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ACTIVE OUTDOORS: Three in a row on Loch Ness 360 marathons challenge


By John Davidson


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The first Loch Ness 360 Challenge took place during the weekend of May 20-22 – John Davidson took on the ‘three marathons in three days’ event

Graeme Ambrose - who initiated the event before his retirement with Visit Inverness Loch Ness - took part in the third marathon and finished second. Picture: Craig Dutton
Graeme Ambrose - who initiated the event before his retirement with Visit Inverness Loch Ness - took part in the third marathon and finished second. Picture: Craig Dutton

Highs and lows are an inevitable part of a long challenge like this. We’ve always referred to them as ‘peaks and troughs’ – and despite the hard physical effort involved, most of these ups and downs are in the head.

Running three marathons in three days was always going to be tough. Would my body hold out? Would I be able to complete each one inside the cut-off times? How do you get up and do a marathon the day after doing a marathon?

And these are no easy marathons. With plenty of climbs and uneven ground on the off-road course, each one is a massive undertaking.

Just after halfway through the second marathon, there is a steep and relentless climb out of Invermoriston. It was just going on and on and is so steep you are almost falling onto your hands at times, as the path zigzags up to the high-level Great Glen Way.

The view up here, though, is glorious and it was a delight to finally get running again, despite the exposure to a chilly headwind on the exposed moor.

On the high-level Great Glen Way route south of Invermoriston. Picture: John Davidson
On the high-level Great Glen Way route south of Invermoriston. Picture: John Davidson

For me, there has been a big build up to the Loch Ness 360 Challenge, which was originally planned to take place in 2020. Every run I do on the trails near home in Inverness, I have found myself looking at the route and wondering how I’ll feel at this stage or that.

So it was a surreal feeling to actually be running that first marathon, which passes so close to my house on my home trails.

It took a concerted effort to slow the pace down and walk up some of the hills, knowing I would need my legs to keep working for a few days yet!

I was pleased to still be able to run at one of my favourite spots on this first route, as you descend through Abriachan on forest tracks and pass the farm at Corryfoyness before the excellent downhill section through the woods to meet the road outside Drumnadrochit.

There was great support from all the Visit Inverness Loch Ness staff, who organised the event, as well as from the volunteers and even the official photographer, who darted about all weekend in his Land Rover to find the best locations.

After that first marathon, a group of us runners hung about at the Loch Ness Hub in Drumnadrochit, where there was a sociable atmosphere as we got to know each other and shared our experiences of the first day. Todd had come over from California, Craig – originally from Portishead but living in New York, Cassidy from Berlin and Goran from Sweden, who never stopped smiling the whole weekend.

Runners from around the world - including Craig who lives in New York, Todd from California, Gavin from England and Goran from Sweden - took part in the Loch Ness 360 Challenge. Picture: John Davidson
Runners from around the world - including Craig who lives in New York, Todd from California, Gavin from England and Goran from Sweden - took part in the Loch Ness 360 Challenge. Picture: John Davidson

The recovery from this first run was the important thing, knowing we had to repeat the 26 miles the next day, then again the day after that.

I was pleasantly surprised how well my legs felt the next morning, as I walked back to the start. I was tired, but I wasn’t hobbling and had no niggles to speak of.

Taking that first step was the big thing, and once we got going, I felt quite good – despite a missing marker meaning we all got off course for a while early in the day. After cutting across a couple of fields, we soon relocated the official course and continued on the Great Glen Way, and I found myself in third position for much of the first half of the second marathon!

This was a new experience for me, and I was enjoying the beautiful route through the woods beyond Grotaig, with the view to Loch Ness through the trees. We followed the low-level route from the split, mostly on forest tracks with a long descent, but there is a sting in the tail as you climb high up before Invermoriston only to descend steeply to the village, where there was an aid station for runners.

Then came that ominous climb up to the high-level route, and the subsequent headwind as bemused walkers on the Great Glen Way watched us struggle onwards.

Just before Fort Augustus, this second marathon deviated from the long-distance route and instead followed a forest track higher to meet an old military road above the village – adding some distance to the more direct approach as well as another 220 metres of ascent.

The zigzag descent into Fort Augustus at the end of marathon number two. Picture: Craig Dutton
The zigzag descent into Fort Augustus at the end of marathon number two. Picture: Craig Dutton

I didn’t have quite so many ‘troughs’ as I expected on this route, though I was talking out loud to myself on this last climb of the day to motivate myself to keep moving.

I found it hard to sleep that night with the adrenaline of that final marathon to come pumping through me.

It certainly helped that we avoided the first couple of miles of the Glen Doe climb, as the start line for the third run was partway up the hill out of Fort Augustus. There was still plenty of climbing to tackle up to the Suidhe, though, so some early morning walking helped stretch the legs out.

Once on the move, I felt ok again, and Matthew – who I’d run with for a spell the day before – joined me for a while, which helped take the mind off the miles ahead. Chatting away, we were keeping up a decent pace – perhaps a little too fast at times – considering the number of miles in our legs.

We eased off a bit and Matthew went ahead around Foyers. I decided to hold back and just go at my own pace the rest of the way. I’d run this route not that long ago, and knew there was still a long way to go to reach Dores and complete the loop of Loch Ness.

I was on my own over the hill to Inverfarigaig, then met a few cyclists as they overtook me on the Corkscrew road. The bike race had begun at 5am that day, while an ultrarun – doing all 80 miles in one go – got under way at 10pm the previous night. Each group of participants seemed to think the others were the crazy ones.

John (right) with Matthew Herbert during the third marathon. Picture: Craig Dutton
John (right) with Matthew Herbert during the third marathon. Picture: Craig Dutton

I surprised myself by being able to jog some of the long uphill through the farm and out to the turnoff for the Fair Haired Lad’s Pass. I knew at this point I could finish this final marathon in a decent time, if only I could keep going along the forest tracks to the end.

A bit of walking and a little bit of jogging got me to the top of the pass, while it was hard on the legs going down that lush trail through the woods.

What a shame to see David, who had won the previous two marathons and was leading this one, hobbling down the forest track below with an injured leg. I walked with him for a couple of minutes, and he seemed philosophical about the situation, but it must have been devastating after putting in all that effort and getting within five or six miles of finishing.

It just goes to show what a challenge this is. I jogged on, slowly, following the ups and downs of those long forest tracks, battling the demons telling me to walk. I wanted to run over that finish line and what a feeling when I first caught sight of it through the trees. Finally, I reached the short path after the beach and saw my family cheering my on.

Looking back down the loch from Dores beach, you could see the scale of the achievement. Loch Ness stretched for miles into the distance – and we’d run all the way around there.

It was lovely to catch up with most of the other runners at the finish of this fantastic event, which had a real camaraderie between all the participants and was truly an all-round challenge.

John holds his four medals - one for each marathon and one for completing all three - at the even hub in Dores.
John holds his four medals - one for each marathon and one for completing all three - at the even hub in Dores.

Route details

Loch Ness 360 Marathons Challenge

Distance 80 miles / 129km

Ascent 3000m / 9840ft

Terrain An off-road circuit largely following the South Loch Ness Trail and Great Glen Way

Start/finish A loop of Loch Ness starting and finishing at Dores

Map OS Landranger 26 & 34; Loch Ness 360 map; Harvey South Loch Ness Trail and Great Glen Way maps.

The first Loch Ness 360 Challenge took place during the weekend of May 20-22 – John Davidson took on the ‘three marathons in three days’ event

A welcome descent early in the third and final marathon. Picture: John Davidson
A welcome descent early in the third and final marathon. Picture: John Davidson

John (right) with fellow runners Gavin, Todd and Craig.
John (right) with fellow runners Gavin, Todd and Craig.

Signs on the route aimed to keep runners and bikers entertained. Picture: John Davidson
Signs on the route aimed to keep runners and bikers entertained. Picture: John Davidson

John approaching Blackfold in the first run. Picture: Craig Dutton
John approaching Blackfold in the first run. Picture: Craig Dutton


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