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. Of course, on the horizon stands the looming darkness of Winter and so it feels all the more important to get out and stock up on vitamin D. 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. After a train and bus ride, I set off running from Balmaha along the familiar stretch of trail. In my backpack, I had stove, food and sleeping gear with plans to overnight at Rowchoish bothy. However, I got caught out by the early sunset of daylight savings. Luckily, there are plenty of perfect camp spots in the bays along the loch, and I always bring a bivvy bag, just in case. The night was perfect for it, cold and clear and I caught 3 shooting stars before drifting off to (slight cold and soggy) sleep. The next day I had 15 miles to cover in glorious sunshine, before getting the bus back from Inverarnan. Here are 10 things I learnt from this wee adventure:
1. Backpacks hurt.
As an avid backpacker, you would think that I’d be familiar with this concept by now. You would be wrong. For some reason, the change of gait made me entirely amnesic of the fact that when you add weight to an activity it gets exponentially more difficult. In fact, running with a backpack is far worse because it bounces around, taking collarbone chaffing to the next level. I also ran in the only suitable sized backpack I had which was technically for climbing; it has a flexible back so you can bunch up into weird positions, but is entirely unhelpful when you’re running upright and need more support. The back support crumpled and dug into my back leaving bruises either side of my spine. Lesson learnt: invest in better backpack.
2. Next time, I’m taking sticks.
My knees don’t like downhill. They especially don’t like it on rough terrain. They especially 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 I prefer to keep my knees and ankles intact for future use. Next time, I’m definitely taking sticks.
3. This was definitely a running adventure.
Despite what the gentleman who referred to me as a ‘speed walker’ might think, this was actually a running adventure. I may have not been running much faster than walking speed, but that is entirely beside the point. I may have also walked some of the steep and rough sections. But the great thing about ultrarunning 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; some of the best hill runners walk up the hills. 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.
4. Running legs are insatiable little monsters.
I’ve done long-distance backpacking and cycle 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, but 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. I managed to eat all of my food despite the fact I was finding it more difficult than usual (which is not very difficult, as you can tell) to eat, because your stomach gets all jostled around as you run. So, I didn’t feel hungry. Until, all of a sudden, I needed to eat something the size of a cow IMMEDIATELY or risk becoming a raging, ravenous beast. Noted for next trip: double calories are not enough. Take more snickers bars.
5. Lochs are warm in October (relatively)
I struggle to be by water and not go in it. Even in winter. Even though I hate the cold. Because swimming is good for the soul: it slaps you out of the comfortable and mundane routine of life and makes you feel alive. And actually, this time of year is great for swimming. Although the air temperature was close to freezing, the loch was still holding its summer glow at a balmy 13 degrees! Okay, it’s not advisable to stay in long, and certainly, the days of laying out on the beach to dry in the sun are long gone but do go for a dunk. I promise: you will feel better for it. Do have something warm to put on a hot flask of tea waiting for you on the shore. And do invest in something I can’t believe I haven’t discovered until now: HANDWARMERS.
6. Loch Lomond critters are highly inquisitive.
Even though I’ve slept outside by myself many nights, and many of those nights without a tent, I still get the fear. At any unexpected noise, I jump out of my skin, trying to register whatever threat lays for me in the dark. Usually, it’s just a squirrel or a falling twig. So, as I was admiring the galactic sky and wondering about the nature of the universe and listening to the lapping of the waves on the shore, the scuffle behind my head made me immediately on guard. Nothing. Maybe I imagined it? I settled down again. 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 wasn’t sure what to do about this predicament. Whilst in India, I’d woken up with rats on my neck, and a little forest mouse wouldn’t be as bad as that surely? In truth, I was all tucked in and too lazy to move. I firmly packed away my supplies, slug shuffled down the beach slightly, took many long deep breaths, and tried to drift off to sleep.
7. Always check your get-out plan.
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 is out of action and I have another 3 miles to run. The bus was in 20 minutes. I stuff the remaining cake in my face and run, but on those legs, I was never going to make it in time. I quickly realised the futility of my efforts and bush bashed my way to the river, ripped off my shoes, chose a vaguely fordable looking section of river, waded up to my thighs, plunged my soggy feet back into my trainers and started running again. I scrambled through bog and bramble, scraping my legs in the process, and 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.
Always check, and double-check your get-out plan.
8. Strangers are kind.
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 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 up the cash register, but still). After my tough-mudder style sprint across the river, I was 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 guy on his way back from his own running adventure. This was convenient, because he didn’t seem to mind my two-day stench or the fact that my legs were bleeding, and we chatted away about our love of mountains and the west of Scotland. I’m definitely of the opinion that travelling as a solo female has its benefits, which are often understated in comparison to its risks.
9. I am capable of more than I think.
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’ve ever run before in my life, ever, with a large backpack, on tired legs, 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. Next stop? The whole way. Though maybe not in 24 hours. Just yet.
10. Scotland, you have my heart.
This was my first trip out into the highlands proper since moving back to Scotland, and it’s wonderful to be back. Although I 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 of the highlands 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 land: for me, this is what adventure is really about. And it is right here, on our front doorstep, only one night and bus stop away.