The Cateran trail marker post emblems contain a red heart. Whoever dreamt of creating this route through such a beautiful and diverse part of Scotland must have known they were onto something good. It's not as popular as the West Highland Way or possibly the Great Glen Way but in a way this just adds to the charm. The same can be said of the Cateran Ultra races, with a choice of 55 or 110 miles over a long weekend, this is a special festival organised and run by a dedicated and hard working team.
Gulabin Lodge was race head quarters with a field containing marquee and camping area. There was food for runners, registration pasta dishes and pizza on Friday with breakfast and main course dishes cooked by Helen and Sandra on Saturday.
My entry in the WHW Race this year meant the 110 was out, so I had to settle for the 55. I took the Friday off work to pack the camper and head to Spittal. I arrived in time to see the 110 runners depart at 1600 then helped assemble the marquee. After volunteering for kitchen duties I prepared for the race ahead and had an early night.
The alarm went off at 0530, I immediately hit the snooze button and fell asleep. I woke with a start at 0620, blast, the race kicks off at 0700. I got dressed quick and was having my breakfast when a call was shouted out for race briefing. I grabbed my toast and dropped off my drop bags and completely missed the briefing. Oh well, it was a clear cold morning, time to check on the 110 race progress. Bad news, my Cateran training buddy Alyson pulled out of the race with an injury.
Time for a walk, we all followed Karen across the road, over a style to the start at the bridge. I stayed at the back, right at the back. At 0700 we were off, the field of runners left at a very quick pace.
Unexpectedly, I was left right at the back and alone, except for a Kiwi and a Scot about one hundred yards behind. This was a new experience for me, I've never been in the vicinity of sweepers before. It was something I found disconcerting, hearing their chat behind as I settled into the race.
I could see runners ahead, I was about 1 minute behind. The group ahead entered the field and followed the Land Rover track. Some have done that in the past, not realising the route turns left and follows the fence line up a steep hill to the next style. The group were way ahead, so I turned left and followed the trail thinking I'll cheekily make it to the style before them. On reaching the style I noticed the group had carried on past the track that leads to the style. I yelled for the group to stop and turn back before continuing along the trail.
The group caught up, and passed me by. Dalnagar castle checkpoint passed, then I found myself alongside Patricia, one of the Fling photographers. Chat made the road section fly by, we turned onto the first big climb of the day. I held the gate open for some runners then was perturbed to find the sweepers Keith and Ian come through. I thought to myself "are the majority of runners this year going too fast"?
Huge styles, some of the biggest on the route were here, runners ahead didn't know the gates were unlocked and queued to go over the styles. I took great delight in opening the gates as runners found themselves balanced at the top of styles, this happened on more than one occasion.
We were on the trails running toward Loch Shandra, there was some screaming ahead as runners got their feet wet going through the boggy section. A group of us approached, I opted for the "sod it, run straight through" method and just about fell on my backside in the slippery mud.
At the loch I chatted with an American, on his holidays all the way from Minnesota if I remember correctly. Glenisla checkpoint appeared where I needed to use the facilities. After a quick bite to eat I left the checkpoint where one drop bag was left for the runner bringing up the rear.
I climbed the steep hill out of the checkpoint expecting to see runners ahead but they were gone. I put my head down and concentrated on keeping a steady pace. I caught up and passed some runners after the farms and found myself alone for most of this section to Alyth. The day turned out to be a cracker, with clear views for miles from the trail. Through Alyth, house windows were open with inhabitants playing loud music as I headed towards the checkpoint at the Den.
The sun was shining, the grass looked comfy, it took all my willpower to keep standing and ate a little of the contents of my drop bag before heading off toward Blairgowrie.
More good chat with runners on the uphill, we were making our way to the forest where we bumped into Alan, the first 110 runner I came across. I stayed alongside Alan through the forest, getting news of the events of the night before and reminiscing about the 110 race the previous year, he was having a great race and running strong.
After the forest I said farewell and told Alan I would see him at the end. As I ran ahead a thought came to mind. I ran the second half of the 110 race with Alan last year and thoroughly enjoyed the company. I wasn't having a particularly good run today, I'm going to run the rest of the race with Alan once more. We ran down the hill and into Blairgowrie checkpoint together.
Couldn't eat. Forced down my boiled egg, scoffed some coke and milk shake then rounded up Alan before thanking the Minions and leaving for Bridge of Cally.
We walked up the hill towards the fruit factory in the company of another runner (I'm sorry, I can't remember the name) then skirted the fields before making our way up to the bog section. It wasn't bog, in fact this was the driest conditions I've seen the Cateran.
Bridge of Cally checkpoint and I felt like crap. Liquids only, I couldn't face any food. We left for the long march up through the forest with the late afternoon sun bathing the trail. Alan was running well considering the distance he had covered. Runners passed, some straight through, others chatted for a while before leaving and running ahead.
I ran ahead of Alan for a while before waiting for him to catch up, when he did he was with Lois. All three of us crossed what was usually another bog section which was remarkably dry. Beautiful scenery, bright evening sun, good company, all three of us running, a thought suddenly entered my head, one that's never happened in a race before. I didn't want the race to end. I didn't care about times or crossing the finish line, this was turning out to be the perfect ultra on my favourite trail.
There was a foot bath, Wilson was manning the foot spa, a fight against some tree attacking fungus. It was not far after this when Alan came out with a suggestion. He was at it again, he wanted a finish line display like the one last year. I refused, explaining I felt like an imposter having not done 110 miles this year but Alan was adamant. Aeroplanes, arms wide we would put on a display, Alan and his ice man George.
Kirkmichael has an unmanned checkpoint where everything is finished apart from cola bottles, we each took a handful then made our way to Enochdu, the final checkpoint.
Alan and his support offered food, I opted for creamed rice, something I can usually scoff by the tin but not now. Two forkfuls and that was it, back to coke and milkshake.
It was on the long uphill towards the hills where we planned our finish line display. We would start on the finish home straight, Alan in front of me, before breaking, one to the right and one to the left, criss crossing all the way to the finish line for a man hug and shake hands,
Runners were scattered across the trail to the last climb of the day. Good company and chat with Linda helps the time pass. The finish could be seen from the top of the hill, still bathed in sun. Down the rocky trail we went before running over the hump back bridge and taking up action stations.
Alan first, then me, arms out wide before the squadron leader gave the order to break, one to the right and one to the left. We twisted and turned, meeting for the man hug and handshake before crossing the Cateran finish line once more.
I'd like to thank Karen, George, Mike, the marshals, volunteers and cooks for their hard work in holding the best ultra event in Scotland, all under difficult circumstances. As I posted on Facebook, you are all superstars.
Week ending 15th May. Mon 3, Tues 3, Wed 3, Sat 55. Weekly total 64 miles.
Week ending 22nd May. Sun 4. Weekly total 4 miles.
Mon 3, Tues 5, Sat 13, Sun 20. Weekly total 41 miles.