​The enduing story of Scotland’s toughest Trekathon.

Sean McBrideJust now·9 min read

Group of hikers in the woods.
Participants making their way into Glencoe at the start of the event. All pictures by Sean McBride

​As expected, the scenery was utterly breathtaking as our coaches wound their way from Event HQ at the foot of Ben Nevis into the massive half-pipe of Glencoe. They had needed double the allocation of coaches to ferry us to the start line this year. This allowed us to keep empty seats around us and maintain the socially distanced tradition of these unique times.

Mountains accross a loch reflected on the water
Mountains reflected on the loch near Fort William.

​With 26.2 miles of hard walking ahead of us, you might expect the mood to be tense. No chance of that however as we filed out of the bus past a piper playing us into the start line. As soon as our feet hit the ground, a marshal said, “Go!” expecting us to rush over the start line. Instead, in more of a party mood than one of dread, most of the participants turned around and took selfies with the piper and the start line behind them. So it was that the great Glencoe Challenge 2020 kicked off. Like so many other events of this year, it actually took place in 2021.

A Piper at the start line to get us in the mood.

It was interesting talking to the participants, some of them nervously taking their first steps back into freedom after a long time in lockdown. Training had been affected as people had been forced to stay at home. Others were forced into new jobs working nights. Some were facing open spaces and large crowds for the first time in over a year with the fear of infection of Covid-19 still ever-present. The challenge was to complete a marathon across mountainous terrain in under 12 hours. If that wasn’t enough, however, there was far more than just that at play in the dynamics of this event during what remains, unique and challenging times.

The fact that the Great Glencoe Challenge 2020 went ahead at all is testimony to the hard work and determination of its organizers, Jim, and Andrea. They had many covid-19 difficulties to overcome. Having started Ptarmigan Events in 1999 to support charity events on Ben Nevis, The West Highland Way, and The Great Glen, they launched the Great Glencoe Challenge in 2015. The intention was to host an event that they could manage end to end in order to deliver the best experience for contestants. People could make their own choices related to raising money for charity or even simply attend a unique endurance event that welcomed ordinary, everyday people as well as elite athletes.

Couple chatting.
Jim and Andrea. Organizers of The Great Glencoe Challenge

From a modest start with just 32 participants in 2015, attendance at the event grew steadily year after year. 2020 was set to become a record year with around 700 participants registered to take part. And then the Global Covid-19 Pandemic spread across the world. Originally scheduled for July 2020, Jim and Andrea were forced to make the difficult call to re-schedule the event. They decided to push the event out to July 2021 in the hopes that we would be well clear of the grip of Covid-19 by then. With this event already at capacity, they opened up a second event in 2021 so that any new participants would still have an event to enter.

Though this would have been a big disappointment to a lot of people who had entered the event, Jim said that most people were understanding and supportive about the changes. As a registered participant myself, those were very much my sentiments. Unfortunately, as we all know, the covid-19 virus and the ever-changing rules required to keep us all safe, extended well into 2021 and are with us still. This simply increased the problems and uncertainty for Jim and Andrea and created communications problems. Without clear information or stable rules available to them, there was very little they could pass on to participants.

Sadly, the changes and uncertainty lead to a high level of cancellations for the 2020 event. A small number pulled out when the date changes were initially notified. A much larger number pulled out in the run-up to the event. Some were fearful of their lack of training because of lockdown, and some were unable to get accommodation at a reasonable price as hotels and B&Bs started to re-establish their businesses after lockdown. In the end, there were around 350 participants for the 2020 event and just under 200 for the 2021 event the following week.

The indicators of Covid-19 were still very much apparent as we turned up at the start of the event. Hand Sanitizers, social distancing, and the wearing of masks. I was pleased to see however that none of this did anything to dampen the usual high spirits, banter, and welcoming atmosphere that I had come to associate with the Great Glencoe Challenge since first taking part in 2016 (The worst year ever for the notorious ‘swamp’ section.)

Hand Sanitizer in a field.
Hand Sanitizer in a field. Just one of the many reminders that Covid-19 is still with us.

I was interested to know how contestants might be feeling as we waited for the buses to ferry us from event HQ to the Start Line, so I had a quick chat with the couple standing next to me. John and Kirstie of the team ‘Your Pace Or Mine’ from Edinburgh seemed positive and upbeat. With a smile, John told me he was feeling hungover.

Red Bull Cars in a car park in the Scottish mountains.
Red Bull Party at Checkpoint 1

A few short hours later we found ourselves in a party mood being entertained by Red Bull who had laid on a DJ at Checkpoint 1, around 5 miles into the event. What else would you expect first thing in the morning on the edge of a swamp in the middle of Glencoe? I took some time to chat with Julie, Vanda, Linda, and Karen from team Palletways Edinburgh. I had first come across them as they powered into the checkpoint, and they certainly seemed to be soaking up the party atmosphere.

