Thursday, 30 June 2016

Atholl Ultra

Atholl Ultra

Scottish Ultra running at its finest

Distance = c.55km
Ascent = c.2500ft

One of the finest Ultras in all Scotland, if not Europe.  

Heading deep into the vast & empty Forest of Atholl, the Atholl Ultra is likely one of the remotest runs you'll ever undertake.  

No shops - no public roads - no help - no escape points.  

You'll need to be psychologically & physically very prepared: running the Atholl Ultra in anything other than peak condition could prove very dangerous.

I'd strongly discourage all runners from running the route solo/unaided (i.e. as shown below) - especially if unfamiliar with the area.


Running The Route in Winter

The dangers of running the route in conditions similar to those shown in the route video/photos cannot be stressed enough: very specific training & conditioning required.

Ultras are serious.  

Winter Ultras are very serious. 

  • Be sure you're psychologically & physiologically adapted & trained for extreme cold: if maladapted, death from exposure/hypothermia isn't a distant possibility - it's almost guaranteed.
  • Mountain environments in winter mountaineering gear are very different from mountain environments in minimal running gear; experience in one domain shouldn't be considered adequate for the other.   
  • You'll be running through a sub-zero semi-arctic environment: if running a half-marathon after a 15-minute ice bath in your running gear sounds completely ridiculous, you aren't prepared for the route.  You'll likely become exhausted, pace will drop, core temperature will drop, you'll suffer exposure/hypothermia (very quickly) - which, on this course, would likely mean death.
  • Be sure of the toughness of your feet: with a very serious river crossing followed by over 20 miles through an unpeopled mountain/high moor environment of snow, mud, & generally very wet ground conditions, be prepared for any foot eventuality: maceration and/or skin on foot soles completely sloughing off is a real & distinct possibility.  Know your feet, and know how to treat them (and how to treat them fast).
  • Account for windchill: -20C is not uncommon in the vicinity of Fealar in winter (on the day of filming, windchill was c.-13C).  Again, be sure you've underwent serious CWT prior to attempting the route.  Windchill will drain your energy far quicker than you'd likely imagine.
  • Frostbitten toes are very possible - especially if pace drops.  If you keep fast: wet, cold feet shouldn't be a problem.
  • Be sure of pace/ability when running over & through deep snow.
  • 'Walking a bit' will quickly lead to a severe drop in core temperature.  Which, on this course, will quickly lead to hypothermia/exposure.  If you can't run a full 50K, think very carefully before contemplating the route in winter.
  • Be aware of the potential difficulties associated with having to abandon the route at any point after the Allt Garbh Bhuidhe: once across the river, you're fully committed and will have to pass through the environment that awaits.  Any escape aside from the route involves crossing trackless mountains.  For safety, possible escape points should be considered nil.
  • The Allt Garbh Bhuidhe is a very fast river.  Don't consider crossing if inexperienced.  This cannot be overstated.
  • Be mindful of the physiological dangers of entering very cold, fast-flowing water i.e. hyperventilation, vasoconstriction, possible cardiac arrest etc.
  • Be mindful of heart rate etc and relationship to possible hyperventilation via very cold water exposure. 
  • Fealar Lodge and Daldhu are often empty: don't assume the presence of buildings is a guarantee of help.  Assume the buildings are empty/there is no human presence for c.30 miles.  Be aware of just how far away help is.
  • Shinagag is abandoned.
  • Daldhu-Shinagag is not suitable for vehicles: rescue here would require helicopter assistance.
  • Whiteout conditions are common, especially Between Daldhu & Shinagag.  The land here is notoriously difficult to navigate (tracks appear/disappear): be very sure of your navigational ability.  Don't rely on GPS - be sure you can read and use map & compass.
  • Mobile signal is very poor/non-existent at the head of Glen Tilt, and everywhere between Fealar & Shinagag (depending on network provider, you may have no signal at all until the Beinn a' Ghlo car park (or beyond)).
  • Survival blankets, in running gear, in such an environment, are almost useless.  'Waiting it out' will likely guarantee a quick demise.  However, it is for you as an individual to decide on best course of action, should you sustain an injury.
  • Fast is safe.  This is a course for experienced Ultra runners with great navigational skills and plenty of mountain & cold weather experience in hostile environments.
  • Not a route for those disturbed by lack of human presence.  You'll almost certainly see no-one for the entire course.  Only consider the route if entirely comfortable with and within yourself.
  • Overconfidence is as dangerous as lack of experience/ability.  Remain humble on such a course.

