Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Lochailort to Arbroath (part 4)

Cloud inversion over Loch Tummel

Days 1-3 can be found here.

Day 4 can be found here.

Day 5-6 can be found here.

Day 7.

I packed up and headed on the road along Loch Tummel. There was a heavy mist. My route then left the road and followed a right-of-way up through farms and then woods to Loch Bhac. As I ascended, the mist dissipated and it was sunny.

At Loch Bhac there were a group of Challengers who had pitched nearby. I unpacked my tent and sleeping bag, and allowed them to dry in the sun while a cup of coffee was brewed.

Loch Bhac

The Challengers moved on, and I eventually repacked and headed out as well. I crossed a moorland, and then caught three Challengers, John, Jane and Susan, as we descended towards Blair Atholl in the sun.

I like how many Challengers' minds work: as we arrived in Blair Atholl, we did not check in to the campsite or our accommodation, but rather headed straight to "The Bothy" pub for pints and lunch. Eventually, I left and set up camp, showered, and resupplied at the local shop. I returned to the pub in the evening, and had dinner with Challengers there.

Day 8.

I climbed out of Blair Atholl and into the hills.

Cool tree on the roadside above Blair Atholl

I briefly entertained the thought of doing a nearby munro, but stuck to the track. I didn't encounter any Challengers headed across the high ground, and then descending along the brown glen. Here and there were the remains of old buildings, but the land was mostly empty, and again my enthusiasm began to wain.

Eventually, I neared the village of Kirkmichael. I was footsore and weary, and began to look for spots to pitch my tent. I followed a stretch of the Cateran trail, and found a perfect mossy spot to pitch my tent in the woods. It was near the trail, and I chatted with a local guy who walked by with his dog. I retired early, and the rain started at about 7 p.m. However, I was fed, dry, warm and tired. After a few pages of Grisham, sleep found me.

Perhaps my best wild camp site

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Lochailort to Arbroath (part 3)

The track from Loch Ossian to Loch Rannoch

Days 1-3 can be found here.

Day 4 can be found here.

Day 5

I woke early, and my bunk-neighbor, Mike, was already away on his route over Ben Alder. I had breakfast, and had the fire going fitfully, but was in no rush to head out into the rain. Tim, a Challenger from Wales who'd spent the night near the railway underpass, arrived at the hostel and chatted for a bit before continuing. Eventually, I packed up and headed out. I soon caught a friendly hill walker who'd stayed at the hostel the night before, and we had a good chat while heading along the track. He wanted to do a smaller hill and was going to meet friends later back at the hostel. I continued along the track with the bleak but impressive Rannoch moor to my right.

I was concerned about food. There was enough, just, for the next 24 hours. I listened to podcasts while heading towards the road by Loch Rannoch. There, I had lunch of salmon and tortilla wraps, and the sun emerged.

My route took me along the south shore of the loch, and this was dotted with farms and tidy houses.

A house near Loch Rannoch

I eventually caught up to Tim, who was resting on a bench. He'd had a long day, having started before Loch Ossian, and was beat. I accepted some of his mint cake, and immediately felt my energy returning. We walked together for a bit as the afternoon wore on, and he found an excellent pitch on the loch shore. I wanted to go a bit further and camp in the woods, and so carried on.

Though the terrain was easy, I was a footsore and tired after a long day. After 5:00, I found a flat place to pitch in the Black Wood of Rannoch, and boiled the water for my ramen noodles.

Day 6

It was a bright morning along the shores of Loch Rannoch.

It was a pleasant walk along the road, and I met a fellow Challenger as we approached Kinloch Rannoch. There, I met up again with Tim, who'd had an early start, and we had bacon butties and coffee at the coffee shop. I resupplied at the shop in the village, and then headed out with another Challenger from London, with whom I had a good chat. He headed up to hills eventually, while I turned into the track not far from the head of the loch. Tim mentioned meeting me here, but I didn't see him until later, and it emerged that he'd taken a different turn-off.

Tim and I navigated a bit as we headed towards Tummel Bridge. In the distance, we saw the abandoned, castle-like Dunalastair House. This was build in 1852 and has been empty for 65 years. Prior to this was used as a school for Polish refugees.

Dunalastair House

We walked along the aqueduct, and Tim peeled off to pitch his tent. I continued on to Tummel Bridge, all the while looking for places to camp, and hoping for a pub. There was one associated with a caravan park, but I pushed on, eventually pitching at a fishing site on the shore of Loch Tummel.

