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The Sport of Kings

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

A new Ultra marathon event in the Scottish Highlands allows competitors to challenge themselves in one of the most majestic settings in the world.

The surfaces of the lochs were, perhaps predictably, dimpled by a fine, mizzly rain as we drove the narrow, winding roads from Glasgow to Glencoe. Even so, some glimmers of sunshine held the promise of perfect running conditions: having gasped our way through the heatwaves of the summer, none of us were particularly desirous of high temperatures.

Besides, the peaks and valleys of the Scottish Highlands lend themselves perfectly to moody magnificence. This is the land of Rob Roy, of William Wallace, of Robert the Bruce - and, more recently, of James Bond. It’s a land of heroes – which is what anyone participating in the Highland Kings Ultramarathon becomes.

Now gearing up for its second year, the Highland Kings is a 120-mile race, covered over the course of four days. With applications for next year now open, participants can expect six months of support and training from elite coaches, athletes, and nutritionists before convening in late April 2023. Perhaps because of this level of care, participants do not need to have competed at such distances before: as long as they‘ve previously bagged a 10k or half marathon, they’re likely to have what it takes.

Because what it takes, according to ultra runner, triathlete and performance coach Anna-Marie Watson, part of the Highland Kings coaching team, is 90% mental strength.

“I have school reports saying that I was ‘timid’ in PE lessons, or had difficulty catching a ball,” she tells us, over a Zoom coaching session before we set out on a 10 kilometre trail run at the foot of Ben Nevis. Such comments hardly smack of the stuff that makes a 30-time ultra marathon runner - but, says Anna-Marie, it’s about “creating a mindset, and a new narrative alongside it.”

It’s a concept that I find fascinating: having long been an enthusiastic runner, I ran a marathon in 2018 and completely fell out of love with the sport. The idea that, with a bit of mental shifting, I might be able to participate in an Ultra is, quite frankly, baffling.

Yet the power of the mind is something with which Matt Smith, the event’s architect, is very familiar - a long career in the British Army, including six years with Special Forces, has shown him first-hand the extent to which mental grit, physical endurance, testing oneself and pushing limits connect.

Thus inspired by a desire to create an event for ‘ordinary’ people to do something extraordinary, Highland Kings is the first of its kind: an endurance event with high-end elements.

It’s not only the six months of support - support ensuring you start the race as mentally and physically equipped for the 120-mile slog as possible - that precedes the race setting Highland Kings apart from other events in the Ultra arena: it’s also the level of care, comfort, recuperation and luxury that participants can expect to have their physically taxing days bookended by.

While some legendary Ultras - the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc and the Marathon des Sables, for instance - build sleep deprivation into their format, restorative care is integral to the Highland Kings event. Competitors can expect to sleep in lotus bell tents, each with a memory-foam-mattressed double bed, sheeted in Egyptian cotton. Sheepskin rugs provide an extra level of warmth and comfort - although, in keeping with the bespoke nature of the event, these are removed from the quarters of vegans. Other touches include personalised robes, a night light (for making your way to the lavatory block), as well as a crate full of toiletries, compression socks and homemade treats for blood sugar boosting. Two larger, communal tents enable racers to convene in comfort on Chesterfield sofas or, alternatively, to endure the private ministrations of a team of massage therapists and physios.

It’s an approach which has been met by mixed reviews from some members of the Ultra community: in the same way that many climbers dismiss those who climb Everest with sherpas and supplemental oxygen as ‘not real climbers,’ there have been those who feel that Highland Kings is ‘softcore,’ or only for those with money. However, as Anna-Marie Watson says, “money or not, we’re all just human and everyone has their own, often very personal, motivations for taking on a challenge of this nature.”

2022 athlete Sian Slater knows this to be true.. Having been through a difficult period in her early fifties, she saw a mention of the Highland Kings Ultra on a Runners’ World tweet and signed up immediately. It was an experience so rewarding that she is now set to compete in the 2023 event, soon after her 60th birthday.

“I couldn’t have been in better hands,” she says - not only because of the event organisers and the crew, but also because of the level of camaraderie and emotional support she experienced from the other athletes. “That first cup of tea brought to you in bed by the butler each morning was one of the highlights of each day,” she recalls. “There was a level of care - including a hot water bottle tucked into your bed each night - which, as a mother and partner, I’d not been on the receiving end of for a long time.” She’s scornful of the idea that the event is an indulgence for those with means - yes, the £16,495 entry fee is hardly small change, but this includes the full six-month preparation programme, as well as everything at the event itself. “Considering the level of knowledge and support you have access to, this is more than a reasonable price,” she points out. “You’d never be able to benefit from the experience of such individuals at a price like this ordinarily.”

For her, the Highland Kings Ultra has transformed her confidence, self-esteem and self-belief, as well as creating friendships with people with whom she is still in contact. “I learned things about myself and my capabilities that I wasn’t aware of at the time, and I’m much stronger than I thought I was”, she says. “I can’t wait to go back in 2023 and see some familiar faces, as well as lots of new ones.”

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