The Marriage of Running and Whiskey

by Julie Mills

The Mills family vacations are usually centered on visiting family in various parts of the U.S., but this past winter our girls started planning a big trip to the U.K., initially for just the two of them and later including the whole family. While (dad) Pat was concerned about the time away from his work and the cost, I knew he had bought into the idea when he showed me a website for the Fort William Marathon in Scotland, held on one of the last days of our scheduled trip. Having never done an international marathon, I was thrilled with the idea. So this July, Pat and I and our three adult kids headed for the U.K. for two weeks, culminating in the marathon.  

The one problem with scheduling a marathon at the end of such a long vacation is that we did almost no running prior to the marathon. We did do a family run to Abbey Road for the required Beatle-like picture of us crossing the famous street, and we hiked up Mt. Snowdon, the highest point in Wales at 3,560 feet and the location of much of Sir Edmund Hillary’s training for the first-ever conquest of Mt. Everest. Also, according to family members with Fitbits, we did walk about 14 miles a day. But it was pretty much a twoweek taper. Pat had decided he would run with me, so I had no worries about the hills or distance, but I was feeling a bit undertrained and also was nursing a sore knee. But I figured I’d make it through, despite these concerns.  

Whenever we met people in Scotland and told them about the race, their first comments were, “Oh, watch out for the midges. They’re terrible.” Seems midges, or tiny biting gnats, are the scourge of the Highlands and can get into your nose, mouth and ears, biting away. So we followed local custom and bought “Smidge the Midge,” a bug cream guaranteed to keep them away, and just hoped that everyone was exaggerating. So now I was worried about undertraining, a sore knee, and attacks by “flying teeth.”  

We went to packet pickup at a ski/mountain bike area outside of Fort William the day before the race. The race helpers were friendly and helpful and again warned about the midges. The next morning we first dropped our kids off at the foot of Ben Nevis (the tallest peak in the U.K. at 4,416 feet, which they were going to climb while we ran) and then headed to the start line. The race started at 9:30 a.m. (a pretty civilized hour to start a marathon, especially if you’re on vacation), so we had plenty of time to lather up with “Smidge,” which the race helpers were handing out like candy. Pretty soon the bagpipes started playing and someone yelled “Go” and we were off. Guess the bagpipe playing is their equivalent to our singing of the National Anthem.  

It was a beautiful race in the Scottish Highlands, with temps in the 50s and light rain off and on (the rain must’ve kept away the midges, because we didn’t see a single one). The first 12 miles were mostly uphill, a combination of forest service roads and singletrack trail. The narrow trail gave us a chance to talk with people over a series of miles, since you couldn’t pass easily, which was lovely. At the end of this section, we came to a monument dedicated to the British Commando Forces that were established in World War II and then headed downslope along small country roads to the flat gravel lane that followed the Caledonian Canal and its Neptune’s Staircase lock system. At mile 21, we began a demanding 5-mile uphill finish of the race, again on forest service roads and trails. Despite the rustic course, the miles were clearly marked, although there were only nine to 10 water stops. Spectators were along the roads in the small towns, shouting “Well done” and “Well played” as we ran by. You really knew that you weren’t in Illinois (the mountains and fall-like temperatures were a giveaway also).  

After the race we sat around outside at the ski resort, talking to people from all over the U.K. and Europe, and soaked in the sunshine that had finally broken through. When awards were given, I found that I had won my age group (unofficially – old ladies; officially – 60 and over) and was presented with a fifth of Ben Nevis Scotch...much better than a traditional trophy!!! We went to pick up the kids from their mountain hike and headed to Oban, home of the Oban distillery, where we would spend the next 24 hours drinking Scotch and British ales and eating fresh seafood – not a bad way to recover from 26.2!

This race report originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of In Passing.