After several aborted attempts we excitedly made the journey north last weekend for the 2017 Coigach Half Marathon, the 6th running of the race. Starting in the village of Achiltibue, by Ullapool, the epic drive started after work on the Friday via Inverness before completing the 5 hour road trip on the morning of the race.
Leaving Ullapool it became obvious why our friend Catherine sold this as a must do race. The mountains grow in stature and loom over the single track road which leads towards Achiltibuie with each passing mile and as you near the coast you are met with stunning views over the Summer Isles. This was our first visit to this part of Scotland and without doubt the landscape provided a stunning backdrop for a race. Off to a good start.
Registration was friendly and professional showing again that the level of service you get at local runs is usually far superior to mega city events. Another bonus was receiving change from my £15, a very fairly priced event.
After checking in with friends in the neighbouring village of Achnahaird and settling in to our digs for the weekend we headed back to the start line. As the map shows this is a looped course that hugs the coastline before heading inland and back towards the start area. As promised there was also some decent elevation (this would be greater than either Arran or Run Mhor, two tough courses I’d attempted earlier in the year). This was about as much as I knew about the route so I set about trying to get some local knowledge prior to the start of the race.
In the 90 minutes after arriving at registration Catherine and her family had told me about the two big climbs on the route (the one I could see and the bigger one I couldn’t), the volunteers at check in had told me to save something for the last few ‘tough’ miles and I’d also learned the finish was not downhill to the community hall but up a pretty steep gravel path to the school playing field. And also the start line was 1km out of town 🙂
Despite all this I knew that the course played to my strengths on the uphill with a reasonable amount of elevation giving me the opportunity to hold on to some faster opponents. The route was also remeasured and would be shorter this time around meaning I’d already saved approximately 400 metres on last year’s entrants.
After waiting on ‘Uncle Angus’ to park the bus and jog back to the start line the ladies were called to the front of the field of 49 runners – good to see manners are alive and kicking. Race instructions were on the wry side – right up my street. And then we were off….
The first couple of miles descend to sea level and with the wind at your back it is difficult not to go off too fast. In fact after a few hundred metres I found myself in unknown territory as I briefly led the field. Quickly realising how dangerous this would be I moved behind the lead pack of 4 runners who were clocking along at a decent pace. I decided at this point with local knowledge fresh in my mind to slow down a little in advance of the hills, wind and tough final few miles and watched the leaders gradually open up a gap on me. I’d decided to target as close to a 1:30 half as possible given the undulation so was conscious of bagging some time on the faster downhill miles without going crazy. Not always an easy balance.
By the time we reached the foot of the first climb at the 5k mark I was totally isolated but enjoying the views out over the Summer Isles. Gritting my teeth the climb was tough as the wind now moved across the route rather than at our backs but with the top generally in sight most of the way it was a case of getting the job done. Rounding the first corner the route levels off briefly allowing runners to refocus energies on the scenery and dodging the sheep lazily meandering their way across the track. Around this time I closed the distance quickly and passed the runner in 4th place, noting that the field ahead has stretched with the 3 runners now well spaced out.
A long and enjoyable downhill section follows the first big climb. Checking my watch I was well on for 1:30 and was comfortably beating my pb pace from the Glasgow Half on these easier miles. Feeling good I tried to open up a bit of a gap on the runners behind by pushing hard through this section.
Turning inland around the 6 mile marker the second, and biggest, of the climbs stretches out before you with an encouraging cry from the marshal, ‘there will be water at the top… if it’s not blown away!’. The wall of wind at this point was fierce as you meet it head on for the duration of the ascent. A bad combination in anyone’s books. Focusing on the runner ahead I worked hard in the climb and reached the top looking reasonably fresh (see picture above) having moved into third place. Sensibly the volunteers at the water station had moved beyond the hill to a sheltered section of the route.
Potentially the best bit of the course the profile is downhill for the next couple of miles as the road heads towards Achnahaird where Lisa and I were staying for the weekend. Lochs and mountains enclose you and provide respite from the wind making for enjoyable running. With all eyes on the runner in second place it was in hindsight a bonus that Natalie Stevenson of Fusion Triathlon Club came blazing back at me on the downhill section as we were able to work together through this section. This caused me to run these miles faster than I would have on my own. I was racing rather than pacing my own race.
With the support crew out in force at the bottom of the hill I passed through Achnahaird in good time and feeling fit. Nothing though was going to prepare us for the section between Achnahaird and Achiltibuie where the relatively gentle climb was exacerbated by the worst head winds of the day. Natalie and I passed the runner in second place between mile 10 and 11 but the pace dropped dramatically on this section as the combination of physical and mental fatigue took their toll.
Stretching ahead and giving myself a bit of a gap in second place it took all my efforts to keep going as you can tell from my very bad poker face in the picture above. With the balls of my feet burning badly again in my new shoes it was very much a case of ticking off each step and talking myself through to the end after being a tad ambitious in the middle section of the course. Mental note – remember all local knowledge in future races as the final miles definitely required something in reserve.
Turning in to the final mile and a half of the course and heading back (up) through Achiltibuie the relatively gradual incline felt a million times harder that the first climb or second ‘big’ climb earlier in the route. It was now a case of getting to the end and trying to hold on to second position.
Rounding the final corner at the 13 mile marker the last thing I wanted to see was a gravel track headed steeply uphill to the finish line and it was at pretty much walking pace that I completed the course. I was absolutely delighted though to finish on the podium and in second place on a tough course. My time of 1:25:39 was within a minute of my pb which on this route was a real step forward given that I didn’t manage to break 1:30:00 at Arran on a course with 70 metres less elevation.
All in this was another top race and a definite contender for the most scenic route I’ve run. It would definitely be on the list for an annual visit. I absolutely loved everything about the route and it must rank as one of Scotland’s most friendly races. The final ace in the pack was a great post-race buffet in the Community Hall. A top event this run was small, friendly, scenic and challenging in just the right measures.
These are the days when you need to be really grateful that I’m able to be out there in such amazing places. For me this was about as close as it gets; the day when I managed to hit a rich vein of form on a course well suited to my strengths in a remarkable part of our beautiful country.
Well done and thanks as always to the race organisers and everyone who gave up their time on the day to help out including Anne McGee who uploaded some of the photos (copyright) to the events page and is raising money for the Highland Hospice.
Strava geeks check out my race performance below: