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Photo credit: Graham Kelly and Katie Hall.

The Scottish Ultra Running Scene

16-Nov-16

Last updated: 06-Dec-16

By Alice Morrison

The UK is blessed with a huge variety of trail and ultra routes right across the country. In England, the Peak District and Lake District, Yorkshire, the South Downs are all criss crossed with running trails. Wales boasts the Brecons, Snowdonia and Anglesey and if you haven’t yet run some of the rugged coastal trails of Northern Ireland, then give them a go. Arguably, though, if you want to experience the wildest, toughest, roughest, wettest, most spectacular running in Britain, you will be signing up for one or more of the great Scottish ultras.

Great Scottish Ultras

There really are a lot to choose from, but having canvassed opinion in the Scottish ultra running community, there were a few races that popped up time and again.

1. The Ronhill West Highland Way Race  
This one takes place in June – but don’t necessarily go expecting clement summer weather! It is a 153km (95 mile) run across the course of the West Highland Way. 2017 is its 33rd edition and it is still open for entries till the end of November. You get to run the breadth of the Scottish Highlands, an epic feat.

2. The Hoka Highland Fling 
This one also runs across part of the West Highland Way. It’s a one day 85km (53 mile) romp. It is one to do not only for the race atmosphere, which is fantastic, but also for the afterparty – a ceilidh in Tyndrum. If you still have the legs for it that is.

3. Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra Marathon
This is a shorter distance at 38 miles and is limited to 300 runners. It starts and finishes in Jedburgh in the Scottish borders and will reward you with lush scenery, that is gentler than the Highlands, but equally beautiful.

There are many, many more to check out, and we have a comprehensive list here if you use the UK (Scotland) search filter on RunUltra.

What characterizes running in Scotland?

Sheer toughness has to be one of the things that characterizes running in Scotland and another thing has to be the freedom. Under Scottish legislation, the public has much broader access rights than it does in England and Wales and is free to roam anywhere, apart from areas which are specifically excluded from access.

Scotland is also, obviously, the most mountainous country in the United Kingdom. From north to south the mountain ranges are: The Highlands & Islands, The Hills of the Central Lowlands, and the Southern Uplands. Ben Nevis is the highest peak of course at 1345 metres, with several similar peaks in the Cairngorms.

Then there is the weather. It never fails to surprise… and it is an optimistic runner who sets off for a mountain run on even the sunniest summer day without some wet weather gear.

But that is only part of the story. I asked some of the doyens and doyennes of the Scottish scene what they thought defined running in Scotland and why they loved it:

Fiona Outdoors, “Friendliness. It’s a welcoming community of people who love to enthuse others into running long distance. I love it because there‘s so much to see, so many different routes to explore, tons of off-road routes. Did I mention the scenery? It’s awesome and everywhere!

Graham Kelly (Beardy): “Probably a willingness to expect the unexpected and tolerance of ever- changing weather conditions

Fiona Rennie: “The camaraderie, it’s not just a bunch of like minded folk who get together at races, it’s family, we look after each other outside of running. Scotland  has such a variety of landscapes to run in, soft rolling hills, big scary jaggy mountains, flattish canal paths, vast open wilderness that hasn’t changed over thousands of years, and no matter how many times you run a route, it rarely looks the same twice, with the changing seasons and the weather. “

Katie Hall (Blondie): “For me it's got to be the awesome community of runners. The support, camaraderie and banter is unparalleled. And of course, the scenery. Wild, beautiful and unforgiving! We are spoiled rotten in this country. From woodland, moors and mountains to stunning beaches on our many islands... if the weather is kind!

Toughing out the training

Before you sell your house, buy the dog a tartan collar, pack your bag and head for the hills, however, it is worth remembering a couple of the harder aspects of running and training in Scotland. The winters are long and cold and most of all dark. Depending of course on how far north you live, daylight hours shrink. The shortest day in Wick has just 6hrs and 20mins of daylight.

That means lots of training in the dark and of course, lots of training in the cold and wet. The Scots word “dreich” just about sums it up – it describes that grey, chilled, dank weather that eats away at your soul and steals all motivation.

The great thing about winter training in Scotland, though, is that it will toughen you up and get you ready to take on anything!

Runners’ Stories

However, nothing can bring the Scottish ultra running scene better into focus than talking to the runners who spend their time out on the hills and moors.

I asked them to share their favourite running tale and we start off with a running story that turned into a love story. Beardy (Graham Kelly) and Blondie (Katie Hall) are the Romeo and Juliet of ultra running and this is how Graham tells their story. 

Seeing Katie get her shoes back on to complete her 2015 West Highland Way (WHW) race having stumbled into Kinlochleven a couple of hours earlier in a state of near hypothermia. Dry clothes, warm sleeping bag and a super human resolve saw her turn around her situation for the better. Seeing that, I knew she could cope with having me in her life!

Katie: “After the traumatic experience of the closing stages of my WHW race (described by Beardy above); I had serious doubts about whether or not I could even toe the line at the Devil O the Highlands six weeks later, to complete my triple crown. But with Graham pacing me from Kinlochleven, he pushed me to not only finish, but to PB the course by six minutes, and lay some demons to rest! Definitely a moment I'll never forget!

Fiona Outdoors: “This summer I joined the amazing ultra runner Jamie Aarons for one of her training days for the epic Tor des Geants (Giants of the Alps). Among Jamie’s accolades she was the first lady in the West Highland Way Race last year.

I told her I wasn’t fit enough or strong enough to run with her but she insisted it would be fine. We ran/hiked four mountains in the Arrochar area of Scotland, west of Loch Lomond. These are known as Munros and called Ben Vorlich, Ben Vane, Beinn Ime and Beinn Narnain. The full day was 25 kms and around 2450m of total ascent. It took us eight hours and we ran as much as we could. It was a very challenging day for me and I was exhausted by the end.

When Jamie then told me that she would have to complete 13 times the distance and almost 10 times the ascent in the crazy non-stop Tor des Geants race I almost fell over in shock! I was impressed, inspired and honoured to spend time with Jamie. She went on to complete the Tor de Geants 2016“.

And to finish, here is a tale from Fiona Rennie, which we can all sympathise with.

Many years ago before Pauline and I concentrated on ultras, we did a recce run over the first two legs of the Devil’s Burden, a winter relay race on the Lomond Hills. We took two cars, Pauline parked her car at the bottom of Bishop Hill then got in my car and we drove round to Falkland. We ran up and over East Lomond, along and over Bishop hill, dropped down to the car park to the car where our warm dry clothes and packed lunch were waiting… then Pauline realised she’d left the keys back in my car!  We had to hoof it back over the hills and what was meant to be around a two hour run took over four hours. Then we had to drive back to Pauline’s car before we had anything to eat!

Thanks to our very own Fiona Outdoors, Fiona Rennie, Graham Kelly, and Katie Hall for their contributions.

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