Going over my ankle early December forces me to find an alternative challenge from running the West Highland Way. I doubted it would recover soon enough and allow me to do ultra distance. After three weeks my ankle feels a bit better, it's still uncomfortable at extremes of mobility but if I strap it up I may be able to do an ultra before the end of the year.
With New Year booked in Inverness, I turn my attention to the Moray Coast Trail between Cullen and Forres. I begin to organise the logistics, Lynne and Skye can pick me up from Forres on the way to Inverness for our break. I have to be fair though and want us all checked into the hotel early afternoon. This means I cannot run the route during daylight, an overnight run will make it a bit different and more of a challenge. I consider running from my house which would add around 32 miles to the MCT 50 but I'm not fit enough for 82 miles.
I'll take on the run overnight 29th / 30th December as my birthday is on the 31st. The last bus passes through Fyvie at 2120 and arrives at Cullen 2230 hours. I will give myself a generous 12 hours to complete the route, Lynne and Skye will pick me up 1030 at Forres. I'll do this unsupported, in the event of an emergency it's an early morning phone call to Lynne.
I regularly check the weather forecast as the 29th approaches. It's very mild and a bit windy, I was hoping for a clear starlit night but this is not going to happen. I nervously pack kit on the 29th, questioning the decision to take this on unsupported through the night with a dodgy ankle. My mind is made up though, I need to do something that scares me before I'm 50.
I get my North Face back pack ready, with only two 500 ml bottles hydration is going to be a problem, one contains water, the other contains Nunn tablets. On the pack I have a foil blanket, bandage, ankle support, pain killers, toilet roll, whistle and £20 note. I want to pack a ski jacket in case of emergency but there's no room for it. Instead I pack two lightweight running jackets and a woolly hat figuring plenty of layers would suffice. Food is two packets of crisps, a pot of rice, galaxy bar and chocolate fudge.
I will take my Tikka head torch and Phoenix hand torch with spare batteries for both. I will also take a portable charger for my iphone so I can be sure enough power is in my phone at the end of the run.
My attire is Hoka Speedgoats, running leggings, long shorts, a teeshirt, long sleeve running top, high viz gilet, gloves and buff. I will take my mp3/radio player which is mounted on an arm band, I have a running playlist on my iphone.
I intend to sleep during the day before I set off but this does not happen. I also have second thoughts, it would be nice and warm to stay at home so all of us can travel to Inverness together but I'm committed, there's no turning back.
Lynne drives me to Fyvie, I'm apprehensive as we wait for the last bus. It arrives early, I have £8 in my pocket for the fare, the driver asks £12.75. Blast, I didn't expect it to be so much. I have to fumble in my back pack for the £20 note which will now be broken into change for my pocket.
I take a seat near the front, there's a draught that chills my feet but I stay put and stare out the window. Christmas lights penetrate the darkness as I concentrate on the challenge ahead. Shoppers and revellers access and egress the bus as it makes it's way through towns and villages. I get strange looks now and again, wearing full running kit at such an odd hour. There's no one else on the bus when I ask the driver to drop me off at the square in Cullin.
The bus pulls away and leaves me standing alone, the place is deserted. I stand for a few minutes, the wind blows an empty plastic bottle down the street.
Cullin to Buckie.
I leave on the viaduct overlooking Seatown. The night is overcast so no stars to show the way. It's clear though, orange glow of town street lights can be seen for miles up the coast. There's a stiff headwind which won't change direction for the duration of the run. Portnockie is mostly deserted, the loose change jingles in my pocket which irritates me as I run. I don't want dogs barking and causing a commotion as I move through. I'm now on the exposed cliff top path where the wind forces me to lean and walk. I need the wind strength to ease as the effort to move forward is tiring me out already. The cliffs are high above the Moray Firth, there's nothing to see, it's pitch black but I can hear the surf below. Two pairs of eyes are reflected back to the head torch. Are they foxes? I can't tell but they stand their ground and watch warily as I run by. The path drops into Findochty, the MCT is way marked but signs can be sporadic. I know where the trail goes, through the campsite which we have used previously. Tonight the site is closed, vans sit empty and ghostly out of season. The trail is on the coast at the foot of cliffs, I cross a cove with crashing waves below, a small footbridge keeps me safe. I'm concerned, the tide is in which will make some of the beach crossings ahead out of bounds. Up to the top once more, I skirt the golf course expecting to drop into Strathlene on the edge of Buckie but no, the trail heads towards the sea on a precarious narrow track. No running here as the trail lowers to the rocky shoreline, the crashing waves nearby are alarming. At last there's lights ahead and civilisation, I can leave the uneasy feeling behind for the time being but know there will be more ahead.
