Caledonian Challenge 2015

At 05:16am on Saturday morning, wet, tired and aching I crossed the finish line of the 2015 Caledonian Challenge with two team mates from the Sleakit Beasties. During the previous 20 hours and 16 minutes we had walked 54 miles from Gairlochy to Strathfillian, mostly on the West Highland Way. In the process, we had raised over £4000 for Foundation Scotland.

Caledonian Challenge route profile

Caledonian Challenge route profile

As weekends go, this one was pretty amazing and certainly memorable. Taking on this challenge was my idea a year ago. I was catching a flight from Edinburgh to London for a business meeting this time last year and picked up a copy of the Scotsman newspaper as I boarded the flight. In the paper was an article from one of their reporters who had taken on the challenge last year and had written a piece about the experience. At the time, I’d never stepped a foot on to the West Highland Way, so I was captivated by his descriptions of the scenery along the route. There was also a lot of talk about the team work required to complete such a challenge and the impact it had on the workplace as a result. At the time, our local office where I worked was needing an injection of excitement beyond every day work, so I posted a message on an internal social media site asking if anyone wanted to join me taking this on. Surprisingly I got 6 other suitably crazy individuals signed up within a week and the Sleakit Beasties, a traditional name used by Microsoft Scotland for teams entering sporting and charity events, were born.

We had some fun training for the event, then the weekend of the challenge came around and we were all loaded into a coach heading for Fort William. The challenge is a supported event and you have the option of providing your own support teams or signing up to a support package provided. We chose the latter option as we couldn’t hustle together enough people to run around the highlands after us cooking food and attending to our blistered feet. In the end, we were really glad we did as the support team provided were exceptional. The package also included a night in the Alexandra hotel in Fort William for the Friday night before the start.

We arrived into Fort William on a sunny afternoon for registration in the Nevis center. The formalities were easily worked through and we were delighted to discover that we had actually won a t-shirt each for our fundraising efforts. Once we had checked in to the hotel, the Grog and Gruel pub provided us with dinner and drinks before an early night.

The start line the following morning was out in Gairlochy. We were amongst the 9am start group, which was the third wave of people to start, with others setting off at 7 and 8am. Our estimated finish time was 20 hours which earned us a place in this group, the objective presumably to have most teams finish around the same time. The conditions at the start were near perfect with a light breeze and cloud cover. We were ready.

Start line team selfie

Start line team selfie

Gairlochy to Glen Nevis

This section was probably the easiest we were to take on. It gave us a chance to settle into a steady pace and adjust our clothing to match the temperatures. The route follows the Caledonian Canal from Gairlochy down to Neptune’s Staircase before heading off towards Fort William and the bottom of Glen Nevis. The field split up nicely along this stretch, and by the time we reached the first CP we were towards the front of our start group and ready for lunch in the support tent.

Feeding the Beasties

Feeding the Beasties

The support package we signed up to meant we could provide a bag each with bits and pieces in which we didn’t need along the way. This worked exceptionally well throughout all the CP’s, meaning we could leave heavy items we didn’t always need, spare changes of clothing and snacks in the drop bags to reduce the weight. By the time we made it to the next CP, our bags were magically waiting for us.

Glen Nevis to Kinlochleven

This was the stretch we had started our night walk on a few weeks earlier, so it was the first time I’d done this section in daylight. We knew it was a steep ascent from the CP up into the Glen and towards Lairig Mor, so we hit the carbs in the CP, dropped as much weight from our bags as we could and made a start up the trail.

More selfie action in Glen Nevis

More selfie action in Glen Nevis

Within our group we had a range of abilities and the track up the glen was the first place where this started to really show. Some of the team were taking things slower to ensure they made the distance, whilst others worked at the hill to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. Before long though, we had all made it up on to the mor. It’s amazing how your memory plays tricks on you, I remember doing this section through Lairig Mor from the top of the Glen to Kinlochleven a few weeks ago and was sure it was much shorter than it actually is. I was painfully made aware of how long a stretch this section of the WHW actually is on Saturday, just as light drizzle started to coat everything. By the time we reached the descent into Kinlochleven, our group had split up into two groups, with one slightly slower and one, which I was in, pushing ahead.

