Monday, 25 December 2017

Three Lochs Way: Recap & Review

On the Morelaggan track, looking back to Glen Loin & the Arrochar peaks (Cruach Tairbeirt rises above the village) 

First things first: Merry Christmas to anyone reading this.  I've been working on the content of this article for a while, in terms of what to write and what not to write.  Some of what is written below may ruffle a few feathers - but the primary function of the piece is to help others who may be considering the route.

I feel holding back from sharing some of the content herein would amount to dishonesty.

This post will be a break from my normal posting format (i.e. this is not a step-by-step route description).  Great pictures of the TLW can be found online.  I'll put some video screenshots at the bottom of the article - but the camera I was using on the day was very poor, so take the images as indicative of, as opposed to exemplary.

I made a quick edit of the video footage - it can be seen Here.  Again, quality is poor- but it is better than no footage!

This article will focus more on gear etc.

I'll also highlight some key points of the route from a runner's perspective.

Route description for the Three Lochs Way is very good & more than adequate on the Three Lochs Way Website (where you can (and should) purchase the Guidebook).  Help them out by making a small financial contribution through purchasing a guidebook - some great paths have been constructed.


TLW - Some Thoughts

Certain points below may read as negatives, but shouldn't necessarily be interpreted as so.  If on the route you'll be aware of the 'niggles' mentioned - some I hope will be dealt with by the Helensburgh Trust.

Assume the route is very good - and worth your time.  

But there are areas for improvement.

In general, I'd say RE the TLW:

Certain waypoint markers are in need of restoration - especially so on the northern half of the route.  This could/should be a simple management issue i.e. twice-yearly checks of all markers.  For certain sections I had no navigational issues at all, despite marker problems.  This was, however, more to do with prior familiarisation with certain sections of the route.

Don't get me wrong - this is a trail run and not an exercise in orienteering through a nasty piece of forest - but if you miss a marker (especially so in the military section), you could end up losing some time and adding on some miles.    

Tying in the location of waypoint markers to website maps/.gpx files etc could be very useful for those who use gadgetry.

One major route issue is potential access problems on the military section.  In short: part of the route passes through a live firing range.  If flags are flying, you shouldn't be passing through, as live firing exercises are taking place.  The TLW guidebook suggests dropping down on to the Loch Long road if live firing is underway.  Sorry, for me that's a big no-no.  The road is narrow, and most who drive it (i.e. workers at Faslane etc) know it very well and fly along at an incredible pace.  If I'm going to die whilst running, I'd rather it happen up a windswept mountain than at the wheel of a speeding motorist on the Arrochar back road.  

More signage is required at the head of Glen Fruin, as there are a number of roads upon leaving the military section.

More signage is required in Helensburgh (I lost about 5 minutes asking for directions after taking a wrong turn in the town).  The route through Helensburgh may be obvious when travelling S-N, but when travelling in the direction I ran the route (N-S), less so.

In terms of transport links, Inveruglas is a very poor finishing point.  With only an occasional Citylink bus, public transport is - at best - desperate.  Rail links are non-existent.  Waiting at Inveruglas for a bus - in winter - in wet running gear - isn't an option I was willing to consider.  I'd have been hypothermic by the time the bus arrived.

Even with a change of clothes (which I carried on the route), hanging around Inveruglas wouldn't have been a comfortable experience.

If I'm not mistaken, Citylink buses have to be booked in advance.  I'm sure you can't simply 'hop on' one the way you can a Stagecoach bus.  This creates even more problems.

You'll possibly be able to phone a taxi.  If your network provider has signal coverage at Inveruglas.

All the above is poor course design for something advertised as one of 'Scotland's Great Trails'.  Yes - suggesting 'get the boat and join the WHW' is all good and well - but the route should logically conclude at the termination point - with links available for an easy return home.

I'd hazard a guess that terrible transport links are a primary reason the route is not more firmly established.  That, plus the possibility of part of the route being closed due to live firing.  

It is primarily for the above reason(s) I ran the route North-South (i.e. in 'reverse' direction).  Balloch is a far more sensible finishing point: rail/bus links, taxis, shops, cafes, toilets - you name it, it's all there.  Unfortunately the best views are behind if running N-S (hence the route is marketed in the opposite direction).

