On a boozy evening, Sean McFarlane is set a mighty challenge by a pub landlord to get from pub to pub under his own steam before the next day’s last orders. The distance: 174.4km
Words: Sean McFarlane Pictures: Andy McCandlish
My various training pals and I have long enjoyed Andrew’s hospitality, often telling him of an epic hill run we’d just done, a 100-miler bike ride, or some other outing over a well-earned pint and plate of fish and chips. Yet his well-founded scepticism infects even our recitals. So enough was enough. “Give us a challenge” we declared. And he did.
As we enjoyed some refreshments to lift the spirits on a cold February evening, the gauntlet was laid down. Leaning over the bar taps, he pointed at the four of us and with the most steely of gazes set down the rules. “Starting at the other place I manage, have breakfast there and then get back to this pub under your own steam before the kitchen shuts.” Straight away I replied with “You’re on!” perhaps with foolish alcohol-fuelled over-enthusiasm. I then quickly lowered my head to pint glass level to ask the others “Where is this other place he manages?” “Bridge of Orchy in Glencoe” came the reply. Hmm…
As I sat back in my chair, I looked at my pint glass. “Schiehallion” it said. Schiehallion is a classic Scottish mountain in Perthshire although on this occasion the name given to the beer I was drinking. The pub we were in was called the “King’s Seat”, named after a hill of the same name above our village in the magnificent Ochil Hills of central Scotland. I felt a plan and more importantly a route coming together. “Right, let’s get out a map” I said, the challenge had well and truly been accepted!
The beer mats were quickly pushed aside as the road map was opened up. Okay, Bridge of Orchy, via the sizeable lumps of Schiehallion and Kings Seat, finishing in our home town of Dollar. Starting with breakfast at the Bridge of Orchy hotel and finishing by our local’s kitchen closing time of 8pm. With all eight eyes at our table now transfixed by the map, we began to visualise the route. “Awesome” all round, with a few added expletives. This is why we run, bike and generally get out to train, to be able to do off-the-cuff things like this. If you’re reading this, there’s every chance you’d do something very similar.
So, to the important matters – route planning. Rough timings appeared to be breakfast at 7am with an 8am start. With the kitchen closing at 8pm, a 7.30pm finish was deemed to be safe. Eleven and a half hours sounded a long time but we had no idea how long this would actually take. I’d got previous experience of somewhat glumly ordering six bags of crisps when arriving after kitchen closing time, and it’s an experience both me and my digestive tract were keen to avoid repeating.
Over the next two months, via texts, return pub visits, Strava and emails, five stages were finally agreed. Mountain bike, road bike, hill run, road bike, then hill run. This would be a self-powered journey through the heart of Scotland with suitable nourishment to start with plus the crucial all motivating replenishment of beer and pub food at the end.
Assembling a crew for these things is always both tricky and interesting. Early year enthusiasm soon wanes and despite almost a double figure amount expressing initial commitment, quickly only a few remained. Alan and Alistair had both similar names and powerful diesel engines, plus Alan’s partner Mhairi was a seasoned one-woman-support-crew – I’d long admired her pop-up table and the wonderful spread on it. So the dream team was complete. I fully expected and duly got the largely unfounded emails of dread in the build up from Alistair. Alan, as is his want, just got on with planning the finer details. This was a great team.
Early June was D Day. The settled weather was forecast to arrive right on cue. The heightened sense of excitement meant the week seemed to drag on just that bit longer than usual. We knew we were in for something truly memorable. Car shuttles organised, we met in the village of Callander in the Trossachs. Not normally a sleepy place, especially in summer, but it was 5am. Off in the van, we headed up through Crianlarich and Tyndrum. The mist began to pull back from the mountains and as the blue skies emerged, the tangible sense of anticipation whirled all around the van, with eyes seemingly glued to the windows.