Blister administration

Blister administration

The CP at Kinlochleven was in the Ice Factory, they put on quite possibly the best lentil soup I’ve ever tasted as well as pasta or chilli to feed us. One of our advance party group had some significant blisters appearing at this stage, so we extended our stay here to allow some medical treatment before heading out.

Kinlochleven to Glencoe

This was the meat of the walk. We always knew it would be, and it didn’t fail to deliver. The initial climb up out of Kinlochleven is unforgiving and long. i remembered taking this on in our training weekend and took a stern approach of simply pushing on up the hill at a steady pace. I enjoy this type of climb and I’d like to go back and have a go at running this section some time soon. Once up out of the town, there is a slightly less steep section to cross before summiting over the Devil’s Staircase. As always, the view here down into Glencoe is sublime and makes the hard work worthwhile.

Ricky taking a breather atop the Devil's Staircase

Ricky taking a breather atop the Devil’s Staircase

From here, the decent down into Glencoe feels luxurious after the previous climb and the distant lights of the Glencoe CP taunted us with the promise of hot food, clean clothes and somewhere warm and dry. Sadly, the view across the glen is deceiving and it was another significant walk before we were indulged.

Glencoe to Inveroran

As we arrived in Glencoe, the weather intensified from mist to rain status. After a feed at the CP, by now it was 11pm and we were all tired. One of the team dropped out here due to intense blisters and the rear party were still making their way across from the Devil’s Staircase as the advanced party pulled out. This section of the walk crosses Rannoch moor, one of the bleakest parts of countryside you will find anywhere. Finding it on a dark and rainy night with around 15 hours of walking already done could be described as character building. I don’t really remember the rain being all that heavy, but looking back I realise that it was and I just had my head down and was stomping across this empty place, determined to get to the next CP. Our time through this section proved that as we clocked up a significant pace. The path here is hard cobbles too and in the wet they make every foot fall feel painful and slippery. Eventually the CP appeared out of the darkness and more baked potatoes were consumed along with chocolate cake and custard. As I approached the checkpoint, a lady from one of the teams I passed mentioned the chocolate cake and I thought she was simply dreaming of what she’s like to eat. I was delighted to find the cake waiting though, it was just the positive mood swing I needed.

Inveroran to Tyndrum

40 miles down, 12 to go. Our stop at Inveroran was a quick one as we just wanted to push no by now. We later found out that our rear party dropped out at this stage, struggling to keep on with the conditions. They had but in a great effort and will be back next year I’m sure. That left just three of us still in the team, myself, Ricky and Duncan.

Outside Inveroran is a small but perfectly formed hill waiting for any tired walkers heading south. As we left the CP, I felt my shins ache with pain from what I suspect was boots that were too tight throughout the day. The walk up and over the hill to Bridge of Orchy was slow and painful for me, the heavy rain was taking its toll too and the other two guys were rightly pressing on to get the hill over and done with. I passed another team near the top with one guy who was limping heavily. I commented that it looked painful but kept walking on, I later learned from Ricky that the guy had just fallen and was heading to the next CP for first aid. I felt terrible for not stopping, sorry if you are reading this.

By Bridge of Orchy, we were all in what I’d describe as overnight mode. Conversation had dried up, everything was wet, all we were ever focused on was the beam of light from our head torches in front of us. Water points came and went, three of them in total. In each was a team of volunteers who did everything they could to lift our spirits. Throughout the whole event, it was breathtaking to see how many people gave up their time to support the challenge. Thank you, all of you, for doing such an amazing job and making such a significant contribution to making the challenge so much fun.

From looking at the OS map beforehand, the path here seemed to contour around the side of a glen. It might have done, but it was too dark to tell and I was too tired to care by now. I remember heading under a railway that had some very ghostly looking carriages sitting in a station with some lights on, looking like a scene from an old movie. Beyond that, all I remember is more cobbled path, more rain, a soup kitchen and another short climb over a hill before heading down into Tyndrum as daylight appeared.

I do remember at one of the water stops in this section, seeing two guys in every day football shirts, shorts and trainers stepping back out onto the trail. They were both soaked to the skin, but by the looks of their race numbers had set off at the same time as we did. They both seemed in fine form and were moving on up the track as if they were on Buchanan street in Glasgow on a Saturday afternoon. Well done lads, I hope you made it back safely!

Before long, we were wandering past the By The Way campsite in Tyndrum and the pleasant section of path that meanders along the river there. Memories of the fling came flooding back as I passed the point where the pipers stand at the finish. Not long after, we turned over the bridge near the Strathfillian wigwam site and the finish line was in sight.

The CEO of Foundation Scotland, Giles Ruck, was on point to welcome us at the finish with enthusiasm which was almost as large as his smile. he very smartly coached us to cross the line, arms in the air enabling the perfect photo opportunity.

Delighted to have finished the Caledonian Challenge

Delighted to have finished the Caledonian Challenge

After the finish, fatigue hit us all and with a hearty breakfast provided, some of us settled down to catch up on a couple of hours sleep in a tent before catching the coach back to Edinburgh at 8am. The sense of achievement was immediate. It is really quite a significant distance to be walking in one day and to do it under such a well organised event made it all the more memorable. It was the first year in the events 19 year history that a team from Microsoft has entered, but I suspect many of us will be back again next year. I had a ball leading the team, everyone really got into the spirit of the challenge and in the process raised a huge amount of cash. I’m exceptionally proud to have been lead Sleakit Beastie. Hopefully we will have many more challenges ahead together too.

Link to Strava activity.

The one thing that struck me on the drive home was that in just over two months I have completed the length of the WHW in a little over 30 hours. 53 miles in the fling and the remainder in the Caley Challenge coming from the other direction. Now I know where I’m going, I can’t stop thinking that perhaps the WHW race needs an application from me next year? My other though after finishing this, was that I much prefer running to walking. I remember being told at one point that it was 6 miles to the finish. In my head, that equated to about an hour, sadly, when you walk, those 6 miles took over two hours.

Next up for me is the Great Glen Way ultra on July 4th. I am really looking forward to that race now. It is such a beautiful part of the world that I am feeling more and more at home in. I need to build some more long runs in over the next couple of weeks to prepare and I should be ready to go, more on that over the next week.

A walk in the dark

Saturday saw me and five guys I work with take on walking a large section of the West Highland Way. I’m leading this team in the Caledonian Challenge in a few weeks time and this was a weekend I designed to be as physically and mentally tough as possible to make sure the team is ready.

First breakfast in Lairig Mor

First breakfast in Lairig Mor

We assembled in our Edinburgh office from our distant outposts. Amongst us we had people from Aberdeen, Fife, Auchterader, Glasgow, Oxford and Hampshire. Those latter two made the drive up to Edinburgh on Friday morning with a 5:30am start, which made their weekend achievements even more impressive. After a kit check in the office to ensure we all had the appropriate items, we headed out to fuel up at an Italian in Edinburgh. Once we had carbed up, we went back to the office to wait out the evening before eventually driving up to Fort William. We stopped en route to leave two of our four cars at Bridge of Orchy which was our target end point for the walk. 1:40am saw us arrive in the Ben Nevis visitor centre car park on a cold, crisp highland night. The stars were out and the sun had just about dipped below the horizon. One of the things I love about Scotland is how bright the nights are during the summer. On the challenge itself, we will be just about at the longest day of the year. That means that assuming the weather behaves itself then we should have bright night skies to accompany us along the night time sections of the walk.

2:45am skies just south of Fort William

2:45am skies just south of Fort William

After final adjustments by headtorch in the car park, we attached glow sticks to everyone just in case of emergencies and set off up a forest fire road following the WHW markers. The cold air spurred us on and before long we were well into Glen Nevis and heading south. With no view to distract us and the nerves of the day ahead still fresh in the back of our throats, we were subdued for the first hour as everyone got into their own rhythm. After a couple of hours, we had plateaued into the entrance to Lairigmor and we started to recognise that the sky was taking on a feint glimpse of light. By now the cold was biting and with the fatigue from the previous day, everyone was starting to drop a little. As the darkness turned to twilight, I suggested we stop and make tea and take on some snacks, ensuring everyone got some warmth inside them and some food. We still had a couple of hours to get to Kinlochleven and an even longer day ahead of us after that. The tea and snacks did the trick, lifting everyone’s spirits and giving the sky some time to fully expose the beautiful scenery we were surrounded with.