​The challenge ended for my team a few miles later at the foot of the Devil’s Staircase on the far edge of a swamp that was much drier than I remembered it. As much as anything the mental rigors of emerging from lockdown had taken their toll and the best option was to call it a day, return to safety and be proud of the arduous 7 miles that we had covered. After a quick call to Andrea on the help number that is given to every participant, we quickly got to see a very effective safety infrastructure kick into action. Within minutes, an ambulance was at the foot of the mountain below us, and a medic was on foot making their way up towards us.

A line of people climbing a steep hill.
Looking up at The Devil’s Staircase.

After a thorough medical check, we were transported first to lunch at the halfway checkpoint at Kinlochleven and then safely back to Event HQ at Glen Nevis. What stood out most for me was how nice everybody that helped us was. I could see that everyone was extremely busy marshaling 350 people along the 26.2 remote and mountainous miles of the route. Despite this, however, everyone we came into contact with went out of their way to be kind, sympathetic, and helpful as they moved us back to the safety of Event HQ. They also made sure that we got our medals and celebrated what we had achieved.

Celebrating our achievement

Despite such a long and arduous challenge for participants, there’s more than enough food and drink provided to keep you energized and hydrated for the full duration of the course. Kingboar Catering provides Breakfast Rolls before the start, a hearty pasta lunch at the halfway point, and a full Hog Roast at the finish. Chocolate, fruit, energy drinks, and water are provided at the checkpoints in between and there’s even an Irn-Bru stand located just 2 miles from the finish.

All 274 finishers of the 2020 event crossed the finish line within 13 hours. The fastest on the day with an incredible finishing time of just 6 hours and 21 minutes (06:21:03) was Kirsty Horne. The 2021 event saw 172 finishers cross the line in under fourteen and a half hours. Fastest on the day was Steve Meldrum who powered over the line in just under 6 hours and 9 minutes (06:08:52). For having the courage to take on such a challenge and the determination to see it through, every single contestant, regardless of where and when the event ended for them, should be hugely proud of their achievement.

I had a chat with Steve shortly after he crossed the finish. Steve, a Munro Bagger who has summited 218 of the 282 Munros described The Great Glencoe Challenge as a long day. Like so many others, travel restrictions imposed by the lockdowns affected his training. He was still able to get out into the Campsie and Kilpatrick hills however which were within his local area.

Maree, who finished within seven and a half hours (07:21:22) took some time to chat with me on the finish line while she waited for her husband Callum to finish. With 26.2 miles being the longest distance she has done, a delighted Maree said she was enjoying a ‘finishers buzz’ but that she would most likely be tired soon. She and Callum had camped out in their car the night before the event which makes their achievement all the more amazing.

Maree and Callum celebrating their success on the Finish Line

​Earlier in the day, I had the pleasure of meeting Key Workers Alison and Heather of Team ‘Feel The Burn’. They were muddy but smiling as they emerged from the swamp section of the course onto the Devil’s Staircase. “We’re nurses, we’re hardy.” Was the reply to my questions around how they were feeling and how their training had gone?

Still smiling, they plodded on up the steep path climbing into the mountains above us. I couldn’t help but admire the courage which they had brought from the amazing job that they do working in a hospital, here into the mountains. Spending the day in friendly chat among everyday heroes in such challenging terrain and beautiful surroundings is everything about The Great Glencoe Challenge to me. It’s why I do it and keep coming back to do it again.

2 ladies standing on a mountain path.
Alison and Heather of Team ‘Feel The Burn’ on the Devil’s Staircase after emerging from the swamp.

With the two events successfully completed this year, Jim and Andreas feel an overriding sense of relief that the events were able to go ahead and that they were as safe and enjoyable for everyone as they had been in previous years. They would like to offer their sincere thanks to all the staff, supporters, sponsors, and participants who continue to make the event a success every year. This includes Tunnocks, Red bull, Event Scotland, Highland Council, Kingboar Catering, Shiel Coaches, National Trust for Scotland, Jahama Estates, Forestry Scotland, The staff at the Leven Centre, Kinlochleven, David Ogg at Bright Productions, Honeywagon, Bear Scotland, and Blackwater Estates.

When asked about their hopes for future events, Andrea said, “Our main hopes are to continue running this popular event for many years to come. We are constantly looking to develop, improve and invest in the Challenge where possible to ensure everyone taking part has the best experience possible on the day.”

The Great Glencoe Challenge 2022 is set to take place on 2nd July 2022. To find out more about this event or The 3 Lochs Ultra, taking place in September 2021, visit the Great Glencoe Challenge online at https://www.ptarmiganevents.co.uk/the-great-glencoe-challenge/

Originally published at https://www.allwaystraveller.com.

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