Scotland is ultra mad
Scotland is now home to almost 40 ultra marathon races – and boasts a fast-growing community of long-distance runners. Many races have sell-out entries and some operate a ballot system due to huge demand. I wrote about the fast growing trend in my Sunday Mail column.
While increasingly popular, ultra events require a great deal of dedication from runners with events ranging from 30 miles to more than 200 miles.
An ultramarathon, also called ultra distance or ultra running, is defined as a foot race longer than the traditional marathon length of 26.2 miles. Some ultra runners state that it is an event that is longer than 30 miles or 50km.
The original race and still the granddaddy of all37 in Scotland is the 95-mile West Highland Way Race.
The start of ultra races in Scotland
It was in 1985 that the WHW race started when Lochaber runner Duncan Watson challenged Bobby Shields of the Clydeside Harriers to a race from Milngavie to Fort William.
A few friends joined them and in the following years a challenge took place on the Saturday nearest to the summer solstice along the length of the famous long-distance trail.
Over the next two decades several other races joined the Scottish ultras stable, including the (former) 36.5-mile Two Bridges in Fife, the Speyside Way 50k and the Scottish 50km and 100km championships, yet it remained a minority sport.
It was in 2006, when Scottish ultra running started to become a lot more popular.
Ian Beattie, director of the WHW Race, said: “Credit for an ultra running boom in Scotland must go to Murdo MacDonald, who used to be the race director of the Highland Fling.
“His partner at the time was running the WHW Race and although he was not a runner, he thought it would be a good idea to have a long training race about eight weeks before the WHW Race.
“That was the 53-mile Highland Fling, which took place for the first time with 17 runners.
“Today – and incredibly – this race has more than 1000 entries.”
Start of the SUMS
Murdo went on to set up a Scottish Ultra Marathon Series (SUMS) and encouraged people he knew from the ultra running community to organise other races.
This led to the Deeside 33, Clyde Stride and the Speyside Way Ultra, which joined other SUMS races, such as the River Ayr Way Challenge, the Cateran 55 and the Devil o’ The Highlands Footrace, also along the West Highland Way.
In the past decade, dozens of new ultras have been established in Scotland with more recent additions including the Dunoon Ultra and this year, the new Ochil Ultra.
In 2018, Ben Finch, founder of September’s 30 and 50-mile Ochil races, plans to launch the Ben Vorlich Ultra.
Entries have also opened for the longest Scottish ultra race yet, the 215-mile Race Across Scotland in August 2018.
Why Scotland is the best for ultras
See a full list of Scottish ultra races see Scottish Ultra Marathons.
Ben believes Scotland is perfect for ultra runners and races. He said: “I think Scotland’s ultra running success story comes down to two main factors.
“The first is the beauty of the scenery. If you are running a long way, it’s preferable to have a good distraction.
“Also, for race organisers, the Scottish Outdoor Access Code makes it much easier the plan a route and gain permission from land owners.”
Ian adds that the quality of races in Scotland has helped gain a world-class status.
He said: “The quality of race organisation in Scotland is very high and all of the race organisers get on well and help out at each other’s races.
“This means races are being organised by people – and gaining race volunteers – who really understand ultra running and the culture around it.”
Perceptions of runners and distances of races have also changed.
Ian said: “There has been a huge growth in the mass participation running market and people are realising that a marathon is the not the ultimate achievement in distance running.
“They can see from races and other runners, including our many champion ultra runners, that it is possible to push the boundaries further and do longer distances.”
A great example of a top ultra runner is Debbie Martin Consani.
The talented and successful 42 year-old from Glasgow has seen the sport in Scotland boom over just a decade.
She said: “When I first started ultra-distance running 10 years, there were only a few races available and it was mainly the historic events on the West Highland Way that people entered.
“Now there are almost 40 races in Scotland and the increase in events and entries speaks volumes about the growth of the sport in general.
“Scotland also attracts high international participation, such as The Highland Fling, with representation from more than 20 countries.
“Our country is famed for its beautiful scenery and majestic mountains and I can’t imagine a better way to see Scotland than on foot.
“It’s a great place to be based as an ultra runner.”