Bridge of Orchy hotel does do a cracking breakfast. A good start to any day. We all juggled with the standard quandary of eating enough to fuel ourselves whilst conscious of the imminent biking and in particular the climbing involved. On this most settled of days, it would undoubtedly be wind of another kind that affected us. Right on 8am, we left the hotel and headed south along the West Highland Way on our mountain bikes. 29ers are great. Soon we turned left and headed up hill. This was the one part of the whole route we hadn’t done before. Google Earth and Loch Lyon. As we gained height, gradually and steadily, the shimmering water began to appear. We whizzed round the north side of the loch splashing through the streams, this was a marvellous start.
We quickly made our first transition. Some food and drink but not too much – steady grazing was the name of the game here – and we were off on road bikes. We couldn’t resist team time-trialling. Pretty foolish at this stage but it was fun. Perthshire was at its stunning best. We passed through the picturesque village of Fortingall, allegedly the birthplace of Pontious Pilot. People really do believe anything…
Then a left turn and a climb. Er hello, a big climb. Schiehallion loomed into view. Gulp. Its grey summit contrasted sharply with the perfect blue sky. It looked seriously high. Into the car park and a change into running kit. Things were heating up now, in more ways than one.
The climb up Schiehallion was unrelenting. It was busy with many others having their own personal battles. I have no doubt the phrase “false summit” was invented here. Eventually I could see the actual summit (I hoped) and the nice path now turned into large boulders. Onto the summit at last and we cracked open a beer. As did the two girls behind us. Cheers! Right back down, paying particular attention to that initial boulder field.
The car park took a long time to reach. My legs were aching yet even the most optimistic amongst us couldn’t contend that we were past half way. Because we clearly weren’t. Someone quickly said “At least we’ve broken the back of it”. Well, my own back certainly felt pretty broken.
Onto the road bikes and our earlier pace was now a distant memory. Across the river Tay and through the village of Aberfeldy for another big climb. It was now hot. The flies were gathering and seemed to be laughing at my pace. The three of us climbed in silence. We were all in “that” place. We’d done this climb many times before but on this occasion with Schiehallion fresh in our legs, it was tough. Very tough.
Up and over, our bodies gave a collective sigh of relief as we spun southwards, relishing the gradual downhill. We’d agreed to have a support stop midway through this leg and it was most welcome. I found myself glancing into the others’ nutrition bags. Mhairi saw my envious eyes and duly gave me a Coke. Life saver. Back on the bikes and things felt better. We were now on familiar terrain – I’ve had all sorts of cycling experiences on these roads, and it was like seeing a long lost friend.
The final climb up from Gleneagles and into the heart of the Ochil Hills had us all silently questioning (I know because we all later admitted it!) whether we could have just continued cycling home. But we still had the final part of the challenge to do – King’s Seat hill.
Alan and Alistair set off ahead of me and I packed up my stuff and ran after them. As I did, I couldn’t help but take in the surrounding landscape. As the sun went down on a perfect early summer’s day that we’d now never forget, the stunning peaks rollercoastered away from us, casting their shadows randomly over the lush green land. Schiehallion had been rammed with people yet we were all alone here. Less than an hour from well over half the population of Scotland, I couldn’t help but think that vast swathes of the country were missing out.
As I ran towards the other two, this was without doubt the highlight of the day. No, make that year. We were closing in on the end of a challenge that we had put together and been able to do. What a fantastic privilege. I felt very lucky. Strength seemed to return to my legs. Perhaps it was the thought of the soon to be plundered pub. We reached our final climb of the day up King’s Seat. I’d been up here well over a hundred times but this time was different. Welcome for sure, but also symbolic in capping off the best one-day adventure any of us had ever had.
As we descended into the village, we picked up the pace. Our photographer had spoken to a couple of visitors from the U.S. who had headed up the hills for the sunset, they weren’t missing out. As we passed them they gave us a thumbs up “That’s what it’s all about lads” they said. Hard to argue with that.
As we arrived at the pub and 7.30pm, Andrew was outside. Arms folded. “Well?” he asked. “We did it”! I replied, hands on knees and very much in need of calorie replacement.
Only one question now remains to be discussed: what’s next? So what are we and more importantly YOU waiting for?!
Schiehallion Challenge Route