasn’t quick but it was one hell of an experience. At the end of the ridge there was a sharp drop down to the valley floor, in my head this was a time to open the legs, as I love steep technical downhills. The terrain had other ideas though, rutted boggy and with holes to catch and turn the ankle of any misplaced foot, this was a time for caution. Once on the valley floor there was not much change; careful progress to the end of the valley and the first pit stop was the way forward. This was no bad thing however, allowing time to appreciate the majesty of the surroundings.
The first pit stop was the Island’s whisky distillery, unfortunately their amber nectar was not on the menu, but there was Red Bull and a huge variety of food and cakes. Jim was there again, a big smile on his face as he welcomed everyone through. From here, I was told there would be some nice coastal running to the next checkpoint and the start of the climb to Goat Fell. There was… Before the bog of doom returned; that lovely coastal path became a maze of hidden rocks, streams mud and holes. Running gave way to picking a way through, clambering over and through rocky outcrops and running when the path reappeared for a few glorious moments. Again though I couldn’t help but be awed by the splendour surrounding me, beautiful rock formations scattered the shore and the woods looming behind you on the other side.
I enjoyed a brief stay at the final checkpoint to don a base layer and prepare myself for what was to be a brutal climb. I was glad to not have bothered to change my socks, as I was immediately are faced with a river crossing and it wasn’t just my feet that got wet -I was up to my waist. The water was freezing but really refreshing for tired legs. Before the start of the climb there lay the most runnable section of the day, again I had my music to push me through this last third day 2. The ethereal beauty was somewhat distorted by Ozzy rocking out to Crazy Train but it helped my legs and my mind. By this point the weather had really started to come in and what were bright blue skies were now a sea of grey threatening to open up and wash us off the mountain as we started our ascent.
The climb began with rough steps hewn into the rock - slow but steady. Then the steps became smaller, the mountain steeper and then they were gone. Again I was left wishing for a pair of cheat sticks to help me on this climb as I scrambled up, grabbing rocks with my hands as it continued up, always up. There was a section that felt like a bouldering exercise between two rocks, just before it final flattened out. A marshal, sheltering from the wind behind that largest boulder I have ever seen, then informed us that if we wanted to continue to the summit we had to put on all our waterproofs right there and then.
The climb was hard, made harder by high winds and horizontal rain and hail. Visibility was limited to metre ahead unless a larger gust of wind momentarily cleared the view. It was slow going and extremely technical, scrambling all the way up and frequently stopping to try and spot the next orange flag marking the course. The route is littered with false peaks; I thought I had made the summit on at least 3 occasions before I finally stood on top of Goat Fell.
On a clear day this would have been a tough and tiring climb offering some incredible views over the whole island. On this day it ranked as the hardest 2 kilometres of my life, clocking in at over 45 minutes. It challenged me like nothing else, but it really gave a rush and sense of achievement when standing on that peak. The route down begins much the same as those final 2 kilometres up; steep and scrabbly with the visibility an added obstacle. Following the flags was hard as they are slightly more infrequent on the way down but there was a general sense of which direction you should be taking. Once out of the cloud, the ground began to level a little more and there were just 3 miles of slight downhill running to the finish and the end of this Scottish epic.
The paths here were fantastic and with the sun once again out, I was down to just a running vest once more. There was some great woodland running once again, weaving through trees and over fallen logs before emerging once more on the coast to tackle what feels like another mile of sand (in reality it was only 400m) a cruel way to finish off your legs before you turn off back to the campsite, finish line and more importantly, the bar. The welcome in is typically Rat Race; cheesy tunes to put a smile on your face. The MC who had been keeping an eye on the trackers was letting the crowd know who was crossing the line. It was a lovely touch, which highlights what a well-oiled machine these events are.
The inaugural Ultra Tour of Arran was a huge success. A stunning location with a brilliantly designed route that let you experience everything this beautiful island has to offer. It is one of the most challenging events I have ever done, with day 2 the hardest single day of running I have known. But it is not just about the course; the atmosphere created at these events is fun, inclusive and encouraging, making even hard challenges like this achievable for those struggling. You will always find an heartening word and someone willing to help you get through those dark miles. If you are looking for a tough challenge and want to step up to a multi-day event, then I urge you to put this on your calendar for next year. I will be going back, I have unfinished business with a fallen goat. What I would say, is take an extra day or two either side of the race and allow yourself more time to enjoy this magical location and possibly an extended stop at the whisky distillery.