A 40th birthday should be as memorable as it is momentous. But when your neighbour proposes an epic feat of mental fortitude and muscular endurance to commemorate the occasion, you blame your wife for unwittingly nominating you both as voluntary participants. The challenge of choice was to be a 60 mile ultra marathon...far beyond any distance any of us had ran before. Graeme (the birthday boy) also managed to sweet talk his older brother Colin, and then there was FOUR! From the seedling of an idea in November, came several months of planning and training in preparation for our epic Speybay to Aviemore, 60-mile A to B journey!
On the morning of July 11th, in the wee hours around first light, we were up and on our way to Speybay to set off on foot! We parked up with one lone vehicle for company, and felt some pre-run Runrig was in order to set the mood before heading inland towards the hills. As the sun began to glow just over the horizon, that was our cue to start our run and head along the trail 5 miles to our first point of civilisation. It's a magical time of day, as the sun rises illuminating the surrounding lands, with wild deer grazing, and birds chirping back to life. 5 miles down, 55 to go.
From Fochabers, began a series of steep inclines and declines as we covered over 10 miles up and down Ben Aigan reaching an elevation of 471m. It was during this time that both myself and Colin began feeling some nagging aches that had bothered us during training. For Colin, it was his calf, and for me it was my knee. My internal chatter felt that this would not bode well with only a quarter of the run complete. As the pain intensified, our pace slowed. I quietened myself as my inner dialogue grew louder and louder. Our original plan was to meet our Support Crew (my parents and kids) with their Camper Van at around 23 miles. It was all I could do to make it there in one piece! However as we got closer, we realised that we were ahead of schedule, meaning our Support Crew had not got into position. We planned instead to meet by the Bridge of Carron just 2 miles further ahead. Well guess what...no sign of the Support Crew in Carron either (granted it was harder to get to) and no phone service! We didn't want to slow our progress so decided to forge ahead until we got into mobile phone range to make new plans. It took us a few miles more before our phones picked up even a sliver of service. It was then the 'dings' started to happen as notifications poured in with missed calls and texts. A quick call and we were back on track. Plans were to rendezvous at Ballindalloch, at around the 30 mile mark. Now, in all honesty, I try to avoid using any over-the-counter meds and prefer using a more natural proactive approach for a number of reasons. On this occasion, I was willing to make that internal sacrifice, for a little pain relief! Colin had offered painkillers prior which I reluctantly, yet graciously turned down, but this time I worshipped at his feet!! Within minutes the pain began to dissipate and the run began to ease off and seem plausible once again.
30 miles, we made it! And the sight of familiar faces, the Camper Van, and replenishments, was like walking through the golden gates. We'd been through a lot! We'd covered more miles than anticipated, and was running low on water, snacks, and energy. This timely break allowed us the chance to freshen up, change clothes, repack the backpacks, and load up on food. PB & J Sandwiches, Chia Seed Pudding, Power Bites, Gummies, Fruit, Nuts and Pretzels were just the ticket and provided a much needed energy boost for the second half of our adventure.
The next several miles proved to be the most gruelling and challenging. As we crossed the A95, we began once again heading uphill. Although we may not have reached the same heights as Ben Aigan, the trails seemed more difficult to traverse. We passed through countless gates as we climbed up, down, through, and around fields of cows and sheep. We went from soft, wet and muddy pathways to rows of stepping stones. We navigated narrow trails fraught with danger, heavily lined with nettles and barbed wire. The views were stunning from high above, but I was aware they went under appreciated given the pains I had been going through. As they say, what goes up must come down, and so eventually we did. Not far beyond the memorable 40 mile mark where we took a special birthday snap, we again crossed the A95 and was back on the flat former railway line. It was here where we did something that we'll consider quite epic and memorable! As we passed a park of cows we could see one on its side in distress. A group of cows surrounded their friend trying to aid its rescue. They looked at us in despair. The poor cow was suffering, but even with the four of us, it would have proved too heavy for us to lift. So first we knocked on the nearest farm....no answer! Then we called and reported it to the SSPCA** (Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) before notifying a neighbour at a house further up the trail. It was all we could do, but it left us feeling like we had at least did something! On we went past Cromdale, Grantown-On-Spey, towards Nethy Bridge. Our conversation grew quieter, pace slowed, and gaps started to appear. No, we had not grew tired of eachother (yet!), but we were well into the run and were all feeling it in different ways. Some more than others. Colin was waning physically and mentally, Graeme was depleted, running low on energy, I was feeling achy and subdued, yet Calea seemed in her element and the most spritely of us all!
