Ultra runner Sophie Littlefair has set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the Scottish National Trail. The long-distance trail extends the length of Scotland from Kirk Yetholm to Cape Wrath.
Sophie, 40, completed 880kms on her supported run, south to north, on the Scottish National Trail in 11 days, 20 hours and 13 minutes. The run included almost 20,000m of total ascent. She finished at Cape Wrath on May 11, 2023.
The only other recorded FKT on the Scottish National Trail is by Matt Girvan, who completed the same route self-supported in 13 days, 19 hours and 35 minutes in 2020.
Matt kindly shared his knowledge and route details with Sophie during her planning of the FKT. He also left a bottle of whisky for Sophie at Cape Wrath.
What is the Scottish National Trail?
The Scottish National Trail was devised by outdoors writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish and for most people it is a huge under-taking of around 40 stages, or days.
The route, which is measured at 864km, follows long-established footpaths for much of the way but it becomes progressively more difficult as the trail heads north. It finishes with a tough stretch of pathless and demanding terrain on the final part of the Cape Wrath Trail.
Why an FKT on the Scottish National Trail?
Sophie, who has taken part in a number of tough ultra events, such as the Dragon’s Back Race and the Northern Traverse, was challenged by a friend to “do something long distance in Scotland”. With this in mind, she did a search on-line and came across the Scottish National Trail.
She says: “At first it seemed like an audacious idea to try to set an FKT on such a long route but I thought it might be possible for me to do it – and also fun. I had a chat with my coach Jen Scotney, who gave me the confidence to train for the run.
“I spent a year focusing on the goal and training specifically for the challenge. I always like a big challenge each year and the Scottish National Trail is my big goal of 2023.”
Sophie, who lives in the Peak District, also spent a lot of time planning the logistics. Her husband Phil Brennan was able to support her with a van, which meant she had fairly regular access to food and hydration, as well as rest.
She says: “I could have planned to run solo and self-supported but this didn’t appeal to me as much as doing it supported. I wanted the run to be an enjoyable adventure and so having the support of Phil was amazing.
Sophie, who is originally from Peterborough, was also grateful for the running company of a friend, Mike Murray. She says: “Mike accompanied me from day seven to 10 and this was a bonus when I was tired and on tough terrain in north-west Scotland.”
Sophie ran for around 12 to 14 hours each day and the rest of the time, she rested or slept. She completed between 53km and 91km each day. The final day of running was her longest at just over 20 hours.
She says: “It was like a multi-stage running event with the support of Phil in the van. I slept most nights in the van, too, and added in accommodation every third night so I could have a proper wash.”
Challenges of the Scottish National Trail FKT
Sophie was confident she would be able to complete the distances each day but there was always the worry of injury, or getting lost. She says: “I never at any moment thought I couldn’t do it, but there was an anxiety that something I couldn’t control would go wrong.”
On day one she suffered bad chafing on her back caused by her running pack. Sophie says: “This had never happened before and I am not sure whether it was because I was warm or wearing fewer layers, but it was very sore by the end of the day.
“I had to tape my back and after that it was better but it did worry me on day one that something like that could happen.”
In the later stages of the trail, route finding became tougher and the terrain is rough and often pathless. Sophie says: “The hardest part of the Scottish National Trail is the last sections. It is remote and committing at times and I had quite a lot of anxiety about being somewhere so remote on my own.
“I was grateful for Mike’s company for some of the days but when I was on my own I worried about suffering an injury or not being able to find my way. I had a Garmin inReach device with me in case anything went wrong but a fear was always with me.”
Sophie describes the final day as “brutal”. She says: “I did a long day, starting from Inchnadamph to reach Cape Wrath. This is like two stages of the Cape Wrath Ultra in one.
“I was tired and the terrain is very tough. I ended up running the last part in the dark and it felt brutal. I wasn’t sure I was going in the right direction and it was hard to see ahead. I really just wanted to get to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath at that point.”
Sophie finished the FKT at 2.30am.
Highlights of the Scottish National Trail FKT
“The biggest highlight of the run was having an adventure with my husband,” says Sophie. “It was great to have his support and, on the last day, he walked from the end point at Cape Wrath back along the trail to see where I was.
“I could see a head torch in the distance and that was Phil. It kept me going because all I wanted to do was sit down in the bog and stop. I am very grateful for all of his support over the 12 days.”
Sophie’s friend Mike ran 260km with her. She says: “I was very pleased to have Mike’s company and especially after six hard days of running on my own. Mike gave up his own time to run with me and it was really good to have him with me to chat and laugh, even when things got tough.”
Another highlight for Sophie was the journey through Scotland. She says: “It was amazing to see Scotland and the incredible landscapes. It is such a beautiful country.
“Until the FKT, I had not spent much time in Scotland and I think it is one of the most beautiful places I have been to.
“The weather was also kind. I had only one wet afternoon and this made a big difference to my adventure. It would have been much harder if it was constantly wet or cold.
“It felt like a huge privilege to be able to take the time to run the length of Scotland be immersed in the stunning landscapes.
“I was also treated to a fantastic sunset on the last day as I ran across Sandwood Bay. It was glorious.”
Reaching the finish line felt surreal to Sophie. She says: “Even now as I look back, I can’t believe I have run the Scottish National Trail and set an FKT. It is just so big and unbelievable that I pulled it off.
“I am just a normal 40-year-old woman who is not anybody in the world of ultra running but I gave it a go and completed it. I am very happy with my achievement.”
You can follow Sophie on Instagram @littlefair