Camp on the shore of Loch Tummel

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Lochailort to Abroath (part 2)

Loch Ossian Scottish Youth Hostel

Days 1-3 can be found here.

Day 4. After the storm abated, I restaked the tent, and drifted off to sleep. The morning dawned drizzly and overcast, and it matched my mood. I just wasn't feeling it. I continued east, and wondered if I might catch any Challengers at the bothy. It was empty, however, and it did not appear that anyone had been in it the night before. So, my decision to wild camp yesterday evening, instead of pushing to the bothy, was a good one.

I made a cup of coffee, and had a slight fire to warm up. It was now raining, and I was in no hurry to push on. Eventually, I decided to walk to the next bothy, and see how I felt then.

I continued a few miles to Stanoieg bothy, and again paused here a bit to dry off and read.

The rain lightened a bit, and so I continued on the wet trail. I crossed a wooden bridge, and headed past the bottom of a gloomy looking Loch Treig.

near Loch Treig

The rain came on again as I headed south from Loch Treig towards Rannoch. I sheltered underneath a train overpass, and had a good snack. I then opened my umbrella once again, and headed up the track. To pass the time, I listened to The Memory Palace podcast, a narrative history podcast from the U.S.

As the afternoon wore on, I was faced with pitching the tent in the rain. However, I then came up the Loch Ossian youth hostel. At first, I thought it was a boat house, but then I asked a Challenger I'd seen enter it briefly what it was.

A youth hostel! An opportunity to dry out!

Inside, there was a cast iron stove with a fire. There were a pair of friendly hillwalkers, and a young German woman. The warden wasn't in, so I phoned the Scottish Youth Hostels, and was able to book a bunk.

I claimed my space, and set out my sleeping bag to air out.
My bunk

I warmed up with a cup of hot chocolate. The German woman had brought a viola, and played for us while the rain came down outside. I was warm, dry, and perfectly content. It was a nice way to finish a day with such dispiriting start.

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Lochailort to Arbroath (Part 1)

View of Loch Beoraid - there is no trail along the loch, despite what is shown on the map

This was my third T.G.O. challenge. As described previously, this is a self-supported walk from the west coast of Scotland to the east. The only real rule is you have to walk, although you can take ferries across lochs if need be.


I was at work for most of the day, and then took the train to Lochailort. On the train I met friendly fellow challengers, and we chatted about routes and, invariably, compared pack weights. We arrived in Lochailort at 11 p.m.. My colleagues were staying at the Inn, but it was full, so I'd planned to wild-camp near the river. I headed down a small road to the river, and found a spot behind a small mound of earth. It was a functional site, given that it was dark, and I was soon in my sleeping bag. A car drove by later, and the headlights illuminated the tent briefly, but, if visible, I was barely so, and it was quiet for the rest of the night. A slight breeze came up, but I was warm and comfortable.

Day 1.

I made some coffee, and then packed up. At the Lochailort Inn, I puttered around a bit until the restaurant opened, and then grabbed a cup of coffee. I signed in for the Challenge (the Inn was one of the official check-in points), and then was on my way.

I walked along the road for a bit, and then ascended to Loch Beoraid. A word of advice for future Challengers: the trail shown on the map along the loch does not exist! Luckily, it had been dry recently, and the bogs underfoot were springy. I made my way along the loch, meet a fit fellow Challenger by the name of Mike. We walked together for a bit, and then he went on to do a Munro. Smoke was visible on the hill, from a fire started by the steam train. I ascended through a steep pass, and then descended to a welcome bothy at Cornhully.

I was tired, and hadn't known about this bothy, but there was only one other person there - a friendly Cape Wrath walker by the name of Roger (or Richard) - so I unrolled my sleeping bag for the night.

Unfortunately, I think I had an out-of-date dehydrated meal for dinner (or something else?), and was quite unwell that night.

Day 2.

I packed up, and debated staying put for the day. The planned route would take me up a steep climb, into the next valley, and then up another climb. I was dehydrated, and did not have the strength or the will for this. Having chatted with Mike the day before, I was aware that I could take the ferry to Ft. William, if I could make it to the jetty opposite by 4:30 p.m. In Ft. William I could get something for my stomach and recuperate. I thus opted for a low-level route.

My route took me through Glen Finnan which, despite my physical condition, was enjoyable. I passed under the Glenfinnan viaduct.

I walked along the main road to Ft. William, and chatted with another friendly challenger from Scotland. We parted ways at the A road along the south side of the loch, and I took this another 9 miles or so to the jetty. Rain had threatened all day, and materialized as I reached the small shelter near the jetty. I settled in for a two hour wait, and cooked some ramen-type noodles. The warm, salty broth was welcome.

I messed around with my phone a bit, trying to download a book. The decision not to bring one, on weight grounds, was a mistake. After an hour, Mike, who I'd met the first day, arrived. He'd taken a more ambitious route, and was now headed for Ft. William as well.

Once across, I stopped at the pharmacy for some medicine, and at a charity shop, where I picked up a John Grisham novel for £1.50. I resupplied at Morrison's grocery store, and had a very welcome sports drink.

I settled in at the Backpackers Hostel, managed a fish supper, and chatted with the varied travellers I met there.

Day 3.

The night in the hostel had a slight twist. Each dorm room had 8-10 bunks, and a door that locked when you shut it. At around 2 a.m., I rose for a trip to the loo, but forgot that my key was in the trousers I'd left in the room. My dorm room was locked. I tapped quietly at the door, but everyone was asleep. It was my own fault.

I realised that the guy on the bunk above me was still out at the pub, and should be back soon. I gathered a blanket and pillow from the common living room, and laid down outside our dorm room. At 3 a.m., his friend arrived, but he had forgotten his key as well. A bit later, the other guy came in, a bit worse for wear, but with his key. So, I was reunited with my bunk.

From a walking perspective, this was the best day of the trip. The walk up Glen Nevis was the best I'd yet experienced in the U.K. I arrived at a Yosemite-like valley, in perfect conditions. One of the side benefits of doing the Challenge is finding places you know you will come back to, and this was one.

I pushed on above the Glen, with the vague goal of reaching a bothy and meeting other Challengers. However, as the afternoon slipped by and my fatigue grew, I opted to wild-camp.

I set up my tent, sponged off with water from a nice burn, and cooked dinner. As I did so the clouds above the hills turned as black as I'd ever seen. As the first drops of rain started, I retreated into the tent. A squall struck, and it emerged that my tent was not quite as well staked out as I'd imagined.

Sunday, 20 November 2016


My wife was away this week, so running had to be squeezed in between taxiing children to their activities, dishes, and laundry.

M: swim 1300m
T: nothing
W: 7 miles (1:03)
Th: 4.5 miles (intervals with club on a cold night)
F: nothing
Sat: 5 miles cross-country race
Sun: 8 miles in the woods


Saturday was a cross country meet, and I ran as a member of my local running club. It was 5 degrees C (41 degrees F.), and muddy. The race was comprised of three laps through the woods and some saturated farmland. By the time I ran, the last race of the day, the trail was a shoe-sucking bog in places.

On the first lap I tried to stick with another member of my club, but other runners kept getting between us. Still, I was able to catch back up to him on the hills. On the second lap, he pulled away a bit, and I just tried to hang on.

Running hill races likely helps in picking one's footing through woods, and you get used to running on uneven ground. At least this is what I told myself.

The third lap eventually arrived, and I felt like I was just hanging on during the climbs. On the descents though, I could open it up a bit. Through the finish chute, I tried to push, and no one passed me.

I felt like a lot of people passed me during the race, but hopefully running this type of race helps with my conditioning.

And, on a cold, short November day, it seems fitting.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Running a faster 5k: part 6

Today I ran my 16th 5k of the year.

It was tied for my slowest of the year.

My times in the first few months of the year were better than last year, but still over 21 minutes.

Then, in June, I broke the 21 minute barrier. Over the summer and through this fall, 6 of my 7 5K attempts were below 21 minutes. This included my new PB of 20:33 (for a parkrun).

So, consistent effort has paid dividends.

Today I ran hard, but my time was over 21 minutes again. However, I'd been ill with a stomach bug mid-week, and may still have been weakened from this. Also, I'd run the Glen Ogle ultramarathon the weekend before, so perhaps my legs weren't fully back (though they felt fine).