Buckie to Spey Bay.
I'm familiar with this part of the MCT as it's shared with the Speyside Way to Spey Bay. A couple of taxis pass as I run through the streets. A smoker stares as I run past, I resist the urge to go into the bar for a pint. I leave the lights of Portgordon behind and run steadily on the long disused railway towards the woods. I was sheltered from the wind by buildings but now it makes it's presence felt. I reach the woods where there's some respite, physical respite but not mental. The wind shakes and sways the trees as I run through, branches screech and rustle high above which allows my imagination to escape and wreak havoc. Hair on the back of my neck stands on end as I follow the torch light, there's something ahead, a huge bird with a large beak is going to cross the trail. I get closer before realising a tree stump won't be able to cross the trail, it's too early for hallucinations. I'm happy to see the lights of Spey Bay and exit the woods, I get hold of my imagination and lock it away.
Spey Bay to Lossiemouth.
In all my years running the Speyside Ultra, I never realised there was a nearby railway viaduct that crosses the Spey. In fact, when I first looked into this run I thought I would have to run inland to Fochabers to reach a bridge then make my way back to the coast. I am concerned, during darkness I might miss the turn off to the viaduct but it is easy enough to find. The path is in good condition which leads to the viaduct, heavy steel work ahead is picked up by my torch. The structure has now been demoted to carry pedestrians rather than heavy locomotives in days gone by. I move onto the concrete path in the centre of the bridge, there seems to be slats either side of the path, I don't shine my torch through to the river below. The river Spey is possibly the fastest flowing river in the UK, at one section loud rapids can be heard, the river is in a hurry to reach the Moray Firth. Once across I have Garmouth and Kingston all to myself, following the trail through lanes, snaking between sleeping houses. There's a rifle range after Kingston, the trail is closed during exercises. A daytime number is supplied to check if it's in use but I haven't checked, surely it's not in use at night, or is it? Red flags fly when the range is in use and now I'm worried a night exercise may be held and my run will be all over. I reach a nature reserve car park and wide track that leads back towards the coast. Tank blocks are here, interspersed with pillboxes, their empty black eyes watch me running past. The track is full of pebbles, running is precarious with my weak ankle. On some stretches it is impossible to run which forces me to walk and make sure I don't twist the ankle. I consider crossing ridges of pebbles to reach the beach but I'm convinced the tide is in, I can hear the crash and hiss of waves. I decide to stick with the pebble path and creepy pillboxes even though my progress is slow. I reach the rifle range warning sign and turn my torch to the flagpole. The wire slaps against the post, the wind ringing it like a bell in the darkness but there's no flag. Before continuing I shine the torch up the pole a second time, just to make sure, then go. Imagination breaks loose once more, a mixture of crashing waves, staring pillboxes and the possibility of someone forgetting to raise the flag keeps my senses alert. The track continues to follow tank blocks and boxes for miles, sometimes there's a sand trail at the side allowing a short jog but I mostly walk. I arrive at a junction in the trail, an alternative route to Lossiemouth through the woods. I stand for a few minutes then decide to run through the trees. I leave the coast but the trail is full of large pebbles and not marked at junctions. After a quarter of a mile I turn back for the coast, I don't fancy being lost in the forest and losing time. Lights can be seen in the distance but as I continue they don't seem to get closer. Lossiemouth is the new Kinlochleven, taunting and illusive as I run towards the town. The trail exits onto the beach, still a fair bit to go to the street lights. Waves crash and roll to the right, a desperate attempt to reach inland. Streetlights of Lossie come into focus, bright and decorated for Christmas. Then a thought crosses my mind, oh no! The river Lossie may flow between the beach and street ahead and if it does I don't know where the bridge is. The street is only a few hundred yards away and it looks like I'm okay, I crest the sand bank then look at reflections, street lights bounce off the river ahead and I come to a halt. I switch on my powerful hand torch and scan the river ahead, there's a wooden structure to the right. I hope it's a bridge, but no, it's a wooden barrier that stretches into the surf, I'll have to run inland to a crossing. I follow the river expecting to travel for miles but not long after the beam picks up another wooden structure, this time a foot bridge. Relieved, I walk across the creaky structure, the dark river flows silently below. It's four o'clock in the morning as I sit on a bench overlooking the bay and send a text to Lynne. The wind blows as I eat then drink the last of my water, hydration will now be an issue.
