Running The Cateran Trail

We’re half way, or so we thought, as Ian and I were sitting on a bench in the warm sun in Altyh we were contemplating the reasons why we’d chosen to do this over a single day and not stuck with the original plan of a 2 day adventure. It might have been entirely my fault, and at that stage as Ian recounted the ‘what could have beens’ I might have wanted to find an excuse to bail out. He started “We could have been finished now, got ourselves washed and dried, grabbed a pint or two, had a good meal out and chilled for the rest of the evening, I mean, what a good time to stop for the day, at half two it would have been ideal”

As I listened, pulling faces each time he said something good, the kinda face that says ‘ahh that would be nice’, I was also eating, ramming a cheese sandwich down my face, followed by a bag of crips, a twix and bottle of coke. All of which were needed, and probably needed a few hours ago. We were a behind schedule, not massively at that point but behind what we expected. Let me talk you through our prep and journey and what led us to Alyth on that sunny September afternoon.

I’ve always fancied the Cateran Trail, I found it by chance on an OS Map and investigated the route. Somewhat strange in that it was circular but with many alternative routes and what seemed like an out and back to Blairgowrie. At some point it transpired Ian, whom I met on Cape Wrath, had always fancied doing it too. A plan was hatched and we would try to schedule a date. As with anything 2020, COVID hit and everything changed. Ian got good at running long distances, whilst I was just recovering from being injured. COVID allowed me to heal and increase my load to be able to even attempt an ultra distance. We were both getting fitter and Ian even more so. After the peak of COVID passed and working started up again, movements and plans could start to be made and we decided we’d schedule a date in September with the plan being to run it over 2 days as my fitness demanded that at that time, starting and ending in Spittal of Glenshee. About 10 days before, Ian sent through some ‘Alternative days’, with some additional kms up some munros on the start and end of the Cateran Trail, reading between the lines, I imagined that two 40km days were rather short for him and he’d like to have some adventures up some mountains. My head was elsewhere though, and with me not having any mountain fitness yet, I figured I would offer up the option of doing the Cateran in a single day, only 85kms right?

That’s the thing with adventures, they can be as much as you want it to be and Ian was up for that, it would be a day outing. The plans were set. I only needed to work out how to get to Spittal of Glenshee. I’ll leave these for another blog but I decided to get the Train to Blair Atholl on the Friday and run to Braemar so Ian can collect me and I would then get the Train back from Aviemore having run the Lairig Ghru. So I wouldn’t be starting the Cateran Trail on fresh legs but I had it in mind that I would be taking it easy and it would be a warm up run.

Enough of the back story, you can see why it was my fault we were only half way when we were in Alyth. We set off 8am on Saturday morning, heading clockwise from Spittal of Glenshee, the route crossed the main route to the ski centre and headed for the hill on the otherside of the valley, following a good track. Not far after this, we were taken up the side of a hill away from the track, and around the back of a farm, just to head back on to the same track a bit further down. Little did we know, this would be repeated often along the route. It is these small diversions that caught us out, and often on slower ground, it would sap your energy going up and then back down.

The first section took us to a main road after 10kms at Cray, which we followed East into Angus. From here a forest track was good going, but it was either up, or it was down. Never flat. This made our average pacing quite tough opting to fast hike up the hills. We reached Glenisla feeling hungry and chose to refuel here next to the Church. The pub/hotel was closed which could have been a good option, but this was a COVID casualty this season. From Glenisla the route heads immediately up a hill, steep and boggy. To come immediately down a hill, but with a nice gradient. This seemed to follow an old drovers track, long since any sort of traffic had been on it, grassed over with grooves matching a vehicle width. We were getting ever closer to Altyh, though you may not know it if you followed the mileage on the signs. Many times the mileage either didn’t change between signs, although more than a mile had been run, or in a couple of occasions, the mileage increased!

One path took us up a hill through a cow field, to skirt around the field border, and down the other side, then through an overgrown section, nettles, gorse, brambles- the works, to bring you out on a b road. All of that contrived section could be avoided if the path followed the road, which was quiet, flat, and straight.

The path leading over Alyth Hill was another overgrown and boggy trail. There were no views to speak of and running low on fuel we just plodded on, head down, bashing through gorse, nettles and mud eventually reaching a high point. This old way might have once took horses, cattle, carts over to Alyth instead of where the road goes these days, however, with little walking traffic it made going tough. The descent into Altyh was welcome but steep, which after a good 40km under our belts, it was hard going.

Sitting on the bench, we reflected on that journey. More undulating, more contrived routes, and more overgrown than we expected. Our average pace was much lower as a consequence and thus we found ourselves in the uncomfortable realisation that we’d be finishing in the dark.

Now as adventures go, you have to take what you get and deal with it, but be prepared. We were thankfully equipped with head torches and we also knew that as long as we could get to Spittal of Glenshee, a warm house was only a wee drive away. We decided to continue, in fact, stopping wasn’t really discussed, just in jest.

We left Alyth heading for the Bridge of Cally feeling much better after eating, not taking the race route to Blairgowrie, which turns out to be flatter, but straight back up the hill that we came down. The section just before Bridge of Cally brought us another disappointing section of the route, bounded either side by high hedges, an overgrown trail took a direct route over a hill, and between two fields. Reaching the Bridge of Cally after seeing no view.

The hotel at the Bridge of Cally gave us much needed refreshment, a bag of crisps, and some coke allowed us to feel better and tackle some much better trails. Forest track took us all the way to Kirkmichael which we reached in the fading light. This was some of our favourite track and trail on the route. SOme views over the glens and treading through heather and forest. It really was a good section.

After Bridge of Cally

In Kirkmichael we refuelled once more, turned our head torches on and headed for the final section. The first bit, through a pine forest with freshly felled trees meant the sweet smell lingered in the air. The owls and wildlife were out and making the noises in the dark. Frogs were on the paths and just before sunset we could hear the barks of stags and disturbed some deer. What a great time to be out running.

Enochdhu marks the start of the climb, the start of the climb up to the highest point on the route, just before Spittal of Glenshee. We were walking at this stage, poles out, heading into the dark but on a good track. The incline was steady, slowly meandering through forest, until a deer fence took us out on to open moor. The going was slow, steady and getting more boggy. It took what felt like an age to reach the top, both Ian and I entering in our own thoughts, silently trudging up the hill. The weather was kind though, warm, little wind to speak of, and no rain. It may have been a different story had it have been inclement weather. Eventually we reached the top, and started the descent. Only 3kms, it took 30mins to descend, finally reaching the bottom and the car.

Ian in the distance head torch on

15hrs 17mins later we had done the Cateran trail. I was glad I didn’t give up and its a reminder that good feeding and nutrition is needed to make you feel good on an extended adventure.

Back at the start

Some lessons and things of note:

  • Know the route so you are sure of distances. It makes me feel better knowing how far there is to go
  • Komoot and other mapping tools didn’t take have the right height gain and suspect this is all the undulating parts weren’t counted.
  • Farmland can be rubbish to run through as skirting around fields and cattle will be the norm
  • Alyth is nice. Nicer than expected.
  • It would be difficult to walk it these days as accommodation is lacking
  • Should have started earlier at first light or at least done the hill in day time
  • I didn’t get a headache and perhaps that was to do with the electrolytes (mountain fuel) I took.
  • Signs were great, we only missed one and went off route for 400m. It was a large sign post too so don’t know how we both missed it!
  • We didn’t see any beavers at the Hyde on route but we did see the dam.

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