This race report is dedicated to the memory of my father-in-law, Jim, who passed away the day before the race.
On September 27, I ran the Loch Ness Marathon in Inverness, Scotland. I looked into doing this race last year, but I waited too long to make reservations, and most of the hotels in Inverness were already booked. This year, Marathon Globetrotters chose Jersey, an island in the English Channel, for their annual meeting. Since the Loch Ness Marathon was one week before the Jersey Marathon, it made sense to combine the two into one long trip.
I planned a trip that would include three nights in Inverness, three nights in Edinburgh, four nights in Jersey, and one night in London. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but life doesn’t always go according to plan.
Inverness is the capital of the Scottish Highlands, located at the mouth of the River Ness. It’s at the north end of a geological fault line called the Great Glen. Loch Ness is a large freshwater loch (lake) that fills a deep trench along the Great Glen. The loch is 23 miles long. It’s only the second largest Scottish loch by surface area, but because it’s so deep, it has the largest volume of water.
In 1933, there were reports of a large serpent-like creature living in the loch. It became known as the Loch Ness Monster or “Nessie,” and has been a draw for tourists ever since. The 1933 sightings were eventually revealed to be a hoax. Although there’s no real evidence of a Loch Ness Monster, there are still occasional reports of “Nessie” sightings.
There’s an airport in Inverness, but only a few airlines fly there. KLM has flights from Amsterdam to Inverness that are operated by Flybe, a regional carrier. KLM is a Delta partner, and Delta has direct flights from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, so I was able to get to Inverness with just two flights and book the whole thing through Delta.
All week, I had a sinking feeling about this trip. Earlier in the week, Deb’s dad, Jim, whose health was already frail, had complications during a surgical procedure. By later in the week, it seemed like he was recovering, but it really wasn’t a good time to be leaving on a long trip.
On Thursday, one of our cats started having diarrhea and vomiting. We rushed him to the vet. That was about an hour before I needed to go to the airport. He’s doing better now, but it’s another reason why it wasn’t a good time to leave.
Finally, I’ve been having increased soreness in my right groin for the last two weeks. I used to only notice it if I did something that stressed those muscles. Lately, I’ve noticed it any time I move my leg. My left leg has improved significantly, but my right leg is back to feeling like it did in May. I started to seriously question whether I can keep up my ambitious race schedule.
I usually look forward to international trips, but this one was making me nervous.
My experience traveling to the Comrades Marathon in May made me a bit hesitant to check any bags. Flying on two different carriers also made me a little nervous about a bag getting lost. Because this was the beginning of a 12 day trip that includes two races, there’s no way I could get by with just a carry-on bag. I use my laptop bag as my “personal item,” so I could only carry one suitcase onto the plane. I divided my clothes, toiletries and running gear between two small bags. I could have checked them both for free, but I hedged my bets. I checked one bag and carried the other (plus my laptop) onto the plane. I made sure everything I needed for the first race was in my carry-on bag.
On my overnight flight to Amsterdam, I was reasonably comfortable, but I still couldn’t get to sleep. I made the mistake of wearing a shirt that was too warm. I can’t sleep if I’m warm. I arrived in Amsterdam feeling tired.
When I got off the plane, I looked up the gate for my next flight. It was H7. I followed the signs to get from D gates, where I arrived, to H gates. I kept walking and walking. It was much farther than I expected.
Because I only checked one of my bags, I had to carry the other bag, plus my computer bag. Because of the extra weight I was carrying, my leg started to bother me as I walked through the airport. I should have put a compression wrap on my right leg, but I didn’t think I had to walk that far.
I’ve made connections in Amsterdam before, so I know about how far it is to the arrival hall. I expected to go through passport control, and then I could stop at the KLM lounge. When I finally reached H gates, I realized I never went through the arrival hall. All the H gates are used for flights to the United Kingdom. By coming directly to this concourse, it was like I went directly to Britain without entering Europe. The restaurants in this part of the airport even had prices in British pounds.
My second flight was only two hours long. The plane was a turbo-prop, so it was noisy. Despite the noise, I almost fell asleep on that flight. The flight arrived in Inverness on time, and my checked bag arrived a few minutes after I got through passport control. I was pretty tired as I left the airport, but stepping outside into the cool air helped wake me up.
There are buses from the airport to the city center, but they only run twice per hour. I just missed one, so I took a taxi instead, arriving at my hotel around 5:00 Friday afternoon. The taxi cost more than the bus, but it was still reasonable.
I stayed at the Inverness Palace Hotel, which is across the river from Inverness Castle. Inverness Castle is a pink sandstone building dating to 1847. It’s built on the same site as the original Inverness Castle, a medieval castle that was blown up in 1746. The new “castle” is now used as the Sheriff’s Court.
After checking in, I explored the neighborhood around Inverness Castle and had dinner at Café One. My first dinner in Scotland was a gourmet version of fish & chips. After dinner, I went for a short stroll along the River Ness, before turning in for the night.
Despite going without sleep the previous night, I still had trouble getting to sleep. I didn’t fall asleep until sometime after midnight. Partly that was jet lag, and partly it was trying to sleep with covers that were way too hot. On Friday, I asked housekeeping to make the bed with something that’s not as warm.
Jim took a turn for the worse on Friday. He passed away Saturday morning. I knew I had to cut my trip short, but getting home was going to be complicated.
My original itinerary had me spending three nights in Inverness and then taking a train to Edinburgh. After three nights in Edinburgh, I was going to fly to Jersey (on British Airways). After the Jersey Marathon, I would fly back to London (on British Airways), stay there one night, and fly home the next day (on Delta).
Delta only knew about my flight home from London, which was on the same itinerary as the flights I took to get to Inverness. While it’s possible to fly home from Inverness, that was never part of my original itinerary.
I spent most of Friday morning not knowing what I was going to do. This was going to be a sightseeing day, but I didn’t really feel like doing anything. Around noon, I finally walked down to the event village for the marathon. On the way, I went by St. Andrews Cathedral.
As I continued walking along the river, I saw a runner who was wearing a Marathon Maniacs jacket. His name was Roger, and we sat on a bench by the river and talked. Roger is from Canada, and we’ve done some of the same races. This was his fifth Loch Ness Marathon, and he told me all about it.
Next, I continued to the race village. I picked up my race packet, even though I didn’t know yet if I was going to stay to do the race. I had already paid for the pasta dinner, which started at noon, so I stayed to eat. I sat with a couple from South Africa who noticed I was wearing a Comrades hat. On my way back to the hotel, I bumped into Marsha, a fellow Marathon Globetrotter. It’s a small world.
This was the first trip I’ve taken where I’ve paid for an international phone plan that included voice, text and data. Usually I just pay for a data plan. It came in handy, as I made multiple calls to both Deb and Delta Airlines. After consulting with Deb, I decided to stay in Inverness long enough to do the marathon, but then I would fly home.
Delta was able to get me on flights that would get me home from Inverness on Monday. They waived the change fee, but I still had to pay for the difference in airfares. Flying home from Inverness is more expensive than flying home from London, which is what I originally booked. Fortunately, it wasn’t too much more. I cancelled two of my remaining three hotel reservations. The third one was 100% pre-paid and non-refundable. My flights with British Airways and my train ticket were also non-refundable.
I never buy travel insurance. Most standard policies won’t cover all the potential reasons I might want to cancel a trip. There are “cancel for any reason” policies, but they tend to be expensive. With all the trips I do, it’s less expensive to eat the costs of one cancelled trip than it would be to buy insurance for all of my trips. It’s a shame that the trip I bailed on happened to be such a complicated (and expensive) trip. I also very rarely make pre-paid hotel reservations, even though they’re cheaper. I made an exception for this trip, because the regular rates were so expensive. I also assumed that this was a trip that I wouldn’t cancel no matter what. It’s dangerous to think that way. I was tempting fate. I’ve learned my lesson about pre-paid hotel rates.
I spent half the afternoon rebooking flights and cancelling reservations. Having finally decided I was still going to run the Loch Ness Marathon, I took a few minutes to organize my running clothes. Then I headed out to see more of the city, before the day was over.
Across the river, there’s a shopping district.
This is the British equivalent of a dollar store.
At the heart of the shopping district is the Victorian Market.
Later, I had dinner with Roger at one of his favorite pubs. On my way back, I saw how Ness Bridge is lit up in the evening.
I did my best to get to sleep earlier. This time I got to sleep at 11:00. That’s a little better.
In a way, this race is like the Boston Marathon. The race didn’t start until 10:00, but we had to get up early to catch buses to the start. Because of the race, the hotel started their breakfast at 5:30. I was dressed for the race and ready for breakfast at 6:00. At 6:30, I started walking to where we caught the buses. It was a little over a mile. Along the way, I bumped into Roger again. It’s a long bus ride, so I made a bathroom stop before boarding the bus. The ride to the start took more than an hour.