If sufficiently cold-conditioned (on top of standard Ultra-trained), the route is tolerable.  It isn't what I'd call a 'comfortable' experience (especially given the frequent & fierce winds), but condition yourself appropriately (and gradually) for cold/wet and you'll at least survive.

Conditioning will have to be very gradual: consult your doctor prior to any extreme training.    

Think of the conditioning as 'inverse Badwater'.  In order to develop my own tolerance to cold for the route in winter, conditioning was very serious.  

I'm not exaggerating the dangers: if you aren't adequately trained & conditioned, you're risking your life.  This course is not a 26.2 jog along a high street.  Nor should you consider having jogged a few Ultras at manned events as adequate.

Please be very careful.  Err very much on the side of caution.

Alternatively, run the route in summer when dangers are minimised.  If anything, the route is a pleasant day out in summer.  Take your time and enjoy the wonderful scenery.  


Route Description/Images

Stage 1: Old Bridge of Tilt car park - Falls of Tarf

Stage 1 is, ironically, very tame.  It's a great introduction to the route, and a worthwhile run in itself (Glen Tilt is a perfect glen for trail marathon/ultra runners looking for an appropriate long run training venue.  No dangers/navigational difficulties).  

The sense of remoteness grows as you proceed along the Tilt.  

If you don't feel ready for the entire route, consider an out & back to the Tarf (or further along to the Allt).  

You'll still have a great marathon-length day of trail running through one of Scotland's most impressive valleys.

Leave the car park and head up the track leading into the forest immediately R of the lodge house: don't head down the main road
Very pleasant 8 miles to Forest Lodge

The lower Tilt is heavily forested

Good trail running - some of Scotland's finest

The twin peaks of Meall Duibhinidh

Crossing the Tilt

Croftmore, off to the R of the main track

Great running through the forest.  If the entire route is too committing, consider an out & back to Forest Lodge - or to the Falls of Tarf.  The Tilt is a great glen for trail running

Alongside the Tilt

The trees lessen as you head further along the Tilt


Fast running

Marble Lodge

Rejoining the W bank of the Tilt after Marble Lodge

The Tilt's distinctive upper U-shaped valley.  Great views also behind you from this point.

Approaching Clachglas

The steep W slopes of Beinn a' Ghlo begin to dominate

At Forest Lodge entrance.  Be mindful/respectful of landowner's wishes.

Forest Lodge

Passing through the forest just beyond Forest Lodge
The sense of remoteness grows after Forest Lodge

Exiting the grounds of Forest Lodge

Good running alongside the forest at the base of Creag a' Chrochaidh

Stalking access bridge (don't cross the bridge)

Looking up the steeps of the Allt Fheannach to rare views of Carn nan Gabhar

Despite the remoteness, the route, running alongside the Tilt, is never quiet

It isn't all level: there are a number of uphill pulls en route to the Tarf

Take the lower track, following the course of the Tilt (the upper track heads round Dun Beag, visible on the L)

Track quality deteriorates slightly after the track split

If on your own, the route will now feel very remote

Cold weather at the upper reaches of the Tilt.  The distinctive hills ahead are the Creag an Duibh outcrops (little-known, and almost never seen)

Approaching the Falls of Tarf.  Sron Coire na Creige is the snow-capped distant peak

Almost at the Tarf

Sandy track just before the Falls

Bedford Memorial Bridge at the falls of Tarf.  If you're a walker, this point is an overnight expedition.