It late in the year now, and the sun is low. On my run yesterday, I saw that the fields had now been harvested.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Shiel Bridge to Stonehaven

The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual long-distance backpacking trip across Scotland. It is organised by the TGO magazine, an excellent U.K. publication on walking and backpacking. Entries are limited to around 300 participants, and the goal is to walk from one of several starting points on the west coast of Scotland to the east coast. Participants, or challengers as they call themselves, map their own routes from west to east. There are a number of guidelines, but the only real rule is that you have to walk the entire way.

This year was my second Challenge, and I started at Shiel Bridge, a hamlet on the west coast of Scotland. I pitched my tent at the local campground, and headed to the pub at the hotel. There I met a Scottish/French backpacker who was doing the Cape Wrath trail I believe. I also met Thom Sandberg, whose excellent blog also recounts this year's Challenge.

The next day I headed up Glen Licht.

I fell in with another challenger, Ben, who lives in Baltimore and is a photographer. We separated a bit before the youth hostel in Glen Affric, and then, after a terrific bowl of lentil soup and a roll at the hostel, headed up the Glen together. It was windy, and we pitched in a flat area adjacent to the river. I tried to tuck my tent in behind a little grass mound.

I slept poorly that night. I got to sleep fine, but the wind dropped and so did the temperature. In addition, I worried about ticks (have found one on myself earlier in the evening), and was itchy from midge bites a few days prior (after a hill race). It was well below freezing. I subsequently learned that I could shift the down a bit in my sleeping bag so that it is more on the top of the bag, and where it provides more warmth. I wore a balaclava, but could have used a down hoodie.

The next day I walked along Loch Affric and then Loch Beinn a Mheadoin. I talked with David and Holly, first-timers from Wisconsin, who were doing the Challenge as part of their honeymoon. They ended up taking a different route in the afternoon, and I set up an early wild camp near a river.

I was tired from my broken night, and the arch of my left foot was sore - perhaps from going a bit longer than planned on the preceeding day. A camp on my own allowed me to have an early night, and snore if I wished.

The next day I was on the road early, and stopped for a coffee at the Tomich hotel. After this I decided to stay on the road, as opposed to going through the hills (as I'd intially planned), as it was a long pull to Drumnadrochit.

The road walk featured a large climb nonetheless, but on the other side I regained the Affric/Kintail way. This is a newly signposted route that follows forest tracks. I fell in with Tom and Kerry, friendly and worldly challengers from northern Virginia. We walked together to Drumnadrochit, and I checked in to the hostel there.

After a shower, I went to the grocery store, and then enjoyed a hearty meal in a restaurant in Drumnadrochit. Later, I caught up with Tom and Kerry, and then another couple from Wyoming, Matt and Lindley, at a hotel pub.

I returned to the hostel, and slept fitfully.

Day 4

I woke early and walked quickly to the jetty on the other side of town. The ferry left early, and I didn't want to miss it. At the Jetty were Tom, Kerry, and a handful of other challengers.

The trip across Loch Ness was enjoyable. There were great views of Castle Urquart, and the boat captain was chatty.

On the opposite shore, I walked with the group for a bit, and then just with David and Holly, into the hills. The Monalidiath Mountains were being developed for wind farms on their eastern side, and I followed the dusty lorry track upwards. Eventually, I came to the end of the track, and at a hunters shelter, set my compass for a crossing of the trackless high ground.

The Monalidiath Mountains are rounded and relatively featureless. I wouldn't want to be crossing them in a gale, but enjoyed using my compass to navigate across the peat bogs.

Eventually, I descended and followed a track to River Findhorn. I was weary from my lack of sleep, and from a day in the hills, and found a good spot to pitch my tent near a stone wall. I cleaned up, ate, and turned in early.

Day 5

After breakfast, I headed up the track through Glen Findhorn.

I then crossed the river, and followed a track into the hills.

The track eventually ended, and again I relied on my compass for navigation. This time, however, there was a bit more uncertainty, and the track I'd been following ended in a slightly different place than shown on the map. I knew which direction I needed to go though, and continued across the high ground. I then descended to a hunting hut, and brewed a cup of coffee. Tom and Kerry showed up shortly thereafter, and we walked together down to the Red Bothy on River Dulnain.

It was 3 p.m., but the rain was coming on, and I decided to stay in the dry bothy rather than pushing on another 7 miles to Aviemore. I offered Tom and Kerry the use of my fuel (theirs had run short), and this sealed their decision to join me. We had a fire, and a chatty evening, before turning in.