When we left it was 37 degrees, and there was still frost on the ground. The forecast called for temperatures in the 50s and 60s during the race. There wasn’t any rain, but there was a little bit of wind. I was planning to stop along the route to take pictures, so I dressed a little warmer than usual. For international races, I wear my Marathon Globetrotters singlet. To keep my arms warm, I wore a short sleeve T-shirt underneath. Instead of shorts, I opted for tights, which conveniently covered up my elastic bandage and KT tape.
On the bus, it was warm, and with runners in every seat, it started to get hot. I was wearing a layer of warm-up clothes over my running clothes, and I started getting sweaty.
The race started near the south end of Loch Ness. Our route to the start area followed the west side of the loch. Since we would be running on the east side, we got different views during the bus ride.
The buses dropped us off at 8:15, giving us a long wait before the 10:00 start. There were an adequate number of port-potties, but they shared the same line. With over 1,000 runners getting off the buses at the same time, we quickly formed what the PA announcer called, “the world’s longest toilet queue.” They quickly announced that there was a separate area with urinals, so most of the men moved into that line. Both lines moved quickly.
The start area was on high ground. In the distance, we had this view of the south end of the loch.
They had a table set up with coffee and tea. It was an efficient operation. The first table had cups filled with either instant coffee or tea bags. The next table had large pots of hot water. Then a third table had milk and sugar. It was the first time I was able to get hot tea at the start of a race.
About 30 minutes before the race, I removed my warm-up clothes, checked my gear bag, and walked to the starting line. As we were moving into position, we got a send-off from a marching band of bagpipes and drums.
I carried a camera so I could stop and take pictures along the way. I didn’t have any time goals. I just wanted to enjoy the experience and finish the race.
The early miles were mostly downhill, as we descended toward the loch. I lined up farther back than I normally do. I knew it would be easy to start too fast running downhill, so I made a point of not passing anyone. I was counting on the wall of runners in front of me to keep me from going out fast.
As I reached the first mile marker, I debated whether to look at my watch. I considered running the entire race without ever knowing my pace. Old habits die hard, and I looked. My first mile was 8:40. Apparently the wall of runners in front of me all started too fast.
After that, I made a point of stopping at least once per mile to take a picture. My camera takes several seconds to focus, so each time I stopped, I moved back a little in the pack. As I resumed running, I adapted my pace to the runners around me. This ensured that my pace would gradually get slower.
In the first few miles, we couldn’t see the loch, but we had other views running through the Great Glen.
After about three miles, we reached an aid station. Like most European races, they handed out water in small bottles. One mile after each aid station, they had bins to collect the empty bottles. The idea was to let you drink at your leisure while you kept running. I drank about half of the bottle. Not wanting to carry any extra weight, I poured out the excess water and carried the empty bottle for the next mile. I only did that once. After that, I stopped briefly at each aid station, drank what I could, and discarded the bottle immediately.
Other than a few small villages, we were on our own until we reached Inverness. These were the first spectators I saw. They didn’t make much noise.
By the time we had gone five miles, we were alongside a small stream. The all downhill part of the course was over. Now the terrain was rolling. There was no shortage of hills, but with roughly equal amounts of up and down.
Shortly after the six mile mark, we reached an aid station that had energy blocks. The packages were cut in half, so one end was open. That made it easy to push the blocks out. Since most aid stations only had water, I ate the blocks wherever I could get them.
Soon, we got our first views of Loch Ness since the start. We were always near it, but sometimes it was hidden by the trees.
Every two or three miles, I checked my pace. By eight miles, my average pace had slowed to 10 minutes per mile. I continued stopping for pictures each mile, so I continued slipping farther back in the pack.
Around 10 miles, we reached an overlook. For the first time, I could look back toward the south end of the loch.
By now, I was getting hot. It was a mostly sunny day. Although it was somewhat windy, we were often sheltered by the trees. I kept taking pictures and continued to slow down. Aid stations started getting closer together, and I made sure I was drinking enough.
I reached the halfway mark in 2:18:28. My pace for the first half was similar to my average pace for the whole race in my previous marathon. Despite pacing myself more sensibly, my picture stop pacing strategy ensured I would continue slowing down in the second half. That’s OK. I was enjoying the views.
From time to time, I heard noises. Sometimes it was a creak or groan. Other time, it sounded like a low pitched squeal. I couldn’t see the source of the sounds, but they came from the direction of the lake. Maybe the strange noises were made by boats. Maybe it was Nessie.
After about 16 miles, I noticed that some of the other runners were walking. I passed the ones who were walking, but I was falling behind the ones who were running. Many were alternating between running and walking, so I was leapfrogging them. I maintained a slow steady run.
