Autumn is my favourite time of year. The colours are beautiful, the midges are gone, and you don’t have to get up at a ridiculous o’clock to watch the sunrise.
Winter is on its way. With my first bunch of university assignments in and the promising forecast of abundant sunshine, it felt prime time to get out into the hills. As a completely new and highly enthusiastic trail runner, I set myself a new challenge: my first overnight running adventure.
Setting off on Sunday afternoon, I ran a 21 mile stretch of the West Highland Way, following the East coast of Loch Lomond and setting off from Balmaha. In my backpack I had a stove, food and sleeping gear with plans to overnight at Rowchoish bothy. However, I got caught out by the early sunset. Luckily, there are plenty of camping spots in the bays along the loch. The next day I had 15 miles to cover before getting the bus back from Inverarnan. Here are 10 things I learnt from this wee adventure:
As an avid backpacker, you would think I’d be familiar with this concept by now. You would be wrong. For some reason, the change of gait made me forget that, when you add weight to an activity it gets much harder. In fact, running with a backpack is far worse because it bounces around, taking collarbone chaffing to the next level. The back support crumpled and dug into my skin, leaving bruises either side of my spine. Lesson learnt – invest in a better backpack.
My knees don’t like downhill. They especially don’t like it on rough terrain. They especially don’t like it with the weight of an overnight camp on my back. By the end of the second day, they were achy and creaky and I could barely run the final slide down into Inverarnan. Again, you’d think I’d be familiar with this from the whole backpacking thing…but no. I left my perfectly wonderful walking poles in my cupboard at home. Some people think using poles is cheating but personally, I prefer to keep my knees intact for future use. Next time, I’m taking sticks.
Despite what the gentleman who referred to me as a ‘speed walker’ might think, this was actually a running adventure. I may not have been running much faster than walking speed, but that is entirely beside the point. I may also have walked some of the steep and rough sections. But the great thing about ultra-running is that WALKING IS ALLOWED. It’s not like a flat road race where walking will gain you smug and sympathetic glances from fellow runners. It’s about energy preservation over time, not minutes per mile: the tortoise, not the hare. And that’s exactly how I like to adventure.
I’ve done long-distance backpacking trips before but running seemed to take my appetite to whole new levels. As I left Balmaha, I laughed at what a ridiculous amount of food I’d brought with me. By mid-morning on day 2, it was all gone. My lunch of bread, cheese, veggie sausages, crisps, sweets, cereal bars and scones only seemed to last about an hour before I was hungry again. Note for next trip: double calories are not enough. Take more Snickers bars.
I struggle to be by the water and not go in. Even in winter. Swimming is good for the soul: it slaps you out of the comfortable and mundane routine of life. And actually, autumn is a great time of year for swimming. Although the air temperature was close to freezing, the loch was still holding its summer glow at a balmy 13 degrees! It might be cold but I promise that you’ll feel better after getting in. Make sure you leave a hot flask of tea waiting on the shore. One other thing – invest in handwarmers! Stick one of those at the bottom of your sleeping bag and your feet will be roasty toasty in no time.
Even though I’ve slept outside by myself several times, I still get scared. At any unexpected noise I jump out of my skin. Usually it's just a squirrel or a falling twig. So, as I was admiring the sky and listening to the lapping of the waves on the shore, the scuffle behind my head jolted me upright. Nothing. Maybe I imagined it? I settled down. Scuffle again! This time I kept watch and saw a little mouse darting across the pebbles. That’s what you get for using your food bag as a pillow…
I failed to do this entirely. After my half-run half-hobble into the campsite at Inverarnan, I thought I had time for a leisurely cup of tea. The very nice man at the café (see below) casually told me that the bridge was out of action and I had another 3 miles to run. The bus was in 20 minutes. I stuffed the remaining cake into my face and ran. On my tired legs, I knew that I would never make it in time. I quickly realised the futility of my efforts and bush bashed my way to the river, a vaguely fordable looking section, waded up to my thighs, plunged my soggy feet back into my trainers and started running again. I emerged out onto the road looking wildly dishevelled. Now it was a clear sprint to the finish line. I made it with 2 minutes to go! I looked down at the timetable to discover the bus had already left half an hour ago. I got the time wrong.
This brings me to the lesson that I have to re-learn on every adventure because in the in-between times I’ve re-adjusted to the stranger danger mentality of city life. Strangers are, for the most part, extremely kind. The café at Inverarnan wasn’t open when I arrived, but the guy behind the bar took pity on a tired and hungry runner, filled my flask up with tea and provided me with cake. Upon leaving, he wouldn’t let me pay for it (I think mostly because he couldn’t be bothered to open the cash register, but still). After my tough-mudder style sprint across the river, I faced the unappealing prospect of waiting 5 hours for the next bus. So, I stuck out my thumb and was immediately picked up by a man on his way back from his own running adventure. This was convenient because he didn’t seem to mind my two-day stench. I’m definitely of the opinion that travelling as a solo female has its benefits, which are often understated in comparison to its risks.
I was walking the West Highland Way last year while the trail race was on. Super-human athletes came running past me, aiming to complete the 100 miles in 24 hours. I thought they were crazy, and such an endeavour seemed entirely impossible. On this adventure, I was that crazy person running past people. I wasn’t running 100 miles, but I ran further than I had ever done before, with a large backpack, half a night’s sleep and half a loaf of stale bread. I had moved from the impossible, through the improbable and into the vaguely plausible. I think the unbelievable sunshine was partly to blame; it filled me with some kind of solar superpower. I felt strong, and powerful and free – and apparently believing it makes it so.
This was my first trip out into the highlands proper since moving back to Scotland, and it's wonderful to be back. Although I’ve spent months overseas in much more technically impressive mountains, there is something that will always call me back here, something in the understated rolling hills that will forever have my heart. It is one thing to visit a place, but to know a landscape intimately is something entirely different. To see it through its changing seasons, on bike and on foot, to see it move quickly and slowly, to view it from land to sea and sea back to the land: for me, that is what adventure is really about.
Written by Sophie Lawson: