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ACTIVE OUTDOORS: Community rallies as Highland Cross returns with a soaking


By John Davidson

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John Davidson at the top of the waterfall section. Highland Cross 2022. Picture: Robin McConnell
John Davidson at the top of the waterfall section. Highland Cross 2022. Picture: Robin McConnell

The community of the Highland Cross was back out in force on Saturday as the event returned for the first time since 2019. So many people come together and work hard to make the usually annual duathlon take place, and even those living along the route come out in their numbers in support of the participants too.

There has always been something a bit special about the Cross, and this year it really showed. The buzz from the start of the day to the end was consuming.

After two years in which the event didn’t take place, Beauly was once again subsumed for the finish area and the thronging crowds enjoying ice cream or fish and chips.

Everyone is well aware that the charities which the Cross regularly supports have had to survive without the injection of funds that the teams raise each year, so there was a real impetus to get things moving again.

With one or two heavy downpours as the runners prepared to set off from Kintail, it was clear that the challenge was not going to be a breeze today – despite the gusty conditions suggesting a strong tailwind all the way to Beauly.

On the way past the waterfall section.
On the way past the waterfall section.

As organiser Calum Munro said to me before the start, we weren’t going to be kicking up any dust today! In fact, there was no avoiding the deep puddles from the off, with the best bet most often being to take route one straight through them.

I ran the Gleann Lichd section to the base of the climb with my teammate Ben, who I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. With some banter and catching up to do, we raced along at a good pace, and it seemed like no time until we were crossing the two bridges that lead to a narrower section that feels as though it will go ever upwards.

His youthful energy carried him up the hill faster than I could manage, so I settled into my own pace, with The Stone Roses’ Waterfall on repeat in my brain as we neared such a feature on the course.

The volunteers out on the route must have been getting a good soaking, but their enthusiasm didn’t wane as they cheered everyone on and handed out drinks and snacks along the way.

There were lots of first-timers that I knew tackling the Cross this year, and it felt somehow like I had graduated into that role of the experienced one. This was my seventh Cross, but I still remember just how brutal that first one was; the effect that the rough terrain and huge ascent has on the muscles, and just trying to keep moving once you reach the ‘yellow brick road’ above Loch Affric.

I’d hardly run since my three marathons in the Loch Ness 360 Challenge a month ago, so I was hoping the fitness and endurance from that was banked. Still, it was a relief to reach the top of the climb above the waterfall and focus on the undulating singletrack terrain between there and the bothy at Camban, where the Scouts were in situ, as usual.

Looking back to the Five Sisters of Kintail ridge from above the waterfall section.
Looking back to the Five Sisters of Kintail ridge from above the waterfall section.

As I started the descent into Glen Affric, it was bathed in sunshine – quite the contrast to the gloom it looked like I was leaving behind. The river crossing was surprisingly straightforward given the amount of water on the hills, and I was soon past the youth hostel at Alltbeithe and on the brief flat section on a very rough and waterlogged track.

Before you know it, you’re climbing again, with Athnamulloch the next target. Past Strawberry Cottage, over the bridge and through the excellent food stop – one for the walkers more than the runners, I think!

I kept going, my intention being to use that experience to just keep running on the yellow brick road – it can be a long slog if you have to walk large sections of it.

Once I hit the tarmac, I allowed myself a walk up the hill to the car park entrance before jogging the last three-quarters of a mile or so into transition. I was pretty hammered after a tough run, so my changeover wasn’t as slick as I’d imagined it would be, but it wasn’t long before I was on the bike and heading along the beautiful single-track road through Glen Affric.

This part of the course is closed to traffic, so it’s a quiet section other than fellow competitors. But from the bottom of the Affric road the cheers came loud and proud. It felt like everybody was delighted to see the Cross back on and being part of that community spirit that encapsulates the event.

One of the shallower puddles to negotiate!
One of the shallower puddles to negotiate!

That continued through Cannich and Strathglass, which was really helpful as I was finding it tough going. The promised tailwind didn’t seem to be living up to our high expectations!

For the first time I can remember, I was overtaken by somebody on Aigas hill. I was all geared up to go for it, but as soon as we hit the slope and I pushed down on the pedal, my left calf muscle cramped up. Somehow I managed to keep enough momentum to stay on the bike and make it to the top, but it wasn’t a fast climb!

Just a few miles from the end now, I knew I could let it go, so I went for it past Kilmorack and down to the junction, where the sharp left turn takes you for a further mile to the finish at Beauly Square.

It’s wonderful that the Cross is back but, like a few others I suspect, I was also glad that this one was over. That was a tough crossing, but I’ll be back for next year. The community of the Cross lives on, along with some epic memories from days like this one.

John after completing his seventh Highland Cross.
John after completing his seventh Highland Cross.

Route details

Highland Cross

Distance 50 miles / 80km

Terrain Mountain paths and tracks, road cycle

Start/finish Morvich, Kintail/Beauly

Map OS Landranger 33, 25 & 26

A welcome return of the popular event that raises money for Highland charities

John with teammate Ben before the start.
John with teammate Ben before the start.
Heading into a sun-bathed Glen Affric.
Heading into a sun-bathed Glen Affric.
Calum Munro ready to get things started at Kintail.
Calum Munro ready to get things started at Kintail.
Runners make their way along Gleann Lichd.
Runners make their way along Gleann Lichd.
A stream of runners approaches the base of the climb.
A stream of runners approaches the base of the climb.
Over and out in Beauly!
Over and out in Beauly!

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