Monday, June 17, 2019

Race Report: Loch Ness Marathon

Flying over Central London
After a roughly 6 hour trip across the Atlantic from NYC after work, I made it to London, giving myself just over two hours to get over to Terminal 5 from Terminal 3 for my flight to Inverness. After easily getting myself to the other terminal via flight connections bus, I arrived at Terminal 5 to stand in a line probably about 30 deep, to get through UK border control.  Minutes after I arrived, a group of maybe 100+ Argentinean high school rugby players and their coaches show up for their connection, and it becomes a bit of a mess, as the airport staff were allowing them to come up in groups of five to pass through border control, despite the line of people in front of them. Many of us felt it was a bit unfair, and I was getting a little worried since Heathrow to Inverness flights only happen twice a day. But luckily, I got through, and despite some extra waiting at security, I made it to my gate with a bit of time to spare before boarding.

Arriving at Inverness Airport
In the days prior to the trip, I was in touch with my travel buddy Elaine about planning a tour during the short time we were in Scotland. One of the top options was to do a tour with Loch Ness by Jacobite, who offers cruises seven days a week all throughout the year. Because I knew my flight connection could be a little hairy, I decided that I'd book a tour with the company only if I was assured I'd be getting on the flight to Inverness. Upon arrival, I'd have roughly two hours until the tour that we wanted to go on would start.

Picking up our bibs!
I arrived at Inverness Airport just a little after 11am; about 15 minutes after disembarking, I got on a £4.40 bus to the station in Inverness City Centre to meet up with Elaine. We casually walked across the bridge over to Bught Park to pick up our bibs for the race, roughly a mile away - the "expo" was small, entering the park area complete with a giant inflatable Nessie as the entrance and a giant cardboard cutout medal for the sake of photos. We were in and out pretty quickly. We then walked back into the city centre - it's all quite small and walkable - then did a bit of window shopping down Bridge Street and pedestrianized Church Street before heading to the bus station.  We even encountered a truck towing a trailer with a half naked man tied to a chair, covered in egg yolk and feathers.  Apparently, it’s tradition in Scotland to take grooms-to-be hostage and allow random strangers to egg and feather them before their wedding day - talk about painful and humiliating!
Walking down a street in Inverness
Inverness Castle, built in 1836
The Greig Street Bridge over the River Ness, with Free North Church in the background
Groom-to-be, getting egged and feathered.  Apparently Scottish tradition!
Our boat, the Jacobite Maverick!
We made it back to the bus station just before our coach was to leave for the tour. We were worried about how the weather would turn out on the tour, as it began to rain as we were waiting for the bus to show up, but what's known about weather in Scotland is that things can change in an instant -- and within ten minutes, the rain had stopped.  The particular tour we booked was the "Temptation" tour, a three hour tour that began with a coach taking us from Inverness Bus Station about five miles outside of town down to the Dochgarroch Lock boat dock, with commentary about Inverness and its sites along the way. We then boarded a brand new ship, the Jacobite Maverick, and sailed down the Caledonian Canal (a navigable 60 mile long canal that connects the Scottish east coast at Inverness with the west coast near Fort William), into Loch Ness, ending with an hour long self-guided tour of Urquhart Castle, on the shore of the loch.