Lossiemouth to Findhorn.
If I come across someone, I'll ask for water. I run to the marina, once again the MCT signs are non existent. I can't find where to join the coast trail then decide to leave Lossiemouth by the road. There are various paths that lead to the coast but I'm so sore and exhausted by the last coast section I'm perfectly happy to run on tarmac. The whole town is deserted which means no water for me, I'll have to wait till Hopeman. Red beacons scatter the countryside ahead, it's not till I get closer I realise what they are. Landing lights for RAF Lossiemouth, a place I am familiar with from my youth in the ATC. It's all quiet, no Typhoons will be flying at this hour. I reminisce on times gone by when the base was home to Buccaneers and Shackletons. The road to Hopeman passes Silver Sands Caravan Park which is silent, no thirst quenching water here. Covesea lighthouse is to the right, RAF Lossiemouth to the left and red light towers in front which is where I head. Traffic begins to travel on the road forcing me to periodically get on the verge. A sign post guides me away from the road back to the coast and cliff top paths. Once again the trail twists and turns above the surf before reaching a fence and "danger, keep out" signs. It's a quarry and I've no desire to go anywhere near the face, I stick diligently to the trail which takes me into Hopeman. It's too early for shops to be open, I hope to bump into someone getting ready to leave for work, I'll request water. No sign of life here either, I end up on a tarred ex railway line to Burghead. It's only a few miles, there's a huge factory lit up in the distance, Burghead Maltings and the start of the whiskey trail. The lack of signs finds me at the caravan site and a slipway down to the beach, I can see two red towers far in the distance around the curve of the bay and presume this is Findhorn. My torch picks out the surf, the waves are far enough out to allow me to run on the beach, I hope the tide is on it's way out as to the left of me erosion has left a formidable vertical wall of sand held together by the forest on top, there's no way I would be able to scale this. The wind has picked up and once again I have to lean and walk to make progress. It's now 0815 and I still need my torch, dawn is taking an age to reach here. My torch illuminates a whelk, I stop to pack away my torches and the shell. I'm getting closer to the red light towers and realise I have been mistaken, the bay continues on. The eroded wall is around 10 feet tall here, so I climb the next path through to get an idea of the lie of the land. The sun is just rising now, there's a path at the top which follows the bay, I'm guessing this would have to be used if the tide was in which would add time and distance to the MCT. I descend to the beach once more and eventually make my way to wooden steps. These lead to the public car park and Findhorn.
Findhorn to Forres.
I have a raging thirst now, a shop is open in the village. I purchase and down a bottle of water and a bottle of coke which sets me up for the last leg of my journey. There is a footpath come cycle way which is signposted 5 miles to Forres. Buses are running and commuters are on the road, I'm back in civilisation again. I'm beginning to tire and run walk, saying good morning to runners and cyclists. I pass RAF Kinloss with it's redundant Nimrod parked at the fence. The wind has dropped, for the first time during the run I can listen to music. Appropriately Brian Eno - An Ending plays through the ear phones. My muscles and joints are sore but it feels good to be covering this distance the day before my 50th birthday. I've made it to Forres, my watch shows 46 miles as I cross the pedestrian bridge over the A96. I have deviated from the trail a few times which may account for the 4 mile short fall, but with the head wind experienced I claim 50 miles. Content, I lie down on the grass verge and wait for my lift.
Week ending 18th Dec - Thurs 3, Sat 2, Sun 2. Weekly total 7 miles.
Week ending 25th Dec - Thurs 2, Fri 2, Sat 2. Weekly total 6 miles.
Week ending 01st Jan - Mon 2, Tues 2, Wed 2, Thurs 2, Thurs/Fri 46. Weekly total 54 miles,