The second in our series of blogs from ultra-athlete and journalist Sean McFarlane. If you’re planning on taking on the Loch Ness 360ﹾ Ultra Marathon Challenge, read on for some expert tips …
What makes an ideal ultra for you?
An epic course, constantly changing terrain and slick logistics all set in a truly iconic location? Yup, thought so, and that’s what makes the Loch Ness 360ﹾ Challenge the ultra to do in 2020. Make no mistake, this is big stuff. 80 miles long with over 10,000 feet of ascent, it’s a huge day and a challenge like nothing else. Yet this is an extraordinary event within the grasp of many. It really is amazing what you can do with some decent training and smart decisions on race day, combined with a head and body committed to getting to the finish.
An anti-clockwise route starting and finishing in Dores on the north east edge of Loch Ness, the race goes around Scotland’s most famous body of water and takes in plenty of other stuff en route. At times you’ll be heading well away from the loch, helping to feel deeply immersed in this most stunning of landscapes. One distinctive aspect of the Loch Ness 360 ﹾ is the varied terrain. With its wide forest roads to narrow single track, and newly built gravel paths to hairpins ascents and descents, you can guarantee that boredom will never be an issue.
Preparation and nutrition are key
The event really is all about those who can keep going forward and slow down the least. Time on feet in your training is particularly important, pace less so. Also look to mentally break things up during the race, using all the landmarks and places dotted around the trail to do so. Don’t view it as an 80-mile event and consider it as say 8 ten-mile runs. The variety of the Loch Ness 360 ﹾ makes it perfect for creating manageable chunks in your head.
As for the all important issue of nutrition, the trick is constant grazing. Test your nutrition on longer runs in training and go with what works for you. Remember taste is important, so consider using some real food. Make clear notes of the aid stations and what is available at each one. They’re conveniently spaced at regular intervals so make sure you know where they are. Remember you can send stuff in advance to the aid station at Fort Augustus at 49.5 miles in. Avoid carrying too much, unless you really want to.
So what can you expect on race day?
Ultras have a habit of starting at all times of day. Here it’s a 10 pm start so do what you can to cope with that. Adjust your body clock, take caffeine nutrition at the appropriate time, mentally prepare for and accept dips in moods and enthusiasm. With a good plan and mental approach, the body will follow.
Don’t get caught up in racing from the off. Find a rhythm and even a friend or two and let yourself settle into things from the start. The field will spread out very quickly so just jog, relax and take it all in. Inverness is your first major landmark and a good place to take stock of things.
Heading through the city you climb out onto its western side and from here it’s through the forest and then onto the back road at Blackfold, well away from the loch for the time being. Into Abriachan, it’s now a wide forest trail which eventually narrows up and spits you out just above Drumnadrochit. Into the town you then climb out once more and from here to Fort Augustus you take the aptly called “high route”. . This really is a tough section as you climb, traverse, descend and repeat, so just do what you can to get it done. Walk, eat, stretch. Anything you like. And remember that with effort comes reward so take some time along the way to soak up some of the finest views on the planet.
You will eventually reach Fort Augustus, a good old town and gloriously infected by all things Nessie. There’ll no doubt be several admiring tourists and for good reason – you’re now on the final push of this epic adventure. The newly built gravel path out of the town is a steep and long climb so be mindful not to overcook things here. You’re well into the ‘absolutely fine to walk’ territory.
Things level out above Loch Tarff and now is the time, more than ever, to stop and marvel. In any conditions this is a special place and view. Scotland at its unbeatable best. Gather the energy around and head down when you’re ready, through the felled forest, along the river and into Foyers. The end is now almost in sight, well if it wasn’t for the trees. For those of you still running at this point, enjoy but pay attention on the impressive single track to Inverfarigaig. Once there, you’re onto the final climb (I promise) up the broken tarmac known locally as the Corkscrew.
Crossing the Finish Line
Your wheels may well be coming off now, but rest assured everyone else’s are too. And really by now who cares? Things level out and then you’re through the woods and down the classic zig zagging path called Fair Haired Lad’s Pass with Loch Ness in full display in front of you. Muster any last energy to head through the forest and finally onto Dores where it all began.
The Ultra to do in 2020
If you can honestly think of a more epic, memorable and rewarding physical challenge this year, we don’t believe you!