The Better Half and I were all smiles as we began our trip from Fairport, NY to the start line of the Loch Ness Marathon in Inverness, Scotland. We’d really been looking forward to this trip! We took the Subaru to the Toronto airport, flew Air Canada to London’s Heathrow, and, after a short layover, took British Airways to the Inverness Airport. From there, we took a city bus into the heart of Inverness (population 50,000) and pulled our wheeled carry-on luggage over the cobblestone paths to the smallish three-story Heathmount Hotel, a place that I had found through a “random” Google search from my office in New York a full six months earlier. We had booked one of their eight rooms, ours being a small but pleasant one on the third floor with a private bathroom located a short distance down the hall.
We arrived two days early, in order that we could take in the sites prior to the race, and that we did!
On the Saturday before the Sunday race, the Better Half and I walked the two miles to the race expo, stopping at anything that caught our eye, including a bookshop, an art studio, a charity resale store, a medieval cemetery, and towering, ancient churches. It was a sublime, blue-sky day, and we soaked in the architecture and character of this Scottish city, as well as the rich beauty of its surrounding landscape.
The race expo was located on a glowing green field adjacent to the River Loch at the edge of Inverness. We arrived at the event mid-morning, and there wasn’t so much a crowd as a nice smattering of good-natured runners and their families meandering around, smiling and chatting it up, mostly with Scottish brogues.
My race packet was a purely functional affair housed in a plain white envelope, and it contained seven items: (1) my numbered bib, (2) a sheet with general race day instructions, (3) a single admission pass for the post race party, and (4,5,6, and 7) safety pins. No worries about how I was going to stuff race bling into my carry-on for the trip back to Fairport!
Through instant messaging, I had been in contact with my “Unofficial Running Coach”, Bobby Newman, who was running Loch Ness with me. (Faithful readers might remember Bobby from my write-up of the 2017 Nashville St. Jude Rock-n-Roll Marathon.) The Better Half and I had hoped that we could catch up with Bobby prior to the race, a feat made difficult by tight work schedules and uncoordinated travel plans. Given that this is a town with dozens of lodging options, imagine our surprise when we discovered that he had booked his room at the Heathmount as well!
Like Rocky Balboa, I’m in need of a blessing prior to a big contest, and this I got by attending the 4 PM Saturday vigil mass at St. Mary Catholic Church. Then, we spent a memorable evening with Bobby in the restaurant of the Heathmount, discussing our plans for the 26.2-mile run through the Scottish Highlands, as well as spinning a few tales with a smattering of good-natured exaggeration. I had a baked macaroni and cheese dish, and Bobby had a hamburger with garlic mayonnaise. We all had pints of smooth, dark Guinness prior to turning in at about 9:30 PM for what should be a quiet, regenerating night. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, microbial invaders were about to alter our race day plans!
At 5:15 AM, I checked the messages on my iPhone, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! Bobby’s texts read like this (in order of receipt):
“I have been up all night. I think I have food poisoning. Headache and chills and sweats and nausea. I am going to see if I can transfer to the lower distances. No chance I can do the full today.”
“Just threw up for the first time in years. I’m out.”
“Take the cab in my name. Should be about 10 pounds. I will give it back to you.”
Staying on Course
This last message was Bobby being Bobby. He had already booked a taxi for us to the rendezvous point where buses would ferry us to the start line, and, even in the midst of his apparent food poisoning, he wanted to be sure that I knew he would pick up the tab for our cab. As I sat down for breakfast in the hotel restaurant with my race gear on, I realized that I was now on my own. I had that unmoored, self-conscious feeling when one is alone in a strange and somewhat intimidating circumstance, like a freshman on the first day of high school, hoping to successfully open his locker and make it to class.
Well, enough of that! Let’s eat a good race day breakfast and get rolling! I had porridge and scrambled eggs with whole-wheat toast, a banana, and strong black coffee. As I ate my breakfast, another lone runner entered the dining room and, as is often the case in the running community, I suddenly wasn’t alone anymore. He needed a lift to the bus rendezvous as well, and was happy when I invited him to join me. As we climbed into the black Ford Transit taxi, the driver asked, “Bobby?”, and, in order to keep things simple, I replied, “Yep, that’s me!” I found it ironic that, as we cut through that quiet, predawn Inverness morning, the real Bobby was not to be found on this trek to the race that we had both anticipated with such relish just a few hours earlier.
