The Ultra Tour of Arran is a two-day ultramarathon set on the Isle of Arran, just off the west coast of Scotland. Run by Rat Race Adventure Sports, the first day takes in the relatively flat south, whereas day two is longer and has over twice the elevation. The two days see you running over 60 miles and with a punchy 10,000ft of climbing. Duncan Verel shares his review of the 2019 event, as entries open now for 2020.
Signing up and getting there
The first time I became aware of this race was in 2018, while listening to a podcast. Shortly after, by design or by fate, I saw an advert. Next, I heard stories from friends and acquaintances. To be perfectly honest, I was hooked from the first mention and I was desperate to take part in this race. Luck intervened, and the opportunity for a place on the start line in 2019 was mine!
Registering, in my view, is the first stumbling block for people who, like me, live in the South West. First, it seems pretty expensive at over £250. There are several options to explore to make it cheaper: the Rat Race season ticket pays for itself or you can raise money for charity to get a free place. On reflection, even at full price, this race is worth every single penny.
The first thing to say about this event, is just that it is an ‘event’. This is a long weekend away. Many others who took part treated it as such, tying it in with a week’s holiday. Arran is such a beautiful place and the race only covers half the island, so I would thoroughly recommend this option. It is described as ‘Scotland in miniature’ and I think, from what I saw, that is a pretty accurate description.
Friday morning around 7am we started the long drive north. I headed out with my buddies Julius and Allie, sharing the eight-hour drive. There are plenty of other ways you could make the trip, but as we’d chosen to camp with our own tent, and given the tight work schedule, driving was the most convenient. The drive from Somerset took around eight hours with stops to get to Ardrossan, the ferry port to Arran. Regardless of your travelling method, this is where everyone merges to get to the island. We had booked on the 8pm sailing, but there are always non-booked places. Having got there around 4pm, we joined this queue and got an earlier sailing. We were on the island by 6pm and setting up camp.
The campsite doubles as race HQ and has an amazing atmosphere. It’s on a flat field not far from the beach and within a half-mile of the port. You can choose to book a pre-set up tent or bring your own. There are leisure-centre-style showers in a main block and the ground is soft enough to make pitching easy.
Race HQ is well set up, in a very large marquee. Race number collection is the day before the race only. There is no ‘on the day’ entry or pick up. Number collection is straightforward and in addition you’re given a GPS tracker; this is a small box that you put in your pack and forget – until you have to hand it back. The campsite is by the beach, but turn slightly to the left and you notice you are in the grip of rather high and imposing ‘hills’. Slap bang in the middle is Goat Fell. At 2,868ft (874m), it’s the island’s highest peak. And we have to run over it twice on the second day.
Saturday morning arrives, bright and crisp and freezing. Welcome to Scotland. Teeth brushed, ablutions complete, dressed and fed, I wander with the crowd down to the start. It’s only 200m from the campsite. As the race started, I felt good, happy. This was an amazing adventure.
The race starts with a short run across the grass to coast-side pavement, which was a little narrow and caused some minor hold-ups, but after a mile or so of tarmac we headed up hill on a well-marked path. The views were constantly amazing. It was tempting to stop every few feet just to take them in. At this point as legs trudged up, the sea was to the left and as the trees cleared, the view of other big imposing hills and the rocky coastline behind. Our group kept together to begin with everyone’s spirits really high, banter filling the air. After four miles, the first hill was out of the way.
Now came the beach run, another flat 5.5 miles. The terrain varies almost step to step as we weaved along the coastline. Very small areas of sand, large areas of pebbles and small seaweed covered rocks made running awkward and in places impossible. There were small portions of respite, wooden boarding winding us through the tree-lined areas, but this was not PB territory.
Eventually we reached checkpoint 1 at Whiting Bay. The pitstop here, as everywhere else, had a very good selection of sandwiches and snacks. In addition to water, there was tea and coffee available (note: bring a reusable cup).