Ice on the Bedford Memorial Bridge (air temp was c.-1C)

The rarely-visited Falls of Tarf.  If closer to a road, the Falls would likely be a very popular photography spot

Easy part finished.  Averaging c.6:30 mpm - not the fastest, but Stage 1 has just over 1000ft ascent, and there's almost a marathon left to run.  Save your energy for what is to come.  Underfoot terrain becomes very difficult from here - account for a considerable drop in pace from this point on.


Stage 2: Falls of Tarf - Fealar Lodge

This section is very serious, consisting of three potentially dangerous points:

  1. The crossing of the very fast Allt Garbh
  2. The ascent of Jacob's Ladder
  3. The high moor crossing to Fealar
Each section will be discussed alongside the relevant images.

Just after the Bedford

Keep to the river

Follow the lower track (easy to miss)

Approaching the Allt.  Jacob's Ladder is the path cutting its way across the peak

At the Allt Garbh Bhuidhe.  This photo does no justice to the power of this river.  Nowhere further upstream should be considered a crossing point.  The river is a canyon/ravine.  The sound of the sheer force of the water may well intimidate

Crossing the Allt.  Very, very cold.  Very fast & powerful  

The Allt should be crossed at the obvious crossing point.  The depth & force of the water in the above photo is average.  Expect such conditions.

I ran the route twice prior to filming (once in each direction) - on one visit, the Allt was ankle-high; on the other visit, the water was waist-high, and standing was very difficult.  You will get wet here.  Expect it and you won't be disappointed.

Be sure you're conditioned for cold & fast water when entering a river in minimal gear - the cold will be a huge shock otherwise.  At worst, it can cause cardiac arrest.

You may hyperventilate when you enter the water.  Of course, covering all exposed skin goes without saying.

You'll have to adapt your body to tolerate such conditions.

Be sure you know how to safely cross a river.

A number of deaths occur each year in the UK on our rivers due to lack of knowledge of the basics of river crossings (I'll possibly do a course on river crossings in the near future).

Stopping to change after crossing the Allt could prove deadly - your body temperature will drop very quickly.

After crossing the river, I kept going, and ran very hard to maintain core temperature.

I also wore the thinnest socks I own (thin socks dry quicker) - again, you'll have to train your feet to tolerate extreme cold & wet - especially for what the route soon becomes (see below)

Looking back to the Allt.  Again, don't be fooled by the photo - the river is very fast and could easily sweep you off your feet

Joining the thin singletrack of Jacob's Ladder

Jacob's Ladder.  Not steep by hillwalking standards, but when moving at a fast pace, it feels steep & exposed.  A fall from here would likely be terminal (the Allt a' Ghlinne Mhoir is a few hundred feet below, down a steep ravine)

Atop Jacob's Ladder, the landscape changes 

Very dramatic scenery en route to Fealar.  This area is hugely remote

Rarely seen views of the Beinn a' Ghlo massif.  Again - don't try this route in such conditions if you've never ran in snow

Heading to Fealar

Very cold.  Tiring running in such conditions

Approaching Fealar.  Navigation here is often treacherous - whiteout conditions are frequent

Fealar Lodge, one of Scotland's most remote dwellings.  Don't rely on Fealar being inhabited.  If it is uninhabited, you are a long, long way from anything


Stage 3: Fealar - Daldhu

Very remote, but with a good vehicle track.  

This section is likely only visited a handful of times in any given year (and only ever by backpackers/exploratory mountain bikers who love solitude/remoteness).  

By hillwalking standards, this section is of little interest.  

By running standards, it is spectacular, and cuts through one of Scotland's wildest landscapes (as you'll soon see).

Don't assume track = 'less remote': there are no escape points aside from the track (escape aside from the track would require crossing trackless, very tough mountains).  

The nearest public roads are many miles distant - and on the wrong side of the mountains.  

Be careful.

