Running on the edge: on foot on Scotland’s west coast

A British expat living in Thailand was visiting a tourist centre on Koh Chang when a photograph, purportedly of the island’s Kai Bae beach, engaged his attention. To the casual observer, nothing was amiss. Here was an illustration of the unerring beauty of the Koh Chang coastline: a white-sand beach, a cobalt sea, a shimmering sky. It was unquestionably a Thai paradise.

Or not, for something was indeed amiss. This was no Thai beach, the expat realised. It was a beach on Berneray, a Hebridean island pitched off the west coast of Scotland, some 6,000 miles from south-east Asia. The hills in thefar distance were the giveaway. These were not Thai hills; they were Scottish hills.

I would like to think that in the moment the photograph was taken there was a runner on one of those hills, surveying a stupendous world of islands and ocean, thinking: there is nowhere else I would rather be.

To run here – the chain of islands that flank mainland Scotland’s western seaboard – is to be in the presence of the extraordinary. It is no picnic – but there lies the pleasure. Running and racing can be extreme and mountainous; the weather unpredictable; the journey long; parkrun is unlikely to permeate these parts. It is worth the effort, however.

Go to Jura. Home to not only the eponymous whisky, the island hosts an annual 17-mile hill race that climbs 2,300 metres across seven summits. The race details are gloriously horrifying: ‘Ascent on steep scree for 600 metres;’ ‘steep descent on rock and grass;’ ‘steep ascent by gully or ridge;’ ‘direct descent impossible due to sheer precipice;’ ‘boggy and rough going.’

I will never forget those ‘600 metres’: a dogged line of single-file humans straddling a vast mountainside of boulders, dwarfed by the enormity of nature. We crouched with hands on knees, defying gravity, never stopping. We were soon plunged into a ghostly land of mist and spat out onto a wind-blasted summit. On we ran.

Go to Skye. The running options are innumerable: immaculate beaches, coastal tracks, sweeping country roads, glen-splitting trails. Yet the greatest Skye run of all makes even Jura seem tame. The end-to-end traverse of the 11 Munros of the jagged silhouette of the Black Cuillin burst into public consciousness after six-times Ben Nevis race winner Finlay Wild became the first person to complete the Alpine-like route – which requires significant climbing expertise, notably on the marvellously-named Inaccessible Pinnacle – in under three hours.

Remarkably, Wild had broken the record four months earlier, only to be plagued by doubt he had overlooked a summit. After reaching the end of the ridge, Wild returned to the scene of his uncertainty to check. His fears were justified. He had not touched the top. By ‘missing’ a summit, however, Wild meant he had stopped a few metres short of the pile of stones marking the highest point, a diversion that saved him a handful of seconds only. Personifying the ethics of Scottish hill running, Wild knew he could not claim the record under such circumstances.

Go to Rum. One of the Small Isles (the others are Muck, Eigg and Canna), Rum is a get-away-from-everything destination. The island is a shade smaller than the US city of San Francisco of more than 800,000 people; Rum has 22 residents. From the coast-clinging village of Kinloch, where almost every island inhabitant lives, a trail moves west into nothing, Take a look at a satellite map of the island. Nothing – but everything…

The track eventually reaches a lonely crossroads, venturing north and south and further west. I went south, for no particular reason, climbing to a pass, mountains looming either side, an eagle above, before I could see down to the ocean. Moments of sublime flawlessness are rare; such instances depend on the collision of mood, time and place. Somehow the pieces fitted together: the command of the mountains, the adrenaline of exertion, the haunting emptiness of the land, the calmness and liberation of thought. Nothing was out of place. I ran on in a state of wonderment.

Go to Colonsay. Running can serve no greater purpose than allowing us to see our locality; our sport is a formidable mode of transport. And being eight miles long and three miles broad, there is no better way to see Colonsay than on foot. I had camped on the southern lip of the island and cooked porridge while waiting for the tide to go out, revealing a causeway to a neighbouring island, Oronsay.

I watched groups of walkers parading out with the tide, across a mile-long straight. Now running, I passed them one-by-one; the last group were procrastinating at the retreating water’s edge. I plunged in – the water at first ankle-deep, then calf, then thigh. I waded, then could lift my knee out of the water. I was running again. I was across. I glanced over my shoulder. I was alone. I had a little island paradise to myself. A battering surf rang in my ears. Geese honked overhead. The mountains of Jura were silhouetted across the sea. There is nowhere else I would rather be, I thought.

 And there is so much more: a journey along the machair strip of South Uist; a circumnavigation of Tiree; a mountain run up Mull’s Ben More, the only island Munro outside Skye. The most committed adventurer can even venture to St Kilda, the westernmost tip of the British Isles, dubbed ‘the end of the world’, and jog to the island’s pinnacle of Conachair where the cliffs plunge 400 metres into the Atlantic. It is a bewildering place. Words limit me from going on, but my best advice? Find your own island; find your own running adventure.

My recommended races

For the hill runner: Glamaig

Glamaig is a 775-metre conical mountain rising above Sligachan in Skye. The hill race goes straight up and down punishingly-steep slopes in a 4.5-mile chase, much of it across scree. In 1899, a barefoot Ghurka ran the race route in 75 minutes. The disbelieving landowner asked him to do it again. The Ghurka, again barefoot, did just that – in 55 minutes, a record that stood until the 1980s.

For the road runner: Coll Half Marathon

The island of Coll hosts an annual running festival with a series of races on undulating roads in August. Runners can choose the option of 5k, 10k or half marathon, as well as a children’s race, while the day culminates in an island ceilidh. The event is low-key but competitive. Andrew Lawrence, the half marathon winner in 2015, clocked a time of 72 minutes.

For the trail runner: Arran Coastal Way Trail

The figure-of-eight course, held this year in April, includes track, trail and beach in seven miles of running. Part of the race, which starts and finishes at Blackwaterfoot on Arran’s western coast, is run on the newly-upgraded Arran Coastal Way. Situated in the Firth of Clyde, Arran is one of the more accessible Scottish islands.

For the ultra-runner: Skye Trail Ultra

Held in late-May, the Skye Trail Ultra spans the length of Skye, from Duntulm in the north to Elgol in the south, then turning east along the coast to Broadford, covering 74 miles and climbing some 4,500 metres. The route first passes over the Trotternish ridge, before passing between the Black and Red Cuillin en route to Elgol.

For a unique challenge: Ben Kenneth

The Ben Kenneth hill race – normally held in early August – is short at 3.5 miles, but climbing almost 300 vertical metres from Lochboisdale in South Uist to the summit of Ben Kenneth, and back again, it prevents a stiff challenge. There is a sting in the tail too: the race is an impromptu duathlon, with runners given the (shorter) option of twice swimming the weedy sea loch that separates village and hill.

This article was first published in the July issue of Men’s Running.


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