We reached Nethy Bridge soaked after a heavy downpour for the second time. We'd been lucky so far to have had excellent conditions for most of the day. Nethy Bridge was 50 miles in, and at one point we optimistically felt we would miss this stop and continue to the finish! We were SO glad to have nixed that idea and to again be welcomed by the 'Crew' that included my parents Bruce and Veronica, our dog and kids, joined now by Graeme's wife Laura!! I'm not sure if it was because of the energy we had expended, but the slices of melon we were greeted with was the BEST melon I have ever tasted. I've never been what I consider I big fan of melon, but on this occasion, it hit the spot over and over again. We'd gotten this far without caffeine, but we'd earned it...a large strong coffee and warm pancakes gave us some pep in the step. While us lads sat outside in deckchairs sent from heaven, Calea had a strange rib-popping experience inside the Camper Van. As she bent over to remove her socks, something popped and protruded from her rib cage prompting my mum to shout "Bruce...help?". Calea herself couldn't explain what happened since it popped back in as quickly as it came out! No harm, no foul, and so the show must go on!!
With another 30mins of respite under our belts it was time to tackle the final 10 miles. It's a weird feeling in that having came so far, the idea of completing 10 miles more was no big deal, especially after the break. Coming into Nethy Bridge, Colin proclaimed he was happy with his 50 but could do no more. The towel was mentally thrown, and the white flag was pointed skyward. Graeme and Calea both appealed to his hasty exit by suggesting he wait till after the pit stop before making a final decision having come this far. Low and behold, the power of melon, coffee, and pancakes lit a fire under him and again we were a foursome heading for the finish line! We were to finish what we started in what felt like an eternity a go.
We hobbled off for the final time as our aches and pains began to really set in from stopping. We were not a pretty sight, but it wasn't long before the blood and adrenaline started flowing again and our movements began to look somewhat fluid. The last 10 miles passed without incident, in fact were were all feeling quite perky and excited to be nearing the finish. The countdown was now into single figures. Through Boat of Garten we landed on the trail that would lead us into Aviemore. 3 miles, 2 miles, 1 mile, the anticipation was growing. The last 100m was as near a sprint finish as we could muster...and with a moving time of 14hrs and 18mins, at around 8:45pm, we completed our 'Epic' challenge that had taken months of preparation. There was no finish 'line', no rows of cheering spectators, no giant running clock, and no medals. Instead we had something special, a unique bond now shared over an experience that was physically, mentally, and emotionally outside our comfort zones. Passers by, on a pleasant evening stroll, had no inkling as to what we'd just endured during the past 16 hours, covering 60 miles, on just your average Tuesday! We did it!!
We walked along the 18th hole of the nearby golf course to meet our amazing crew, parked nearby. Happy and proud to see us, Iyla was excited to run the final 50m towards the Camper Van. I didn't have the heart to tell her we'd finished, bless her, so off we went as she led the way happy as could be!! After sharing in the accomplishment together, we all set off to our hotel to check-in and check-out (Zzzz!). Calea and I ordered a spot of room service, freshened up, then got the kids into bed. My goodness, they love a hotel room. They ran back and forth, back and forth, climbed up and off on the beds and hid behind the sliding closet doors. Taming that energy took it out of us, literally! We had planned a celebratory drink and cuddle up in front of the TV after the kiddos were tucked up. But guess what, as soon as we laid down with Maverick, both of us fell fast asleep waking at 1:30am with little to no desire for having 'that' drink. Calea rolled over into bed and I hopped into the bathroom to brush my teeth and have a quick drink of water. I filled the sink side glass with water an began chugging. Something was in it! OH NO it was Calea's contact lenses! Aaah. Before I knew it I had swallowed one, but spat out the other. As I instinctively reached for it in the sink, it sunk down the drain and was gone. My prevailing attempts to harness my limited plumbing skills bore no fruit! It had been a long day!
Graeme's 40th birthday is one we will always remember. In some strange manifestation of a mid-life crisis, we have all come away from it stronger, mentally resolute, and in awe of what the human mind and spirit can accomplish. We achieved something BIG, and we achieved it together. We started as four, and ended as four. After the following days of stiffness and blisters began to dissipate, there was mention of another feat of endurance, tackling the West Highland Way next year. This may or may not become a 'thing'! Well, lets be honest, it's gonna be a thing! Challenge accepted!!
**Side note, the SSPCA called to report their appreciation for our concern and correspondence. They located the cow who was a 16 year old female, unwell, and in distress. She had fallen and was positioned on a declining slope. The farmer had been notified, and with the help of the Fire Service, were able to get the cow back to it's feet and provide the appropriate care.