If you are meeting someone at Inveruglas, there's no issue finishing there.  But if running (or even walking etc) solo/unaided and making your own way home, you'll encounter problems.

If dressed in running gear, those problems could become very serious very quickly.


Route Discovery

I discovered the TLW by accident.  I was descending from a hill (on to the Morelaggan track) and spotted one of the signs on a fencepost.  Prior to this, I had no awareness of any such long-distance trail.  I was simply using an obvious trail as part of one of my own routes (as the TLW is also doing with most sections of the route). 

(In the near future I'll post the video/description to the above route I'm referring to.)

Perhaps the TLW should address this and consider media tie-ins with other long-distance routes (i.e. ask the WHW page for a plug?)


Prior Communication

I have to give a big thanks to John & Anne of the Helensburgh District Access Trust with regards route info.  I spoke to them through email over the course of c. 18 months or so regarding finer points.

I had planned on running the route in 2016, but suffered quite a severe leg injury that halted any thoughts of running the route or achieving a decent time.



I ran the course in 4:27:21 (give or take a few seconds).

Outside the tourist info office, route done

I was out there getting on with it - there was no 'official' timing aside from me hitting start on the watch when starting, and stop when finishing.  As such, the running community can dismiss my time if they wish. 

Allegedly the course record prior to this was 7+ hours.  This isn't even jogging.  If you run the course, you'll see that for yourself. 

Sub-5 is difficult.  Sub 4:30 I had specifically trained a long time for to achieve (I had ran all parts of the course N of Helensburgh in sections as recce runs prior to running the full route: S of Helensburgh was new to me).


Gear/carrying etc

(Over the next few days or so I'll try to upload photos of the gear I used.)

In terms of food: I had two protein bars, a few jelly babies, and a ham sandwich.  I've worked on training myself to run up to the 50-mile distance on as little fuel as possible - this is for safety reasons should something happen when I'm in the mountains (i.e. if I can function on minimal supplies, it will help were I ever to have to extract myself from a sticky situation).  But I urge caution if experimenting with this.  It is potentially dangerous.  I'm no nutritionist - I simply experiment on myself and take note of what works (...and what doesn't!).

My pack also contained 2l of water.

I was carrying a 20l pack containing a change of clothes for when I reached Balloch.  I also had a very thin pair of shoes in the pack to change into (...the route is pretty damp in places!).  The pack is an old Salomon pack I've had since the year 2000 (!) - great piece of kit.  On principle I now refuse to buy kit from Salomon - their products are stupidly priced.  This wasn't always the case.

I honestly think the running world has gone mad when I see what is spent on gear these days!!

Ultra runners tend to become obsessive about packs.  If a pack has two straps (i.e. chest & waist - or two chest straps), it won't bounce around.  Everything after this is a bonus.  I don't get too hung up on packs.  If I can find one with pockets etc on the shoulder straps, great.  If not, I'll work around it.  I've ran ultras in standard backpacks, climbing packs etc.  All do the job (as long as they have two straps).

I have a standard 'ultra' pack I often use - but it lacks the volume to carry a change of clothes (hence carrying a 'standard' pack on this occasion).

As an aside: there's definitely a gap in the market for a larger running pack - especially one with two ice-axe loops...  Ueli's pack is pretty good - if only Mountain Hardwear had a range of sizes (...28l would be nice...!), and made some adjustments, I'd be a convert - and would invest my money.   

In terms of clothing: I like to keep it simple - and cheap (when running high mileage, gear is worn out pretty quickly.  Running can - in these circumstances - become an expensive hobby).  I have no interest in spending £120 on a top that, after a few weekend runs with a pack, will be worn out at the back/shoulders etc.

My theorising is: 12 tops @ £10 will last me longer than one top @ £120.  

Tights are from Sports Direct (Sondico tights).  The tights only have an elasticated waistband (i.e. no tie-band).  For some runners, this may cause problems (i.e. tights could fall down after a distance!).  I'm thin/light (BMI under 19) - as such, my hipbones/iliac crest are prominent - on my frame, elasticated tights don't fall down.  But if your hipbones aren't prominent, I'd say stick to tights with a waistband tie. 

