The rain might finally be easing a bit but it's 2am and black dark. In spite of the full waterproofs, every stitch I'm wearing is wet. Move or shiver. There is no path, no track or trace, feet stumble randomly into rough heather, knee-deep holes, bog, and a hundred icy streamlets that the past few hours have created. Through rain-distorted spectacles I can just decipher the little yellow glow of the GPS. Behind me follow five or six others with a confidence probably borne of hope or necessity that I know where I'm going. Then we see it, impossible to tell how far away but it's there, a red flashing light. As we move, it disappears behind a hillock, appears again, disappears, reappears and stays. A few minutes and we're there, the clipper dangling beneath the light on a lonely fence corner at this unmanned checkpoint miles from the nearest path and more miles from the nearest chance of getting dry. Welcome to the Heart of Scotland.
It was Richie who first told me about the event over beers in the warm Chamonix sunshine last summer, the LDWA's "Heart of Scotland 100". Not a race, as the LDWA would stress, but a "Challenge Walk" - the location of their annual 100 mile challenge changes every year, coming to Scotland for the first time this year. The general deal is that it's well supported with food at regular checkpoints, you can choose any of three start times on Saturday (10am, noon, or 2pm) and you have until 10am on Monday (ie 48 hours max) to finish. The Heart of Scotland would start and finish at the Drill Hall in Dunkeld and take in a lot of country that I knew about generally but had never explored in detail. The route looked interesting but not too tough (I think about 13,000ft of climbing with good tracks for most of the way) and seemed an ideal way to ease gently (remember this descriptor later) into 100 milers for 2010. It would be my first brush with the Long Distance Walkers Association, so I got on the website to stake my claim and by December the entry was confirmed.
I checked in early for the middle start then went for a final calorie-and-morale-boosting coffee and cakes with Jan in Dunkeld, returning to the start area a few minutes before noon to discover that the great majority of the 500 strong field had left at 10am; good to see some friendly faces though, George (who had already warned me that the route was tougher than it looked in places) and Karen, Phil (who I'd crossed Rannoch Moor with in last summer's DOH), and the seemingly ever-present Jim D in his usual cotton tee-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, demonstrating that modern technical gear holds no suit over the true hardman. The start briefing had its interesting points "you may well see Ospreys, don't come back and tell people where they are", then the low key countdown and we're off - walking. After a few yards the leaders break into a jog, allowing me to find my normal takeoff position in the last dozen or so.
The first two sections take us northward over the Clunie moors to Kirkmichael, 15 miles or so with 2000ft of climbing. The first climb is gentle but it's warm, a bit of sunshine, and I'm conscious that my rucksack weighs a ton. It's by far the heaviest bag I've ever brought on an ultra - compulsory kit includes full waterproofs, fleece, full-weight bivi bag, first aid kit, torch and batteries, mug, three OS maps, route description (almost a book!), compass, whistle, phone, emergency food and litre of water, to which I've added some gels and hat, gloves, GPS, and spare socks as the forecast isn't great. I keep thinking about starting the West Highland Way with a water bottle and a couple of Mars bars..............but this is here and now and I'm sure I'll get used to it in a few miles. An hour or so in we lose the sun and it starts to rain intermittently; some folk put on waterproofs but I'm happy enough so far in my windproof Montane top. In the second half of this section I catch up with George and Karen, we chat about their extremely successful Cateran Trail race (must do that one next year), our plans for the WHW, the races in Chamonix later in the year, and so on. The last few miles into Kirkmichael were highlighted as tricky in the roadbook; George and Karen reccied them earlier in the year but everything has changed for today - new paths cut through the heather, new marker posts, new gates in fences, they feel really cheated, they paid their dues now everyone is getting a free ride!