Off we went for stage 2. The weather, while cold, was really pleasant and I came very close to removing my gloves! Shortly after, we headed up an extremely steep hill, made much easier by a switch-back path. At the top, we were treated to a winding cinder track. Easy footing with elevation the only obstacle, miles would have passed easily.
Here though, for me, my own troubles started. Breath was getting harder to find. I was getting light-headed and disorientated. Added to this, I had great pain in my right foot. My legs were willing, but the rest of me was starting to let me down. Increasingly I found I was losing pace on my group. We wound through woodland and scrubby heath before descending again to the very south coast of the island and the village of Kildonan. The sight of the of the next checkpoint was so welcome. I sat down and was made a fuss of by my friends and the Rat Race staff who checked me over. However much I probably needed a longer break, I don’t take well to fuss, so I left, thinking a head start would give me chance for me to get over whatever it was.
This, on reflection, was probably the wrong choice, but off I went. Within a couple of hundred yards, yet again we were heading up. Back into a woodland path, we went up and up for around 2.5 miles before it levelled off, during which we were treated to the view of Eas Mor waterfall and a picture-perfect view of the lighthouse island of Pladda.
We finally levelled off to the sight of a beautiful lagoon surrounded by tall green fir trees and grassy banks. Although, as I started the circuit of the pool it was quite clear that this was not what it seemed! Mud patches got wider and in places deeper. Each step was a lottery of whether and how deep you were going to lose your foot. At the far side of the lake a female trekker was sat, enjoying sunshine and said, “You’ve got about 2K of this, then it’s fine.”
After another mile or so of dense forest and vegetation, I reached a forest road, not without first having to negotiate one last deep mud-bath puddle. Back now on cinder track, my dizziness was not allowing me to break into any sort of pace. I’d like to say that I had the advantage of enjoying the scenery and sun, both of which were bright and beautiful. I was struggling and the delight of every new view was being quelled. Thankfully, the final checkpoint arrived. Stocks here were varied, but my body did not want any of it.
The last 4 miles are easy, and it’s such a welcome relief. Well, easy apart from the hill, the big hill about 1.5 miles after the checkpoint. That bit is hard after a marathon in your legs. The last hill is a real slog just under 600ft climb in under a mile. The top provides yet another magnificent reminder of what a great gift sight is. It’s then a slightly lumpy two miles to the finish over easy foot paths and down a hill into the campsite.
Passing through the finish, we were handed a reasonable-sized pot of warm chilli and rice. It took some eating on account of my sensitive stomach, but was very welcome.
Sunday morning arrived quicker and colder than the day before. Start is an hour earlier on account on a much longer day. The number of competitors was noticeably fewer than the day before. Despite the previous days issues, I felt okay.
We started running along the beach in the opposite direction to the day before, then turned away from the sea and climbed gently for about 5.5 miles through a beautiful deep valley, towards a huge mountain. This was Goat Fell. The valley was a well-trodden, single-track path, by our side.
Eventually, we reached the hillside. This was roughly three sections of punishment. Each ridge providing a tantalising promise of the end, only to vindictively belying just another ridge beyond. At first was a roughly unkempt surface, irregular, the gentle kind of sharp climb that kills you with kindness. Having reached the ridge there is a very short rocky section, before the slope steepens again. Then there are a set of energy sapping, naturally formed steps. They seemed to go on forever and the wind was picking up. After around 600ft of climbing my breathing issues were back with a vengeance.
At the ridge people were taking off their packs for extra clothing. As I reached the final step the reason quickly became clear. You see the thing about being high up, is there’s less cover, less protection from the elements. The element that day, was wind. After a short bouldering section, we began to climb again. By now, I had taken out my walking poles, they were helping to heave my somewhat faltering body. The issue was that the wind was so strong that putting them into the ground was not a straightforward task. That said, this for me, was one of the most iconic moments of the weekend. We traversed a ridge between two peaks, truly amazing views everywhere. We worked our way across and up to the peak of Caisteal Abhail. At 2818ft (859m), it’s the second highest peak on Arran.
