I’ve had Loch Ness marathon in my sights since 2018, when I ran a 10k up there on the same day the marathon is held. It was my first trip to the Scottish Highlands. I fell in love with the light, the clean air, and running through quiet, beautiful country lanes. I’d only been running for about 2 years so a marathon at that point seemed way beyond me, but I loved the idea of being taken by coach high into the moors to the start, and pipers piping you over the start line in the middle of nowhere.
It took another 4 years before I returned. I ran my first half in 2019, then was lucky to get a London place for my first marathon in 2020. Then lockdown happened. I ran the virtual instead, then finally the real London marathon last year… all the while following Loch Ness, studying the course, and imagining myself up there. With London in the bank, Loch Ness became a reality for 2022. I’d mentioned it to Susan Kennedy many times… she said if she didn’t get into the London ballot, she’d join me in Scotland. Neither of us got into the ballot so we booked Loch Ness the following week, and a lovely Airbnb cottage only 10 mins away from where we had to register and catch the coach to the start line. That was March… the race was in October.
I decided I wanted to find a new training plan that included plenty of strength work. I knew I hadn’t done enough for London. After reading Gabby’s recommendation for the Training Peaks plans through MyProCoach and how she smashed her PB, I thought I’d give it a try. There was a plan tailored for over 40’s which seemed perfect for me (there wasn’t an over 50’s option!). I was surprised how the long runs in the plan were much shorter than I was used to; the longest run was only 2.5 hours. This was over an hour shorter than previous training plans I’d followed which surprised and worried me. The online coaches kept telling me to trust in the plan, that extremely long training runs at my age would take too long to recover from, so I trusted the plan.
I religiously followed the plan through summer, and race day arrived in a flash and a blur. I flew up to Inverness on the Friday to meet Susan, her husband Gordon, and a friend of Susan’s called Giles, who was also racing with us. We all met up at the Airbnb on Friday night, excited and nervous.
Saturday morning was beautifully sunny and warm for Scotland. We headed off to register at the event village, taking photos with strange Loch Ness monster inflatables and walking along River Ness, which runs parallel to the road leading to the finish line. It felt exciting, and nerve wracking seeing the finish line knowing how far we had to go to get there the following day. Race numbers collected, we went back to the cottage for brunch and to spend the rest of the day relaxing, snoozing, and watching Netflix. It was my birthday on race day, so Susan, Giles and Gordon surprised me with a monster caterpillar birthday cake, card, and a song! We then did our flat lays. Susan did hers first. Gordon decided to make some arty adjustments and asked Susan to lie next to hers… taking up a running stance next to her kit the ‘alternative flat lay’ was born! After the obligatory pasta dinner, we were all in bed early as we had to catch the coach at 7.15am the next morning.
I woke up feeling surprisingly fresh and excited. Gordon drove us to catch the coach in the early morning light. It was all incredibly well organised, and we were ushered onto one of the many coaches taking the 4,000 runners up to the start. It felt a long time until the race start at 10am but the journey definitely made up for it. The atmosphere on the coach was quite lively with people chatting to each other and comparing notes. It wasn’t long before we were heading out of Inverness down the west coast of Loch Ness. The views were breathtakingly beautiful with the sun rising over Loch Ness as we passed ancient castles and through tiny Scottish villages. Half an hour passed… people were still chatting and enjoying the views… 45 minutes passed… chatter on the coach started to die down… we were all aware that we had started the journey at the finish line, and we were still driving to the start. The long line of coaches snaked their way up the hills into the moors. By the time we arrived, over an hour later, the coach was silent. Just before we got off Susan piped up, ‘Before we all leave the coach, please could I ask you all a favour?’. I thought she was going to give us all a motivational speech, but she said….’Can you all join me in singing Happy Birthday to my friend Sarah!’ You’ve gotta love Susan!
We got off the coach to see one single long road leading to the start line. On one side of the road were the portaloos – a ‘forest of portaloos’ Susan called them, as they were nestled in amongst the trees. Beyond that was the bag drop trucks and further on was the start line. It was magical! We were in the middle of nowhere. We immediately joined the portaloo queue. There was a cheery man welcoming us over the tannoy, speakers were spread out down the road. Susan walked up to him and said something. Next minute he said over the tannoy ‘Please can we all sing Susan’s friend Sarah Happy Birthday!!’ So about 4,000 runners all sang me happy birthday! It was special! (Thanks Susan!)