Shorts I found on Amazon (I was specifically looking for shorts with zip pockets) - I cut out the mesh lining (I do this with all my shorts) - I find it only serves to irritate. 

Baselayer top was a simple no-name one I found on Amazon (it has been a great piece of kit), with a very thin t-shirt on top.  It was a cold day, but I was pushing it during the run - clothing worn was more than adequate.

(I'm sure runners reading will already know, but for anyone considering long-distance running: wear a tight top - it will stop your nipples from bleeding.)

I almost never wear a hat when running (even when in the mountains) - I generally always wear a sweatband.  Good for breathability, keeps the sweat off the head & wind off the ears.

I was also carrying a very thin pair of gloves.  Sometimes they were on, at other times they were in my short pockets.

Footwear = Injinji socks, Dirty Girl Gaiters, and a pair of Hoka Challenger ATR 2's. 

I swear by Injinjis for running ultras.  Try a pair if you haven't.  They completely eliminate interdigital blisters.  If your weekly mileage is held back due to blisters, Injinji socks will change your world. 

Dirty Girl gaiters are perfect for keeping grit out of shoes.  Stopping to remove grit from shoes is a nuisance/costs time - many runners don't bother and push on.  On an ultra, this can, 20-odd miles down the line, lead to blister hell. 

I notice Scarpa are now employing the gaiter principle with the likes of the Atom S Evo OD (as are companies such as Nike etc).  I'm sorry, but £240 for a pair of trainers is ridiculous.  If you're a high-mileage runner, you'd likely work through a pair each month.  That's a small mortgage!!

I trust runners will take the following as a very honest account.  Formerly I was a lover of Hoka - but not the past few seasons.

Hoka used to make great shoes.  However, they had a buyover, and quality is now appalling.  It would appear the majority of their budget is now spent on marketing.  The shoes you see on the route video will likely be the last pair of Hokas I buy.  They burst apart at the toebox - after only c.100 miles.  Upper was worn after 30 miles of use - as were large areas of the outsole (the outsole rubber now burns off very quickly).  Hence I wore them on the Great Glens of the North marathon - they were wrecked anyway.

If Hoka were to return to days of old I'd likely purchase their gear.  But I can't see it happening.  If price goes up, so should quality.  Hokas are more expensive than ever, yet quality is heading south at an astonishing rate.  

Hoka have become yet another exercise in marketing.  The suits have taken over.  

I give them 10 years and they'll either be in one of two situations:

1)  No longer existent as a company
2)  Firmly established in the mainstream, yet completely diluted as technical gear (reminiscent of North Face)  



The Route

The route is never 'high' - but it does undulate.  Over the course there's c.1500m of climbing.

Given the distance (c.35 miles), this equates to a full marathon plus the distance & ascent/descent of Ben Nevis.  

OK, some key points RE sections of the route.  

Assume when I say 'steep' I'm referring to steep in a running sense (I feel I have to add that in case any walkers etc are reading this piece).  By 'steep' I mean 'difficult to maintain minute-per-mile pace'.

Key route pointers:

  • The initial pull/bend up the road (i.e. the hydro access road to the Sloy Dam) is pretty steep.  It'll wake you up, for sure!
  • Glen Loin is fast.  There's a short pull up to the high pylon, and another short one at the rock wall.  Aside from this, it gives very fast running - and is a beautiful glen (sometimes I travel N to run the Arrochar hills yet change my mind and run the Glen Loin loop a few times (the Loop is worth the journey N - and makes a good change from slogging up hills))
  • At the far end of Glen Loin, be sure to pull uphill and swing round to the L to head for Arrochar & Tarbet railway station.  There's a missing waypoint marker here - and it is a key point of the route.  
  • The section to the railway station pulls uphill - and considerably so.  Prepare yourself for some steeps!  But this is perhaps the most beautiful section of the entire route.
  • Cross over the road at the bus shelter and pull uphill to join the Morelaggan track.  Break R before the top of the track. 
  • The Morelaggan track is now something of a mess.  Presently an access track is being constructed into the hills at Tullich Hill.  The track is typical of access roads.  This section used to be very pleasant.  Now it is very industrial.
  • Beyond the Arrochar drop-off on the Morelaggan track (i.e. after the bridge), the industrial quagmire is left behind - you can return to more natural trail-running.  There's one mega hill on this section - when you see it, it looks vertical!!  I won't lie - it is a tough slope.  
  • Military section will likely take longer than you imagine.  It is the longest section of the route with a continuous underfoot surface (i.e. forestry road).  Going is very good.  The section is very undulating.
  • When in the forest, be sure you locate the drop-off to the bridge.  If anything, I'd suggest running this section prior to embarking on the full course (i.e. head up to Helensburgh and get the train to Arrochar, then run back).  Despite being in a 'military zone', this section is very beautiful & placid.  
  • There is an initial pull on to the 'American Road' - after this it is fairly level.
  • Descent to Glen Fruin can be difficult to locate, as there are a number of roads joining at the head of the glen.  Signage could be better here for those travelling N-S.
  • Glen Fruin itself is very fast.  I was averaging c. 5:40 mpm through the glen ( an effort to make up lost time on aforementioned hills!)
  • The pull up 'Highlandman's Road' isn't too bad at all.  If you've ever ran the WHW N-S, it is very similar to the initial hill when heading from Blackrock over to Forest Lodge.
  • Bomb it down the road to the seafront at Helensburgh.  Tarmac underfoot, and a great drop-off.
  • Locating the track to join the TLW/JMT over to Balloch is tricky.  I lost around 5 minutes here, and had to stop and ask someone for help (whoever you are - thank you!).  I suggest familiarisation of this section prior to running the route.
  • The pull over to Balloch is far steeper than I had imagined!  Being my first time on this section of the course, I was very surprised.  Prepare yourself for a slog and a half up to the plateau. However - the trails are stunning (runners could do far worse than heading up to Balloch for the day and running this section over to Helensburgh as an out & back).
  • Forest section after the plateau is a joy!  It is some of the most enjoyable running I've experienced.  
  • Descent to Balloch is fast - go for it.  The going underfoot can be quite rough at times.  This section is well used by mountain bikers - treads can be deep & quite boggy (...that isn't a slur on mountain bikers - runners create as much path problems as anyone else!)  
  • Avoiding the crowds of shoppers at Lomond Shores may be an issue!  You'll get strange looks!!    

A few photos below (again, excuse quality - images are stills from the camera I was using - which wasn't good at all!).  

Merry Christmas

Start point at Inveruglas

Heading along the A82

A' Chrois & Ben Vane.  Short & steep pull up to this point

There's a few fallen trees at the beginning of Glen Loin

Another few fallen trees

Great glen for a run

Lower Glen Loin

Looking across the loch to the Arrochar peaks

Pulling round to the train station

Great running here.  Very pretty

At the railway station

In Tarbet

Heading along to join the Morelaggan track

Beginning of the Morelaggan track

Industrial machinery has turned certain parts of the track into a mud bath

Good views, for sure

Fantastic wee track - this track has existed for a long, long time

Entering the military zone

Some runners don't like forestry roads.  Personally, I find them very enjoyable.  Our forests are certainly quieter than out mountains

Looking back to Tullich Hill

Descending to the bridge

Shelters for military types on training exercises.  I'm sure in a desperate situation one could be used for some shelter, but it isn't something I'd encourage

Garelochhead enters view

On the American Road

Glen Fruin.  Fast running here.  I find this one of the most psychologically draining sections of the route, due to the lack of variety.  Still, it's good for making up time

Highlandman's Road

Descending to Helensburgh

Nice wee section just before Helensburgh

In the town

Leaving Helensburgh, heading up to join the TLW/JMT

Great underfoot trail here

This part is steep - as you'll find out if you run the route!  Beware the black trail...

On the TLW/JMT, Loch Lomond can be seen off to the L

S islands on Loch Lomond

Fast downhill here

Tarmac from here to route finish

Crossing the A82

Entering Balloch

Lomond Shores

Finish point.  Or start point if heading N

Happy with this time.  Legs were gone!  Note the salt on my top just to the L of my watch.  I needed to lie down for a few minutes when I went into the tourist info centre.  Many thanks to the two very kind staff - they made me a cup of tea and brought me a glass of water!  Much appreciated

Railway station straight across the road.  As are shops etc

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