Lairigmor

Lairigmor

The WHW is generally made up of rough stone tracks and this section was no exception. The going was great, the weather was looking good and everyone was in high spirits. Before we knew it, we were emerging at the end of the mor and overlooking Kinlochleven, which by this time at 6am, was still fast asleep. Nothing else for it, but out with the tea making facilities and take a pew. As we sipped our early morning brew, the sun made its first appearance of the day over the hills to the east, bathing both the town below and us perched high up on the surrounding hills in lovely warm sunshine. I’ve seen it many times from years in the army. That warm bath of sunlight can lift anyones spirit, no matter how low they might be. Kinlochleven, and more precisely the Tailrace Inn, served as our breakfast spot, which by this point felt like our third breakfast, or even lunch. The landlady was surprised to see 6 worn looking walkers waiting for her as she opened the doors at 8am.

Kinlochleven in the early morning sun

Kinlochleven in the early morning sun

After a hearty breakfast, the first big climb of the day awaited. The ascent out of Kinlochleven is a steady climb that saps tired legs. By the time we got to the top of the first section which is mainly well laid track, our group was strung out over a few hundred yards. We regrouped at the top, took in some food and water and the spectacular views to the east and Blackwater reservoir. Going from this point was easier on the legs and we eventually peaked at the top of the Devils Staircase. This is an iconic spot along the WHW and gives you the first view when heading south into Glencoe.

Yours truly with Glencoe behind me

It is a mighty view and gives you a thump in the chest as Buachaille Etive Mor looms up in a commanding position across the other side of the glen. We took our time on the top here, having plenty to eat and drink and savour the views. We were all surprised by the number of tourists making the trip up from the layby down in Glencoe. Most of us forgot the time, only to realise it when we talked to some folk on the top who gave us funny looks when we explained where we had come from. At this point it was 10am. Dropping down the Devils Staircase into Glencoe, we passed a big wave of people on their way up, our minds however were now on Kingshouse hotel and our next rest stop. Once down in the bottom of the glen, the WHW takes a fairly simple route with little to distract you away from the spectacular scenery. As we got closer to Kingshouse and our lunch, we passed a group of three ladies who recognised our hiking hound and cheered us on as they too were on their final walk before doing the challenge.

The hound in figure head formation

The hound in figure head formation

Kingshouse delivered the promised lunch we were all craving at this point and after some attention to blisters and packing of kit, we were heading across the road to the Glencoe ski center and the long path over Rannoch moor. This is bleak country with little to distract the eyes. Despite the recent food stop, some of our team started to feel the weight of the last 12 hours and the early start weigh heavy on their shoulders and our pace dropped significantly. I expected this around this time, most of us had been up over 36 hours at this point and the time of day was becoming irrelevant. Conversation amongst the group tailed off and we started to get a little strung out. On the day of the challenge we have to stay within 100m of each other for good safety reasons, so this is something we will have to watch out for and address during the event.

Final ascent before Bridge of Orchy

Final ascent before Bridge of Orchy

Despite the fatigue, the long path over Rannoch moor eventually deposited us down into Inveroran. From here it was one final small climb over the hill into Bridge of Orchy and our waiting cars. The day wasn’t over though, we still had two cars to recover from Fort William and a trip down to our hotel for the night in Crianlarich. We eventually made it, 5 minutes before the kitchen closed. With food orders placed, pints in hand, we all acknowledged what an epic day it had been. That strange exhausted tiredness you only get from ultra long exertions and its subsequent high upon finishing was clearly written across everyones face. We learned a lot of lessons over the weekend. Packs need to be light, we need less stuff for on the march, we need to pace more effectively and we need to do the challenge as a team and not individuals. All told, it was the perfect training exercise for what will be a tough challenge that we are all now looking forward to.

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