My newest race partner was Steve, a friendly, thirtyish Londoner who picked up running about four years ago to stay in shape and keep his head clear. He was without his wife and young daughter for the day in order to knock out this race, and he appeared to enjoy my company as much as I did his. Steve had grown up in Northern Ireland before moving to London and was well versed in UK history, culture, and geology. We arrived at the rendezvous point to find two massive columns of buses (“carriages”) waiting for us. Race staff efficiently directed all 2,619 runners onto the buses for the drive out to the start line. During the approximately one hour, fifteen minute bus ride, I learned a lot, as Steve and I traded stories and observations.
Like the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon, runners are bussed multiple miles from the finish area out to the starting point prior to the race. Indeed, for this race, it seems we ride the entire 26.2 miles out and are simply dropped off with the obvious expectation that we run back. I found it intimidating lumbering up and down all of those green, lush miles of rolling Highland countryside! “Holy cow! I’ve got to run all this!” It didn’t help that it was a cool, wet morning, with precipitation ranging from mist to a solid, cold rain. In one sense it seemed a good morning to stay inside and watch an old movie, perhaps Braveheart!
As I disembarked from the bus, I knew right away that the starting point was different than any geography I had yet experienced in Scotland, and, really, anywhere else. We were amidst an expansive, rainy, windy, cold Scottish moor, reminiscent of the “Hound of the Baskervilles.” There were few trees nearby to provide shelter, and I think I speak for virtually every runner out there that morning, when I report that, though it was a beautiful location, it was uncomfortably cold, breezy, and wet!
We stood here for more than an hour, until the 10 AM start. Runners made do by remaining in their thicker clothing, which could be sent back via drop bags at start time. I was very glad that I had brought my GRTC gloves, “Compass Care” sweatpants, my thick “Knights of Columbus” toboggan and heavy, black “Sehgahunda” hoodie. There was a dearth of port-a-johns, and dozens of men and women alike walked a short distance across the moor to stands of pine trees to relieve themselves. This occurred despite the admonition of the booming, amplified race announcer, who reminded us that urinating on trees was not an environmentally friendly practice, and that, in the cold, men would not be at “their best.”
Now, it’s one thing for a man to take a short walk away from a crowd, slip behind a tree, and, with back turned from others, quickly relieve himself, then slip back into the group. It’s quite another for a woman to do the same thing, especially in a wet, open moor; however, many of them made the best of a difficult situation.
When traversing back from the trees to the trail, care had to be taken to avoid having one’s running shoes sucked off their feet by deep, dark crevasses of muddy bogs, camouflaged by a cover of brilliantly green peat. Indeed, Steve lost his shoe in just that way and had to retrieve it by hand.
In the closing moments before the race start, runners peeled off their auxiliary clothing, jumped up and down in shorts and light running gear to keep warm, and waited for the official start. I was down to my orange Air Force Marathon cap, lime green Empire State Marathon long-sleeve running shirt under my blue short-sleeved LIFE Runner shirt, black compression shorts under black and blue “camo” shorts, and my gray and green New Balance 860 v7 shoes. With little fanfare save the inspiring sound of a local bagpipe corps, we were off!
The approximately first three miles of this race is by-and-large downhill, and we ran right down into warmer, calmer weather. Indeed, now that we were off that moor, it was a great day for a run, overcast but cool with only a little rain that fell during the first half hour. Unfortunately, my Nike app did not maintain data on my splits, but my average pace was 10’23”, which I think I maintained pretty nicely across the 26.2 miles. The course had 1,156 feet of elevation change with a lot of small, undulating hills, with the exception of a short series of substantial climbs beginning at around Mile 18. A good portion of the course, particularly in the initial handful of miles, was on paved but narrow farm roads, making it awkward to pass slower athletes, particularly if they were running two or three abreast.
