The term ‘marathon’ was once sufficiently impressive, needing no aggrandisement. But now? Marathon? So passé. The suffix -athon demands more glamorous nouns. A genre is therefore evolving: Barrathon, Ciderthon, Madathon, Movathon, Mumathon, and most wonderfully, the Scorchin’ Squirrelathon.
Add to the list The Dramathon – an autumn festival of running that includes 10k, half-marathon and marathon races, plus a three-person relay, staged on trails in the Scottish whisky region of Speyside. There is ambiguity in the -athon monikers. While they suggest fun and inclusivity, they also carry an air of desperate gimmickry, as if running for the sake of running is simply not possible.
But there is nothing desperate or gimmicky about The Dramathon. Nor is The Dramathon the whisky equivalent of France’s Marathon du Médoc, where wine tastings happen mid-race. You do not find whisky at aid stations in The Dramathon – which is just as well: I can only imagine the grisly consequences of combining 37.5 per cent proof alcohol with 26.2 miles. A profusion of vomit, presumably.
The whisky was for the end – seven different miniatures from some of the distilleries we had passed, as well as a Glencairn tasting glass from which to sample the lot. The whisky theme is underscored by a finisher’s ‘medal’ crafted from the wood of a whisky barrel.
What if you do not like whisky? I will let the race organiser answer that one: ‘The whisky is optional. The atmosphere will be great and the route is out of this world.’
And so to that the serious business of running a marathon. From Glenfarclas, which hangs to the lower slopes of 841-metre Ben Rinnes, the marathoners – in what is aptly-titled The Full Dram – sped downhill to the magnificent River Spey and the equally magnificent Ballindalloch Castle. Distilleries arrived thick and fast, names that resonate with those who have even the haziest appreciation of Scottish whisky: Tamdhu, Dalmunach, Aberlour and Balvenie. Perhaps the Distilleryathon might be an even more fitting race name?
The route lived up to its ‘out of this world’ billing, leapfrogging the Spey, following disused train lines that once serviced the whisky industry and now form sections of the Speyside Way footpath, and the occasional road section that reared upward. As we progressed, the race grew in numbers: relay runners swapped responsibilities; half-marathon competitors joined us; 10k athletes skipped by tiring marathoners.
Our finish line, however, was the same – the Glenfiddich Distillery, founded in 1886, on the outskirts of Dufftown. There is a sting to the tail of every race in The Dramathon, for from Craigellachie the route leaves the Spey and climbs steadily for around four miles. The gradient was modest and perfectly runnable, with the path once again tracing a former railway line, but after some 22 miles of effort, these were punishing minutes. I had forgotten just how hard running a marathon is, even off-road. Everything hurt. A stitch ripped through the left side of my abdomen. A big toe throbbed, bubbled and finally popped. I plodded on until at last we entered the grounds of the distillery, with the din of the finish line offering salvation and, of course, those precious whisky miniatures.
The ache of The Dramathon soon faded, but the race comes back to me through those little bottles. At Hallowe’en, I sampled The Dramathon ‘exclusive’ malt for 2018, Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu, all the way from Japan; at Christmas, it was the turn of Glenfiddich; at Hogmanay, sat high on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh overlooking the midnight fireworks, I twisted the top of Monkey Shoulder, a blend of a trio of Speyside whiskies, as a piper played Auld Lang Syne. There will be more moments like this.
Great events and great races are very different things, and not always compatible. The Dramathon admirably combines the two. Its appeal as an event is not in dispute. The whisky theme is no gimmick; this is the liquid that gives life to this part of northern Scotland. And from the chimneys and pagodas that dominate the Speyside skyline to the smell of the malt that perfumes the air, this is truly one of Britain’s great outdoor arenas for running and racing. At The Dramathon, that racing can be whatever you want it to be: for the fastest, a time of sub-three hours is within grasp, with five dipping under that mark in 2018; for the more recreational runner or first-time marathoner, there is no pressure to charge around and the cut-off times are generous.
I am reminded of the Irish proverb: ‘What whiskey will not cure, there is no cure for.’ A bit like running then. Who would have thought whisky and running could find such harmony?
This article was first published in Runner’s World.