Sailing down Loch Ness!
Sailing down the canal into the loch was quite magical - it was at first a cloudy day, but as the morning progressed, the clouds magically dissipated to reveal the bright blue sky underneath. Food and drink was sold on board, and I decided to try some local beer - a specially crafted "Nessie's Monster Mash" chestnut beer by Cairngorm Brewing Company, a brewery located in the Scottish Highlands. Once we came out of the Caledonian Canal into the loch itself, our ship picked up some speed as we sailed down its length.  It made sense - at its deepest point, Loch Ness goes down 755 feet, making it the second deepest loch in all of Scotland.  Obviously, we were also all keeping our eyes peeled for any strange shapes coming to the surface - could Nessie be making an appearance?  Unfortunately, during our trip on the loch, he was nowhere to be found.  Alas, another opportunity awaited tomorrow during the race!  A video was shown on board that gave us a history of the area, and some of the sights we were seeing on both banks of the loch.  It was just under an hour of sailing until we finally reached the dock where we would disembark to visit Urquhart Castle.
Looking down at the ruins of the castle from Grant Tower
Urquhart Castle with the impressive vistas of the Scottish Highlands beyond
Photoshoot in the castle
The present ruins of Urquhart castle, one of the largest castles in Scotland in area, date from the 13th to the 16th centuries, though built on the site of an early medieval fortification. The site has played an important role in Scottish history, first becoming a castle when Alexander II crushed a revolt in the lands to the north and decided to defend this strategic route through the highlands. Through the next few centuries, the castle's ownership fell back and forth between English and Scottish hands, as well as to rival clans (particularly the MacDonalds and Grants) vying for rule in neighboring areas with the Scottish crown. The castle fell into decline through the 17th and 18th centuries, regarded as a romantic ruin by 19th-century painters and visitors to the Highlands and eventually largely abandoned and decaying until it was placed into state care as a "scheduled monument" or nationally important site in the early 20th century. Today, it is the most visited site in Scotland, after the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling. Ultimately, the time we had to visit the castle became a photo shoot between me and Elaine, as we enjoyed the beautiful views from well preserved Grant Tower and its battlements.

Enjoying a local craft beer!
Waiting for us after we finished our tour of the castle was the coach bus, which would bring us back into Inverness. The half hour trip proved relaxing, as I practically fell asleep the entire way. When we got back into town, we headed to the Black Isle Bar right in the heart of the city.  Black Isle Brewing Company is Scotland's only organic brewery, located some 7 miles northwest of Inverness in Black Isle.  They opened this bar (and hotel) in Inverness in 2016, and seemed very popular with locals and tourists alike. With a decent food menu, and of course craft beer on draught, we decided to have our pre-race dinner here, carbloading the best way I know how... a locally made porter and some really delicious pizza - one with lamb meatballs the other one with venison salami - and a goat cheese/pine nuts/honey bruschetta! Afterward, we headed back to the Airbnb that I had booked for the weekend, which Elaine had already been to; I had been lugging my backpack with me all day, and it was a good half hour walk, slightly uphill, from the middle of town. Needless to say, when we finally got there, I was exhausted! After donning some face masks, provided by Elaine, we crashed, since we had an early morning on Sunday!

Crossing the Ness Islands
Race morning was upon us not six hours after we laid our heads down... after a 5:45am alarm clock, the two of us got dressed and were out the door by 6:15, with a 1.5 mile walk from our Airbnb to the race shuttles in front of the Inverness Ice Centre next to Bught Park.  My GPS took us through some residential roads before taking a quaint bridge through the trails on the Ness Islands in the middle of the River Ness, taking a shortcut to get us to the park rather than cutting all the way through town and over the main bridges.  Despite the race not starting until 10am, we were on the buses super early, being requested to get there between 6:45am and 7am, which made sense for the nearly 3,000 runners that all needed to be bused to the start that morning.

We boarded a bus (when we got there, there were some super long lines snaking around area, and buses filled up one by one pretty orderly) and caught a few more z's as the trip to the start was about an hour long through windy roads, getting around the southern tip of Loch Ness, past Fort Augustus and up the road, climbing a bit uphill toward Whitebridge.  We'd be dropped off into literally the middle of nowhere along the side of the road at an area of high ground, but treated to some of the most stunning and beautiful scenery of rugged hills mountains, 360 degrees all around us.  The mist lifting, fog rolling through and the cloudy sky in the highlands made it even more impressive... it was like a scene out of Lord of the Rings.  Apparently the prior year had some windy and rainy weather right from the get go, so we were quite lucky.
Such incredible views!
The startline
Having arrived at around 9 am, we still had a whole hour in the cold waiting for the race to begin. With the road closed off for us - it was only a two lane road - it was a bit narrow dealing with everything going on at the start; but being that we were in the UK, everything was orderly with a queue - one really long one for the port-a-potties, one for the bag truck, one for hot tea (which was MARVELOUS with how chilly it was that morning).  There were just A LOT of people. Soon, we were called to assemble, and a bagpipe band led us off to start the race, a slight uphill for about a minute before downhill downhill downhill!