They stay a bit longer in the checkpoint than me so I head out alone. On the next section which follows a flattish section of the Cateran Trail to Enochdu I catch Jim D who seems to have gone quite quickly so far. He says he has a plan for 4 miles an hour to Blair Atholl to avoid a potentially tricky section in the dark just after. Now Jim always chats away about lots of things, always interesting and often far-reaching, but every so often you get a nugget that is relevant to the event in hand and this is one of them, so I check that my own schedule matches this. I originally planned a 30 hour trip for a not-too-stressful completion, but have upped it to 31 after the organisers added a few miles on (it's now actually the Heart of Scotland 104,4) and George warned me about the tough bits. I can't remember exactly where I leave Jim but I'm soon out on my own in the long lonely valley leading to Daldhu, except that it's not so lonely now because I'm starting to catch the walkers who started two hours earlier and it's a continual stream of greetings and comments on the weather (it's now started to rain fairly steadily) all the way to the checkpoint at just under 24 miles. This one's just a small tent, but still plenty of food and welcome around it.
On the next section to Shinagag 6,6 miles further on we go further into the wild but still on a good undulating track. As from the start I'm walking all the ups but running (or rather jogging) the downs and flats and feeling pretty comfortable. We climb up over a col, then the three mile descent to the checkpoint has me in wonder yet again at the Scottish landscape; apart from a two feet wide gap cut into the heather there is no sign of the impact of humans as far as you can see in any direction. I'm not too certain of the overtaking etiquette here, I make do with coming up behind and hanging in quietly until invited to pass, it seems a bit unreasonable to ask someone to disrupt their own rhythm until they're ready to. The tent at Shinagag comes and goes, then another 6 easy miles down to Blair Atholl, back to civilisation, food and drink in a warm hall.
Some different but interesting stuff now, tracks along the river then though woods up to the Bruar Falls. I meet Mick here and we travel awhile together. Jim was right, the route here is not easy and we are happy to make it through to Calvine in daylight. I leave Calvine at about 10,30 but because of the heavy clouds it is almost dark and really starting to rain in earnest, not just continuous but heavy, so it's on with the rain gear for real this time. The next section to Dalnacardoch is the most uninteresting of the trip, following an asphalt cycleway alongside the A9. I get my head down and my hood up and plough on into the gloom, starting with a jog/walk tactic but then getting bored and jogging all the way to the checkpoint. Somewhere along here the headlamp goes on. Dalnacardoch is at 49,5 miles, almost halfway in distance, of course nowhere near that in effort, but it's a tented refuge from the elements. I'm very wet when I get there at just before midnight (12 hours from the start) but the hot tea and chicken soup does the trick and I step into the outside once again.
From Dalnacardoch we go 3 miles or so up a steady hill on a narrow lane. Three people have left the checkpoint just before me, I catch them and we go on at a fast walk. The last mile or so to the next stop at the Errocht Dam leaves the lane and crosses some vague countryside cutting across roads. I know this bit so I can lead my companions pretty quickly to the checkpoint. Inside the tent there is a random kit check - I have to produce my bivi bag which is of course packed right down at the bottom of my rucksac, but it is all done in good humour and and I'm impressed by the diligence and organisation of the LDWA. I have some more soup and a bit of contemplation - one of the toughest sections of the route comes next, rough ground, hard to navigate and a significant climb, it will be nearly three hours before we get any appreciable daylight, the rain is hammering down harder than ever, and when I'm not moving I immediately start to feel cold. But I know deep down that I can do this stuff and that it will be "retrospectively enjoyable" so there really isn't any decision. I confess to Jane, one of my companions on the last section, that I have the route in my GPS, a nearby French couple hear the conversation, we become a team and head out into the night. The first three or four miles follow a jeep track along the lochside; it is now two continuous parallel puddles with a slippery strip of grass in between them, after a while none of us is too concerned about which bit we tread in. The track ends at a footbridge waymark, from here it is cross country for three miles or so until we hit a track just above Kinloch Rannoch. We make it to the unmanned check on the fence (where I started this story) having added to our team along the way. From here we follow the fence straight up the hillside for nearly a thousand feet vertical, easy to find now but hard to do, heather and mud, two steps up and one back, my road shoes just about coping. The fence bends round to traverse the hill and so do we, less strenuous but still hard going. At last we get to the gate waypoint, then turn left through the heather up to the col. The sky starts to lighten and we can just make out a line to follow down towards Kinloch Rannoch. Job done, 30 minutes or so later we're down there.