The track from Fealar.  There's no run anywhere else quite like this one

The track veers L

There are probably only a handful of photos from this area of Scotland

The track pulls up & round the shoulder of Meall na Spionaig

Rising steeply

The remote western slopes of Carn an Righ

The track is dwarfed by the bulk of Carn an t-Sionnaich

Turning S en route to Daldhu.  Winds here can be ferocious.  And, given our prevailing winds, you'll be running into the wind

Dropping down to the Allt Fearnach; Creag Leacagach off to the R

Dropping below the snowline on the miles to Daldhu

Approaching Daldhu.  Being the winter solstice, the sun was never high in the sky

Approaching Daldhu (in far distance, to the L of the small forestry plantation)

Daldhu (don't expect the building to be inhabited).  Be sure to head round Daldhu & WNW alongside the Allt Glen Loch


Stage 4: Daldhu - Shinagag

Remote & committing, with very tough underfoot conditions in places.

Navigationally, this section is probably the most challenging.  Keep full concentration.  

There's considerable height gain.  

Be sure you save plenty of energy for this section - you'll need it. 

Track alongside the Allt Glen Loch

Re-entering the mountainous terrain, this time toward the Beinn a' Ghlo massif.  This section is physically tough, and mentally tiring

The R fork heads to Loch Loch (worth a visit in itself; it's a very foreboding loch).  Ignore this track, and follow the main track (can be tricky to locate in deep snow)

More crossings - but this time nothing more than a stream (shoes provided by On.  Review coming soon)

Long, remote & tough miles

Very steep uphill pull on the shoulder of Stac nam Bodach.  This pull is draining

Beinn a' Ghlo massif, off to the R

Long trails through a great environment.  Very tough underfoot.  Very muddy: expect wet (wetter) feet

Carn Liath from the wilderness.  Winds here are often very strong

Careful navigation required.  There are a number of trails - such as this one - not indicated on the map.  Be familiar with the area prior to running the full Ultra

Surely one of the best examples of Scotland's Ultra running potential

Carn Liath & Beinn Bheag

Quick look back to Airgiod Bheinn

Heading round Sron na h-Innearach

En route to Shinagag.  This section is navigationally difficult in snow/low mist

Head L.  The R track shortens the route slightly: if tired, head R.  In snow, both tracks are often completely obliterated

Featureless ground en route to Shinagag

Dropping down to the abandoned ruins of Shinagag (seen in middle distance)


Stage 5: Shinagag - car park

Main difficulties now behind.  

Psychologically, this section is less draining.  

There are still a number of miles to go - but potential navigation difficulties are greatly reduced.  

Swing R at Shinagag, joining the track

Carn Liath from the bridge over the Allt Coire Lagain

This could be Canada

Vast & unspoilt: looking to Carn Liath, Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain, Beinn Bheag, and Airgiod Bheinn

Pulling round Carn Liath

Heading to the Loch Moraig car park

A building familiar to many hillwalkers

Approaching Loch Moraig

The keen eye will spot Schiehallion

Loch Moraig car park.  Tarmac underfoot from here - route finish

Fast running throughout this section

Cows take flight from foot-squelching runner

Not far to go

Follow the sign for Old Blair & Blair Atholl

This section is very fast

Almost there

Cottage at Old Bridge of Tilt

This will be familiar (you'll have passed it when driving to the car park)

Under the old military bridge & alongside the wall

Only a few hundred yards left...

Back at the car park.  I was very happy with this time, given the snow conditions.  If you're a sub-2:30 marathoner, you'll likely break this time

Shoes provided by On 

Sub 5hrs30 is a great achievement.
Sub 5hrs is very good indeed.  It'll be a select group who break 5 (sub-3hr marathoners will probably achieve sub-5 on the Atholl Ultra).
Sub 4hrs30 is likely a benchmark for very serious Ultra runners (sub-2:45 marathoners).

Of course, in summer conditions, times should be faster.

But sub-5 is fast irrespective of condition.

As you'll likely have guessed, on a course such as this I wouldn't have worn equipment I didn't have full trust in.  

Very positive reviews to follow (I'm presently at c.1400 miles in the On Shoes).  

The top & leggings I'm wearing were provided by Tribesports: review of both will also follow shortly.  

Both performed very well (leggings are very quick-drying).

All best,
Kris @ ADR  

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