Maranoia was definitely kicking in, the coach journey giving me too much time to think probably. I couldn’t decide what layers to leave and what to take. The forecast was 11-15 degrees with no rain, warm for that time of year, but the weather can turn quickly in the Highlands. I was worried I’d get cold if I struggled and needed to walk, but I didn’t want to carry too much. Would the niggle in my knee spoil my race? Would my plantar fasciitis in my left heel get worse? I shared my worries with Susan….often….she was very patient. Portaloo trip done, bags dropped, all we had to do now was to keep warm. We could hear the pipers warming up. I couldn’t believe I was finally where I’d imagined myself for the last 4 years. The pipers passed us, the front runners marching behind them to the start line. Four months of training and I was finally here, in the middle of the beautiful moors with Susan and Giles. It was emotional. The sound of ‘I Would Walk 500 Miles’ by The Proclaimers blared through the speakers, with a lump in my throat we marched to the start line….the pipers piped us out….and we were off!
The first thing I noticed, apart from the incredible view, was you could only hear the sound of feet in the wind, and the odd bird cry or occasional chatter. Everything else was silent. The total opposite to London. The first 5 miles is gently downhill, so we were careful not to get carried away (Don’t-Go-Off Too-Fast-Susan by my side) we knew our first hill was at mile 5. I was still stressing about injuries flaring….were my shoes too loose or too tight….had I decided on the right layers….Susan was still being patient. The hill at mile 5 was short and easily manageable, we both decided it was no worse than anything we did at parkrun. The next 4 miles were gently undulating, as we headed to the banks of Loch Ness. At around mile 7 Gordon popped up to cheer us on! He’d worked out various points along the route where he could meet us. It was great to see a happy face cheering us on and running alongside us.
I was still finding it hard to settle into any rhythm, struggling to silence the worrying thoughts in my head which was frustrating me as I’d waited so long to run this race. I was also aware that Susan’s pace was faster than mine and she was often turning around to check on me. We’d agreed to run together until we mutually decided to separate off. At around mile 8 the route takes you closer to the edge of the water and the views are incredible. The light was stunning on the water; I kept making sure I took the time to enjoy the view at regular intervals. At about mile 10 Susan and I agreed that we’d keep at our own pace and just let a natural gap form between us. It wasn’t long before Susan headed off into the distance. I felt guilty that I’d shared my worries so continuously with her, so told myself to get a grip and just relax and enjoy the race. I’d decided not to pay too much attention to my time, but stuck religiously to fuelling every 30 mins and taking a caffeine strip every hour (thanks for the tip, Sophie). I’d messed up my fuelling towards the end of my last 2 marathons so didn’t want to make the same mistake again.
The route was mainly flat at this point, so I finally started to settle into a rhythm and began to feel good. By the halfway mark, all my worries had finally disappeared and I felt strong. I made sure I kept my pace steady as I knew I needed to save energy for the big 2-mile hill later in the race. I just enjoyed the peace and quiet, the views and the fact that I was finally feeling relaxed. At mile 16 we passed through the village of Dores. Loads of supporters were out to cheer us on. After a long stretch through quiet woods, it felt like a turbo boost hearing cheers and people calling my name. We then reached the infamous 2-mile hill. I turned to take one last look at the amazing view of the Loch as we headed up the hill and away from the water.
I was strangely excited for the challenge the hill brought, put my head down and was determined to take a steady run all the way to the top. Many people had decided to walk so I felt quietly proud I was still managing to run. It was at this point that all the training felt worth it. I could feel my aerobic endurance had really improved and even though my legs were hurting they still felt strong. It was definitely a relief to get to the top, but I knew there was more to come. The final, steeper hill at mile 21. This was definitely more of a challenge. I managed to keep going even though my legs were definitely feeling it; once this last hill was done it was a gentle downhill to the finish.
At mile 23 we entered the outskirts of Inverness. We were welcomed by cheers from a line of marshals, stopping traffic at a roundabout. My legs were definitely hurting by this point, but I was on such a high! I cried thanks to all the marshals knowing I only had 3 miles left. I decided to sneak a proper look at my time about a mile later. I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself but really wanted to beat my London time of 05:39:33. My time was much better than I had thought, so I put every bit of effort I had left into the last few miles. That last mile seemed to go on forever. The sounds of cheers down the final stretch was amazing! I ran as fast as my screaming legs could take me over the finish line.
When I stopped my watch I couldn’t believe it – 05:19:18! I’d knocked 20 minutes off my last marathon. The training plan definitely worked! I screamed ‘I got a PB!’ as I saw Susan, Giles, Gordon, and my friends waiting at the end of the finishers tunnel. It was emotional… again!
If anyone is looking for a road marathon out of the city, do Loch Ness. You won’t be disappointed.