The water of life has never been so well earned, as Jenny Gillies discovered on her first endurance race
Waiting nervously outside the Glenfarclas Distillery for the start of the inaugural Dramathon, I was glad of several of my fellow competitors’ decisions to immediately don their event T-shirts.
Bright pink and emblazoned with the slogan “dinnae bottle it”, they summed up both the organisers’ and my hopes for the race – a marathon-length run through Speyside but with the spirit of fun and the spirit of, well, strong spirits!
Passing through the heart of Speyside our run would be fuelled by aid stops and the aroma of whisky distilling, with eight distilleries en route before finishing at Glenfiddich in Dufftown.
I have to admit to not joining the few bravely sipping their first drams at the start line, preferring the sound of a piper across the gathered runners to give a sense of occasion.
A quick pep talk from the organisers and we were off, watched by the residents of the distillery houses as we climbed up onto the moor, the road gradually giving way to grassy moorland track. Reaching the high point of the climb the view opened up ahead – the southward sweep of Speyside towards the Cairngorms drawing me onwards and downwards.
With the early descent I was quickly at the first well-manned checkpoint, volunteers ready to “dib” us in and out to stop our timing chips and ensure we could take our time to carefully cross the busy A95. Each of the three road crossings worked in this way and made for a safe road crossing and, I’ll be honest, the excuse for a quick breather.
The fast descent continued and, cheered on by Macpherson-Grants, we were treated to the grand backdrop of Ballindalloch Castle, its stone turrets and baronial battlements highlighted in the autumnal sunshine.
Enjoying the running and keeping up a good speed I checked my watch to make sure my novice distance-level running experience wasn’t letting me run too fast. After a summer of preparation I was determined to run a race that didn’t end in hitting the dreaded wall later on – when you’ve not left enough in the tank for the end of the race and it all goes a little bit wrong!
After a welcome cheer from a marshal who recognised me it was a lovely short run across the grass to reach Ballindalloch Distillery and the first fuel stop. My strategy was to stop at every aid station and drink to make sure I paced myself. It was also a chance to take in the atmosphere as this doubled up as a changeover for those teams running the marathon as a relay team of four.
Refreshed, the next target was Cragganmore and the organisers showed their sense of humour as the course detoured up a surprisingly steep hill to pass through the middle of the distillery. The subtle aroma from the fermentation going on inside the buildings smelt amazing and led me to wonder, as I then passed the bonded warehouses, whether consuming the angels’ share was a good or bad thing when undertaking strenuous exercise.
The route joined the old railway line, crossing the river on the iron bridge solidly built to take the weight of laden locomotives rather than runners. I’d been concerned about this section being dull but miles flew by, with supportive fellow runners and the golden hues of turning trees keeping the mind as well as body occupied.
Blacksboat station, and the next food stop, came quickly. More water, a quick rest and a boost from my own personal support and then onwards and northwards.
This section can be very boggy but my trail shoes gave good grip, even while sidestepping courteous and supportive walkers, also out enjoying the fine morning.
The store sheds of Tamdhu appeared ahead, followed shortly by a crowd at the old station. Another relay changeover point, and the start for the half marathon, those waiting cheered the passing runners past enthusiastically and it was with re-energised legs that I started the climb up towards Cardhu.
Circling the distillery, there was time to enjoy yet another stunning view before starting the descent back towards the Speyside Way.
The modern buildings of the Dalmunach Distillery, only opened in 2015, welcomed us to Carron and, after a couple of tight turns and a great bit of singletrack path, another welcome food stop came into sight, picturesquely sited on the side of the road bridge, crossing high above the Spey.
Joining a section of path I had done many times on training runs, it was time to keep a steady pace as the old track bed made its way purposefully towards Aberlour.
Running in the pleasant company of another competitor who enjoyed as much chatter as myself, somebody watching the race commented that it was like hearing a coffee shop catch-up approaching at a steady marathon pace.
More crowds welcomed us into Aberlour, and it was then onward to the straightforward section to Craigellachie. Through the dark tunnel midway between the two villages, local knowledge allowed me to trust the unseen surface under my feet and I gave myself a mental boost by briefly sprinting for the light ahead.
Through Craigellachie the imperceptible climb started up the final leg towards Dufftown but, knowing I was well into the home stretch, it was easy to settle into a steady rhythm.
The last kilometre was definitely harder than it had been on any of my training runs but the final 100m through the Glenfiddich Distillery was euphoric; I finished feeling strong and happily accepted the best medal and goodie bag I’ve ever received.
The finisher’s medal made from a stake from a whisky barrel is on display in our kitchen and the selection of whisky miniatures has aided a swift recovery.
As my first endurance race I couldn’t have been treated to a better experience. Well organised, enthusiastic marshals and the runners I encountered were, like me, all out to enjoy the experience of the run as well as post a good time. Back next year? Definitely. I only hope I get a place!
* For more details on the Dramathon, see www.thedramathon.com