Early miles
Loch Ness is long and skinny, stretching from Fort Augustus up to Inverness.  Its length is approximately 22.5 miles, but we would be running right next to it for approximately 10 miles.  From the start, we couldn't see the loch, but we would some seven miles in.  After our start on the B862 road on the high ground between Fort Augustus and Foyers, the course dropped elevation very quickly - sure, there were a few short and sharp hills in there, but our first real significant uphill wouldn't happen until 45 minutes into the race, about 4.75 miles in.  Miles 1-6 were some of the most beautiful miles of the race; not only was I flying I was taken aback by how gorgeous the Scottish highlands were... it reminded me of a mix of Big Sur and races I've done in the Pacific Northwest, Western Canada, and Alaska. I'd post my first two miles at approximately 9 minutes per mile, and my third and fourth mile at around 9 1/2 minutes per mile as we passed through the village of Whitebridge.
Loving the tree coverage, reminds me of running in Washington or Oregon!
More running through the trees
Here come the uphills...

Before the fourth mile, we turned left onto road B852, with the road starting to finally undulate and take us through uphill parts. This road was part of the military road system built by General George Wade in 1727 (and the section alongside Loch Ness later realigned in 1732), to link the forts along the length of the Great Glen at Fort William, Fort Augustus, and Fort George. Obviously, back then, the roads were cobblestone and compacted gravel, but the modern roads today had evolved from the original 250 mile network of military roads and bridges conceived by Wade, his successor Major William Caulfeild (who built an additional 800 miles and over 600 bridges), and the great Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, who was responsible for upgrading, straightening, and widening many of these roads.  That steep hill just before mile 5 flattened out and then we had a nice downhill again.  The course wound its way along this country road, eventually making its way down to the banks of Loch Ness into the village of Foyers around the 10K point. From there, the route follows the loch’s south eastern shore, where it would flatten out for a couple miles.

Beautiful views of Loch Ness
Now that we were next to the loch, we were treated to some truly beautiful views.  Occasionally, it would hide away, as we ran through a pretty-tree lined path that reminded me again of parts of Big Sur, but also other "waterside" races, like the Freedom's Run, where we ran alongside the Potomac River on the C&O Towpath Trail. After a nice flat section through the village of Easter Boleskine (even running past a home formerly owned by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page that was supposedly haunted) and a short downhill to the village of Inverfarigaig, the sky all of a sudden opened up, and it rained for a good ten to fifteen minutes.  After that... it was dry again, and the clouds separated for blue sky.

Loch Ness, behind me!
Runners passing the loch
The course continued heading north east on a fairly flat stretch for the next nine miles towards Dores on the northern tip of the loch. Somewhere around mile 10, we encountered some folks cheering on runners, a rare sight in this largely scant-spectator race. I run by, wearing my Nessie hat as the Scottish woman with her kid explained, "Oh look, a lizard!"  I turned around abruptly, in awe and explained,"SERIOUSLY? And where are we right now... what's that? (pointing to the loch) So I'm a lizard, just any old lizard?"  Some spots gave us some truly magnificent and unencumbered views, even across to Urquhart Castle near the mile 12 mark. We hit the halfway point shortly thereafter, when the skies opened up again for another bout of rain, but it was shortlived once again, only raining for ten to fifteen minutes.

Different trees along the course
Entering Dores
SO MANY SHEEP.  Baa.
At mile 17, we finally reached the village of Dores, and the end of the run where we'd be within view of Loch Ness.  Just as the loch came out of view, we ran by a humongous open field filled with hundreds of grazing sheep. It was a slight climb out of the fairly flat section we had been accustomed to, roughly 100 feet, but then we began the toughest climb of the race.  We were at about the 18.75 mile mark running along the road through the village of Aldourie, when we reached the start of a 170 foot climb over the next mile.  Signs along the side of the road poked fun at the elevation change: "Slightly steeper bit approaching" and "wee bit hilly."  From the comfort of 70-80 feet of elevation we had ran alongside the loch, we had climbed to just shy of 300 feet by mile 20.  Of course, the sun also decided to come out of hiding at that point, so not only were we tired from the distance we've been running and the elevation we've been climbing, but now we were going to raise the temperature a tiny bit.  The nasty hill slowed a lot of folks down, myself included, but once it subsided, I pushed hard and threw down some speed to help me complete the last six miles of the race.