This is the drop bag "breakfast stop" at 61,7 miles from the start, so a complete change of clothes and shoes is possible and very welcome - dry at last, followed by a full English - yes I know this is an ultra but these LDWA guys can really put on a spread! During the course of the whole event I manage to get through soups, pastas, tuna sandwiches, rice puddings, bananas and custards, fruit cakes, swiss rolls, hot sausage rolls, as well as the normal crisps, Mars bars, gels, coke, and about a gallon of tea (and of course the full breakfast!) - weight loss at the end of the trip, zero!
Jane and I decide we've still enough to talk about so we do the next section together, a 1500ft climb up a jeep track out of Kinloch Rannoch to the Tempar bothy on the slopes of Schiehallion, followed by another couple of miles of trackless heather and bog and some wide burn crossings, rising a few hundred further feet at the end to the next checkpoint at the Pheiginn bothy. The rain has now finally stopped but the ground underfoot ensures that our newly dry shoes and socks are thoroughly soaked again. From the bothy there's a good descending track for the next three miles or so, I can't persuade Jane to run it so I say goodbye and head off down; it's good to be moving faster again after the rain and the rigours of the night. Fortingall, home of Europe's oldest tree, is the next checkpoint, then a bit of up and down through the Tay Forest, walking the ups and running the downs. A level and grassy track follows, along the bank of the Tay from the Lyon confluence all the way to Aberfeldy, I run all of it. I was over an hour down on my 31 hour schedule at the Pheiginn bothy (partly due to a 50 minute stop for breakfast!) but I've caught it all back in the space of less than 17 miles, too fast, I'll pay for this later.
Getting to Aberfeldy is psychologically good, less than 20 miles to go from here, tea and cake and off we go. But after a mile of road I get to a 1400ft climb up a relentless forest track, it's really hard. I'm almost falling asleep on my feet up here but go with the Mike Mason dictum - "go as slow as you like, but never, ever, stop on an uphill". Finally I reach the checkpoint by Loch Kennard and have to sit down in the tent to regroup. Coffee and banana and custard revives me after a few minutes, but I realise it's going to hurt from here to the end, another 12 miles, but thankfully with only a few hundred feet of up and a lot of down. As I creak out of the tent I see a vaguely familiar face but recognition is dulled by tiredness and I don't say hello. A mile further on the face catches me up, of course it's Twin Fiona running as support for friend Sue - they'll both be there in Milngavie for the start of the WHW in less than 3 weeks time. I've woken up a bit now so jog with them for a few hundred yards, then start to feel much better so head off for a while slightly faster. The energy surge doesn't last long, by the next checkpoint I've slowed right down again but now it's only 7 miles to the finish. I manage a cheery greeting for the marshals at the final checkpoint 3 miles from the end, on what is now a beautifully sunny early evening, but I'm barely hitting 3 miles an hour and these last three miles are the hardest of the lot. Then I'm suddenly in the outskirts of Dunkeld; not quite Chamonix but everyone on the streets knows what you've been up to and there is encouragement and congratulation from all sides. Over the bridge, into the square, and then the Drill Hall to finish, a few minutes under 31 hours - I don't record the exact time, it doesn't really seem all that important now, the journey was the thing, the numbers are just stamp collecting. There is a really nice touch at the end, each time a finisher comes through the door of the hall one of the marshals rings a handbell, prompting applause from everyone in the room.
I sit down for a cup of tea and reflect. It was tougher than I expected because of the rain and the trackless sections, particularly overnight, but overall a great trip. I could have pushed a bit harder near the end, you can always overcome tiredness, but I didn't want to finish in any distress. I'm in pretty reasonable shape, hobbling a bit on feet sore from being continually wet, and a stiff knee, but these will pass in a day or two. Really tired, but that will be put right by tomorrow. This first 100 of 2010 was OK. I call Jan who arrives from Perth in 20 minutes to pick me up. Our planned steak and chips doesn't happen because once back at the hotel I fall irretrievably asleep for a couple of hours and we have to make do with raiding a local petrol station for sandwiches and crisps at 11pm. It's a clear, cold night and we spare a thought for those still out on the course. Next morning, rested, breakfasted, checked out, we get in the car and head south. It's just after 9,30am, the handbell in Dunkeld Drill Hall will still be ringing - tough folk, these walkers.