Near the north end of the loch, we entered a village and got our best spectator support so far. One offered me candies she called jelly babies. At home, we would call them gum drops.
We soon left Loch Ness behind. I saw a runner wearing a “Nessie” hat. I noticed a race photographer up ahead, so I picked up my pace to get ahead of the runner with the hat. With any luck, my official race photo will show me being chased by “Nessie.”
As we continued through the village, we got another bagpipe serenade.
Just before 19 miles, I saw a hill. At the base of the hill, there was a sign that read, “Slightly steeper bit approaching.” Before the race, Roger warned me about a tough hill at this point in the race. This was it.
It was actually fairly gradual at first, but it was long. Most people were walking the hill. I kept running at a slow steady pace. The hill lasted all the way to 20 miles. As I crested the hill, I knew it would be mostly downhill to the finish. In the distance, I saw what looked like the tops of building over the trees. Was that Inverness I saw in the distance?
I started talking with another runner named Gillian. She said there was one more hill, but it wasn’t long. I asked her if she had done this race before. She said she hadn’t, but she lived nearby and was familiar with the route. It turns out this was her very first marathon. I offered to run with her the rest of the way. I was going to be slow anyway. Helping Gillian get through the tough miles would give me a sense of purpose.
As we reached the hill, Gillian said she would walk up the hill. She insisted I go on ahead of her, but said she was confident she would finish. I ran up the hill, but it didn’t take long before Gillian caught up to me again.
Gillian walked through the aid stations. I kept running. At first we were leapfrogging. At 23 miles, we entered Inverness. After that, we stayed together for the rest of the race.
Between 24 and 25 miles, we came alongside the River Ness. We were running north along the east bank of the river.
Just before 25 miles, a spectator yelled, “You’re almost there.” I have a rule. You shouldn’t tell runners they’re almost there until they can see the finish line. Technically, he didn’t break that rule. Looking across the river, I could see the finish area.
To get to the finish, we had to continue along the east bank until we reached Ness Bridge. Then we crossed the river and followed the west bank back to the finish. Gillian said she trained here and knew every crack in the pavement. I was also familiar with this part of the course. After crossing the bridge, we ran right past my hotel.
We were almost to the finish. Unless you count the guy with the hat, I never saw Nessie. Wait a minute. There she is. She was waiting for us at the finish line the whole time.
Now that we really were “almost there,” Gillian picked up her pace. I continued at my own pace, finishing in 5:13:58. Despite pacing more sensibly in the first half, I still ran much slower in the second half. Partly, that’s because of my picture stop pacing. Partly, it’s because I was overdressed and got hot. Still, I don’t think I could have run much faster. It seems like I fade in the second half no matter what. Five months of racing without training has taken its toll. I really don’t have the endurance for marathons right now. I’m just finishing them out of stubbornness. Maybe Deb’s dad, Jim, has rubbed off on me. I used to joke that he invented stubborn.
As I moved through the finish area, I got my medal, my finisher shirt, and a bag filled with post-race snacks. I like it when they’ve already assembled the post-race food into goodie bags. It’s a time saver. I reached into the bag and pulled out a bottle of juice. At a glance, I saw “blueberry.” When I started drinking, I was surprised by the flavor. I took another look at the bottle. It was beet root and blueberry.
The bag was still heavy. I reached in again and pulled out a can of Baxters soup. I gave that to one of the local runners, since I couldn’t easily take it home. The other snacks included a banana, a shortbread cookie, chips and craisins.
After retrieving my gear bag, I walked back to the hotel. I was following the last half mile of the course, so I encouraged the runners who were still finishing. I saw Roger head to the finish. I also saw a group of runners from South Africa that I met in the early miles of the race. There were runners from all over the world.
By the time I got cleaned up, it was almost dinner time. I headed to a pizza place near my hotel. All tables were reserved for the evening. Next, I went to an Italian restaurant across the river. Without a reservation, I couldn’t get a table there for at least an hour. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of Italian restaurants with pizza in the city center. On my third try, I was able to get a table. This restaurant would have been my first choice, but the other two were closer. Now I’ve had pizza in Scotland.
I slept better Sunday night. That was a relief, because Monday was a long travel day. My flight to Amsterdam wasn’t until 11:15 AM, so I didn’t have to get up outrageously early. After a two hour layover in Amsterdam, I flew to Atlanta. There I had to go through customs, making my connection a little bit tight. My flight to Minneapolis arrived at 11:30 PM, but I didn’t get home until after midnight. Today, I’m a wreck.
When I’m traveling and running marathons, it’s like I’m in another world. Now I’m back to the real world. The real world is harder.