Ha.  Such a Scottish sign.
Slightly uphill, if you can tell! 
Finally back in Inverness
We had a nice downhill stretch after mile 20 over the next mile, and then it rose again for a little bit for another mile, but not as tough as the "big" hill.  At the 23 mile mark, signs of civilization began to appear, a marked contrast from the rural surroundings we've been running on since the start, and we also saw the signs welcoming us into the city of Inverness.  And then the rain began.  It literally came out of nowhere, and it rained pretty hard, for about fifteen to twenty minutes.  And then like that it was gone again.  The course continued right into the centre of Inverness, as we ran alongside the River Ness and homes situated right on the riverbank.  We passed the bridge we had crossed earlier that morning over the Ness Islands, and could hear the sound system on the other side of the river... but I still had over 1.5 miles to run!

Jelly Babies on the course, finally!
Considering most of the race up until mile 23 was out in the middle of the country, I knew it was going to be pretty quiet out there, with barely any spectators cheering us on. Once we got into the city limits, there were plenty more, and I finally encountered some folks giving out the "quintessential" UK race fuel alongside the course at the 24.5 mile mark... JELLY BABIES!  I had fallen in love with these tasty treats during the Brighton Marathon, and was super excited to do another UK race where they could be along the course, so of course, having it at this point of the race brightened my day.  It definitely pushed me along, because I got to the 25 mile mark at 4:37 - well within means to finish with a sub 5 hour marathon!

1.2 miles to go!
After running along B862 for the last 20 miles, we finally made a turn, onto Cavell Gardens, leading us to Ness Bank, the narrow single lane road that hugged the River Ness' eastern shore.  The familiar surroundings of Inverness' City Centre began to come into view, and finally the Ness Bridge crossing taking us to the east side of the river.  With half a mile left, I hoofed it as best as I can, taking Bishops Road and Ness Walk straight into Bught Park, where I finally crossed the finish line in 4:52:23 -- about a minute faster than two weeks before in Sioux Falls!

Victory Headstand!
I got my medal, and quickly made my way into the tent where we had picked up our bibs, which had transformed into a post race festival.  Here we could get a post-race hot meal of soup and chili and rice, which tasted so delicious. I grabbed my drop bag, which unfortunately was sopping wet (likely from the rain I experienced at mile 23), as it was sitting in puddles of rain water on a tarp outside, and then walked across the pitch to the stadium in Bught Park for a much needed shower.  Eventually, Elaine came through the finish, and after she was settled and ready to go, we walked back  to the Airbnb to grab our bags and offload our Baxters UK soup cans (which were given to us as part of our goodie bags at the finish line) to our hosts, knowing full well we couldn't fly with them since we were flying with hand baggage only.

My new friends!
This soup can't fly.
With tired legs, we slogged back along the road into downtown Inverness so I could get my Nessie figurine for my computer desk - a necessity now that I've gotten something to put on my desk after every international race, then caught a cab to take us back to the airport.  Check in and airport security was pretty quick, as it's a fairly small airport, but we couldn't help but be amused at seeing all the soup cans in a bin just before the checkpoint.  The Inverness Airport folks were kind enough to post a sign: “Congratulations on your achievement! We are very sorry but you must leave your soup here as it is a liquid over 100ml but don’t worry, we will donate in to a worthy cause.”

We had a bit of time before our evening flight to Heathrow, so with my Priority Pass membership, I got both Elaine and I in to the very small lounge at the airport, ending up meeting British folks now living in the Cayman Islands who were there to run the race as well!  Talk about a real trip just to run a marathon!  The flight down to Heathrow was quick, with both of us falling asleep the entire way, and we found our way to our accommodations for the night at the Premier Inn located next to Terminal 4, my "usual" airport hotel at LHR.  Both of us had flights early the next morning, myself back to NYC for work, and Elaine to Amsterdam to meet up with friends and continue some more European travels.  Unfortunately for her, she ended up catching a nasty cold during the race, which would render her exhausted for the rest of the week.  I, on the other hand, returned back to New York on the first flight home on Monday morning... arriving back in NYC before noon and getting a half day in at work... such is my weekly sojourn!

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