Now for the descent. Winter was clinging on here and there, with small pools of hardened snow and frozen ponds. We ran along another ridge, the wind howling around us and threatening to push us over the ridge. The route was well-marked with little blue flags – they were spaced, such that there was really no chance of getting lost. The ground was covered in a thin layer of heather, but the gaps provided a lottery of solid, slippery or, the favourite, boggy ground. A step either way was the difference to a good step, a slip on the arse or a cold wet sock. This went on for a good few miles. Every time the path seemed to be getting more solid, it would suddenly disappear again. But the views were awe inspiring. We were so lucky to be out here having this experience.
By now, I had been reduced to a crawling pace, foot pain and breathlessness had taken over. Finally, I reached the pop-up checkpoint, somewhat pleasingly placed next to the island’s whisky distillery. I was past the cut-off, although Rat Race will do everything they can do to help you finish. I was clearly not the only one struggling, as others were still coming in. They announced that the cut-off had been extended. As long as you could make the next point by 3pm you’ll be able to take on the final stretch. Some took advantage; I couldn’t. I was well looked after, placed in the warmth of the RD’s Range Rover and soon after, taken back to HQ. I was still given applause at the finish, encouraged to cross the finish line, given a medal and provided food. I felt gutted that I had been unable to complete the race, but was genuinely well looked after and made to feel as content as I could, that I was just as important as everyone else involved. As I didn’t manage to finish day two, I’ve asked a friend to complete the final section review (in italics).
The final section
After the checkpoint, the route winds its way through the beautiful village of Lochranza. This part of the race is described as ‘runnable’ and it is – it’s road’s that lead out to an eight-mile stretch of coastline, at the end of which is the second and final checkpoint of the day before the climb up and over Goat Fell. The issue is your legs are shot from coming down from the previous mountain and the previous day’s effort, so adopting a run/walk strategy is a good idea at this point. As we reached the beach it became obvious that we had been very sheltered in the village. The wind was back and blowing in our faces. We had an eight-mile stretch complete with 40mph headwind over boulders, rocks and sand. This was going to be a long leg.
After a couple of hours we rounded the corner to checkpoint two at N.Glen Sannox. It was very, very cold at this point; the wind and sea spray had made is wet and shivery so the hot drinks and sandwiches at the checkpoint were much appreciated. As we sat drinking hot coffee, we starred up at The Saddle. We had to get up and over that, and we would be home.
We left the checkpoint and started the long climb up Goat Fell. Once again it was a long and punishing hill, winding through beautiful valleys with the mountain looming large in front of us. This was it; the last climb, then downhill all the way to the pub. Rat Race puts mountain experts on this part of the climb so you feel totally safe and secure. It was so hard, so intense, and we were all tired.
After a quick snack, we started the descent back into camp. We all knew we were near the end, and chatted and laughed our way through the valley and back towards the beach. We decided to take a detour into town to buy some beers to open over the finish line, and in return got a hero’s welcome as we rolled in, tired, thrilled and exhausted.
We were all done, everyone back safe. Sunday night, we celebrated at the pub – where else? Monday morning brings its usual hangover and packing. Despite my wellness issues, this is one of the most wonderful events I have attended.
Organisation was top notch. The route was challenging, but with a reasonable level of fitness very doable with generous cut-offs.
Rat Race has put on a wonderful race, in one of the most beautiful locations. Do sign up, with knowledge that this is a challenge, do heed the recommended kit and particularly make sure you can stay warm and dry. Rat Race truly has set the bar for out of this world adventures.
Find out more and enter the April 2020 event here: https://ultratourofarran.co.uk/
**Rat Race provided a race place for the purpose of this review, but the review is the runner’s own words and reflects his honest opinions**