Race Review: Fort William Marathon

Kilts, killer single track and whiskey chasers mark this inaugural Scottish marathon in the highlands as one to try out

Kilts, midgie spray booths and downhill mountain bikers in full body armour. It’s not what you’d expect to see on a marathon start line, but it’s the scene that greeted me as I registered on the morning of the inaugural Fort William marathon.

With just 293 runners (the race is capped at 1000 due to restrictions on the route, so apply early for next year’s event on 31st July 2016 ) this was a small race. Yet the nationalities of runners milling around at the start beneath the Ben Nevis cable car was like a meeting of the UN; Bulgarian, American, Ukrainian, Australian, South African and of course Scottish. Not that the locals were wearing kilts, just the runners from Boston, US of A.

Registration was quick and easy in the cafe, perfect if there had been a rainy start although fortunately, the morning had dawned warm if a bit cloudy. And being at the chairlift meant that there were plenty of toilets and no need for portable toilets (although for once, there was a queue for the men’s toilets and not the women’s – hurrah!)

Other than a midgie spraying tent, there was little entertainment resulting in a subdued start to the race five minutes behind schedule. But what it lacked fanfare, the event made up for in terms of the beauty of it’s scenery.
The first six miles were stunning, along undulating fire roads, with Ben Nevis etched against the skyline, the last remaining patches of snow winking icily from the summit, while summer wildflowers nodded their heads below as I ran through the dark pine trees of Leanachan Forest.

Chatting to others as I ran, there was an American living in London who’d decided to run his first marathon in August and found a race to fit the date. ‘It means my family and I get the chance to visit Scotland too,’ he said.
Alongside him, a Bulgarian runner who’d lived in Edinburgh for the past ten years, was trialling a method of running for 8 minutes, walking for two. It seemed to work until mile 9 when I didn’t seem him again after playing tag with him for the first third of the race.

With a well sign posted route and cheerful marshals, I never had to worry I’d miss a turn while chatting. Just as well, as otherwise I may have thought I’d taken a wrong turn as we ran down a boggy, overgrown single track section.

After following a disused railway track through a flower strewn valley, the route veered towards the Commando Memorial, dedicated to men who fought in the Second World War for the British Commando Forces at mile 11, before hitting a quiet country road with a welcome downhill.

Over the Tolkien sounding Bridge of Mucomir, and past a few clapboard houses which would not have looked out of place in a Coloradan meadow, we hit the Caledonian Canal for the next seven miles.

A historic waterway which opened in 1822, allowing vessels to enter from the Atlantic Ocean in the North and exit into the North Sea at Inverness, the 60 mile canal which cuts through the Great Glen is now a major tourist attraction, where you can sail it’s length or cycle and walk along its towpath.

With the mountains reflected in its still waters, it was so quiet, it added to that marathon feeling of time slowing down as I eked out the miles. There was nothing to break the dreamy monotony except the wake of barges and boats that rippled the watery reflections, along with the occasional walker or cyclist who cheered their support.

I don’t like noisy marathons (to the point that London Marathon overwhelms me) but I couldn’t help wishing there was a bit more fanfare to keep me going along this stretch. Instead, I had to content myself with chatting to the runners I passed.

Finally, we left the canal, followed a main road before turning back into the forest back to the finish, a punishing final few miles, ascending by about 300 foot along rock strewn paths that saw many runners slow to a walk.

I’d started at the front and knew there were three women ahead of me, but had decided before I set off that I was going to run for fun rather than a place. So I was dismayed rather than happy to spy the third placed woman up ahead through the trees. Having seen her, I knew that couldn’t NOT try for third place. I also knew that it was going to hurt. I was right.

I passed her at the mile 24 mark and felt immediately stressed at the thought she now had the advantage of sticking close and sprinting past at the final hurdle.

Just a little bit of MTB single track to go
Just a little bit of MTB single track to go
As I ran under the high wires just near the Ben Nevis car park, I could hear the loud speakers hailing the finish. Expecting a left turn through the car park, I was horrified to discover the final 500 metres went up and a long a piece of single track MTB trail (thanks to the man on the corner who told me exactly how far was left of this track).

To sprint over that finish line to take third place in 3 hours 39 minutes was a relief. I didn’t care that the race ended short at 25.8miles, which may have been because the route was short or that I had just taken the inside of every bend.
A beautiful race in parts, this event is in it’s infancy and with a few tweaks to create more atmosphere at the start and finish, this can only add to what looks set to be a popular Scottish marathon which attracts running tourists from around the world.

Race footwear: Brooks Pure Cadence road shoes. It was dry and so there was no need to trail shoes. But even if it had been wet, most of the trails are rock strewn or it is tarmac road so road shoes are, in my opinion, the better choice.

Race Goody Bag: Haul It or Hoard It?

Loved the chunky medal with a runner etched against the mountains to make it look like we’d actually run up the mountain. Plus a Tunnock caramel wafer and an airline trolley-sized bottle of Ben Nevis whiskey gets my thumbs up. It also includes some jelly beans and a banana.

The only duff note? A technical race t-shirt in a man’s medium. Far too large.

Verdict: Hoard

The Good

Stunning scenery for a beautiful explore and run marathon

Seven well placed water stops, so there is no need to carry water

Friendly race where you can meet runners from all over the world

The Bad

Little atmosphere at the start or finish. A few bands, or even a Scottish bag pipe player, would have lent the event an incredibly atmospheric start

The canal slog. Both good and bad. Beautiful, meditative and flat, so great for increasing your pace. But if you’re hoping it’s all off-road trails, twists and turns, be prepared for a bit of monotony.

The Ugly

Pre-race pasta party. I usually NEVER go to these because I expect the food to be poor. This confirmed it. £20 for a plate of pasta (although it costs £12 to go up the Ben Nevis chairlift which is included in the ticket price), with the a celidh at the summit which was as flaccid and an unexciting as the pasta.

(This was a review of the inaugural race in 2015).