At around mile four, I witnessed an unseemly event. Like at the starting area, there was a dearth of port-a-johns available on the course, so a lot of athletes resorted to using out-of-the-way stands of trees and bushes. I ran past a vehicle attempting to pull out of the driveway of a farm onto the road. At the time, I wondered why a driver would even attempt to pull out into a road filled with marathon runners. Where did she think she was going to go? A few moments later, I figured this out. The driver, a middle-aged woman who’s expression revealed a livid disposition, drove her vehicle alongside a female athlete who was crouched down and urinating behind a tree located a short distance off of the road. Her chosen spot was reasonably secluded, afar from any person or building. “This is my ?!”%$# land!” the driver said, among other spiteful, crude things. She was nearly in an all-out rage! I heard other runners claim that the woman had gone so far as to hit or kick the athlete, though I did not see this myself. Fellow runners began to shout this woman down as they went past, reminding her that there was really no measurable damage being done to her property. This event cast a temporary shadow over the event, as the ire and ill will of this woman stood in stark contrast to the camaraderie of the day.
I had made a decision to maintain a slow, deliberate pace in the first half of the race, in order to ensure that I could pour it on in the second half; therefore, I ran about 9:30 miles. Besides, the views of the Scottish countryside and the Loch were beautiful. Why rush? I wanted to take it all in across every step of that course! Water, gels and nutrition chews were plentiful, and I took advantage whenever they were offered. Volunteers were kind, upbeat, and well organized.
Some runners opted for throwing their trash in isolated portions of the route (i.e., far away from aid stations or trash collection sites), and I wondered if all of this got picked up, though I decided that race officials would certainly come through and conduct a thorough cleaning.
Multiple mile portions of this race had few or no spectators, save persons affiliated with the race, but the spectators in the small towns that we passed through were spirited and positive. “Well done!” was the phrase of choice expressed by many kind people along the route. I enjoyed my brief conversations with fellow runners. I’m sure it was obvious to most everyone whom I interacted with that I was from the US, and I got a friendly reception, without exception. Those of us who live in Upstate New York know that when others hear “New York”, they may assume we live in Gotham City; but, in actuality, my home in the Finger Lakes region of NY, 350 miles northwest of NYC, is a bit like the area around Loch Ness (but not that moor!)
My “A” goal was running a sub-4 hour race, and my “B” goal was simply running all of the race (i.e., no walking). My “C” goal was, as always, to be alive at the end. At the half way point, my time was about 2:18, so I set my sites on the “B” goal and continued running steady-on. I slowed during a series of long, steady hills that began around Mile 18 but never walked. I made a mental error at about Mile 21. I saw a sign that said, “5K”, and I thought this meant I had about 3 miles to go and stepped up my pace. A couple miles later, I realized this was signage from the 5K race held earlier that morning. This may sound like a trivial matter, but in those final miles, I was feeling serious pain and fatigue, and I needed to recalibrate my thinking to match the actual remaining distance. The final miles were comprised of an exciting run through Inverness, and I burned every ounce of energy in my gas tank crossing that finish line. I made it in 4:30:55. This is slower than most of my previous races but my first negative split, with my second half run taking about 2:14.
The Post-Race Party
The Better Half and I enjoyed warm Baxter soup (readers from the US might think of Campbell’s), tasty bread and other great foods that were plentiful at the post-race party. Race bling, collected at the end of the race, consisted of a sharp looking “Loch Ness Marathon” race shirt in red with black trim and featuring a stylized image of the serpent, as well as a can of Baxter soup, a Cliff bar, and a package of short bread. Something I had never seen at a race: race officials had made available to runners the showers at a the local recreation center. This proved to be very helpful, as I had already moved out of the Heathmount.
Along with Bobby, the Better Half and I caught a ScottRail train to Edinburgh that evening in order to carry on with our Scottish adventure, and, thankfully, Bobby, though still feeling weak, was on the mend. He and I split an incredible tasting Cadbury chocolate bar, his first food of the day. He explained to me that the chocolate used for the Cadbury candies is better in the UK than is generally available in the US, and, well, it sure tasted like it that night! As I ate those rectangular segments of rich, dark milk chocolate and looked out at the beautiful Scottish countryside, now barely alit with the slightest trace of remaining day, I could tell Bobby and I had the same question on our minds. What’s our next challenge?
Loch Ness proved to be an awesome race, and Scotland proved to be a beautiful, inviting country to visit. My thanks to everyone affiliated with the race for a job well done! I have not decided on a next marathon, and I am open to suggestions! Please let me know what you think! In the meantime, I’ll be running the Monroe Half Marathon again at the beginning of November, so watch for that! Best wishes to all of my readers during this Fall running season.