They Did It! The story of Running Scotland 2021

Over 12 days this autumn, a team of dentists ran the length of Scotland – 680km – to raise money and awareness for SAMH

14 December, 2021 / indepth
 Paddy Watson  

“We’re not even halfway and we’re all completely broken.”

I think that’s what Stuart said, somewhere in the middle of the Highlands, as the four of us sat down for a rest midway through a day of running that would reach nearly 70km.

By that point we had all already completed four ultramarathons in four days and the strain was starting to show. However, despite our injuries, aches and general exhaustion, we knew we had another six days to get through and it was only going to get harder. I don’t think any of us ever envisaged just how challenging running the length of Scotland was going to be.

The idea of running from John o’ Groats to Gretna was born during lockdown. Stuart Campbell, Ryan Stewart, Derek Marner and myself – all dentists working across Edinburgh, Glasgow and Greenock – were certainly no strangers to running long distances, which had become a bit more of a regular occurrence during the pandemic – as practices closed and we all found ourselves with a bit more spare time to hit the longer runs.

It was initially Stuart and Derek who floated the idea of running the length of Scotland, an almost unachievable running target that would really test our physical and mental endurance. Ryan was quickly drafted in as the third member. I can’t remember why I agreed to join such an outrageous challenge;  I can only presume it was late on a Friday night.

Running for a cause

From the beginning, we knew we had to do this challenge not just for ourselves but for something that we all felt passionate about. SAMH (the Scottish Association for Mental Health) is a charity which provides amazing support and services for adults and young people living with a mental health problem or supporting someone who is.

The issue of mental health was thrust into the spotlight during the pandemic, and with good reason. We were all seeing first-hand, or hearing, stories of people struggling during lockdown, not just in the dental profession but across all communities.

With mental health services at breaking point and relying on public support more than ever, we wanted to help in any way we could. We also all found running and the great outdoors had such a positive impact on not just our physical health but more importantly on our own mental health, especially during lockdown. So, if we could promote the benefits of exercise at the same time then that could only be a good thing.

Assembling a team

If someone asked me what the most difficult part about Running Scotland was, it probably wouldn’t be the injuries, the lack of sleep, or enduring Ryan’s chat for 12 days. Rather, it would probably be the nine months of training and preparation that preceded it.

Alongside training our bodies to endure back-to-back ultra-marathons, we had to plan the route, book accommodation, source a support crew and raise sponsorship to fund the event. With regards to the latter, we were lucky to have so many great companies provide us with funds, equipment and support to allow us to even get to the start line, and for that we are eternally grateful.

As the event drew closer, at the eleventh hour we managed to find our support team; Dave Scott and Phil Briggs from a company called Sandbaggers. Dave and Phil would really become the fifth and sixth members of Team Running Scotland; without them we would probably have turned the wrong way at John o’ Groats and ended up in the sea. It’s safe to say this challenge would have been impossible without an incredible team supporting us the whole way.

Getting going

So as we gathered at the John o’ Groats signpost, we felt a mixture of nerves and trepidation before we set off  – on the 29 September – to begin our challenge. The first two days were essentially a warm-up for what was to follow, covering more than 100km across the incredibly remote and beautiful Caithness and Sutherland.

All smiles and in good spirits at the start line 

Trying to control our pace was one of our first big challenges. As any runner will know, when the starting pistol goes the temptation is to go all out guns blazing, and while we were never going to set any marathon ‘PBs’, we knew we had to go at a speed that was fast enough to reach our checkpoints, but also slow enough that we could sustain the same speed day after day.

The other major challenge was getting enough calories in. We were burning more than 5,000 per day, which meant that Running Scotland became as much about the eating as it did about the running. We agreed regular pit-stops every 10k or so, to fuel up on real food – bagels, pizza, cake, bananas, tea and coffee etc. Really anything that would give us the energy to get us to the next checkpoint. Normally, with running, it’s not advisable to run on a full stomach but we absolutely did not want to ever hit ‘the wall’, so to speak, so this was something we had to quickly adjust to.

Our overnight accommodation usually gave us the opportunity to relax, refuel and recover from a tough day of running. Some days we would finish around 5-6pm, which gave us plenty of time to unwind. Others, it was closer to 9pm – which meant recovering, eating and sleeping pretty much merged into one; never ideal preparation for the next day.

Also, in an ideal scenario, the day’s stage would finish at the door of a B&B or hotel. However, it wasn’t always as easy as this and there were multiple days where we would have to be driven to the accommodation then back again to our previous day’s finish point, to start the next stage.

Battling injuries

Days three and four saw us continue through Sutherland, passing by roaring stags and enduring what can only be described as standard Scottish October weather.

The beauty and expanse of Caithness 
Standard Scottish October weather

It was at this point that injuries and niggles emerged, and occasions where we would become fragmented and split off into groups. While we always had the intention of running as one team, this was probably always going to be inevitable.

The donations rolling into SAMH, and the constant support of friends, family and sometimes complete strangers really kept us going, as did Ryan’s Facebook Live videos which always kept us entertained – even when we were at our lowest. As we descended into the metropolis that is Dingwall, we were glad to have finally ticked off the true ‘North’ of Scotland and finally enter civilisation again.

Unfortunately, it became quickly apparent that Derek wasn’t simply going to be able to run off his knee and ankle injuries, and sadly he had to pull out of the challenge at Fort Augustus on day six. Losing Derek was a big blow; he had been running extremely well up to that point and it was a real reminder that no matter how fit and motivated you are, sometimes things can happen that are simply out of your control. For the rest of us, there was no other option but to continue.

However, with Stuart nursing a possible stress fracture and my own knee swelling up like a balloon, there was a real feeling across the next few days that we may have bitten off more than we can chew. Of course, for Ryan the only injury he seemed to be plagued by was over-use of his thumb from social media interactions!

Injuries and fatigue really started to take their toll 

Keeping up morale

At this point, though, the team morale was also noticeably lower, certainly as a result of injuries but also simply the relentless monotony of running day after day. As we completed the stunning Great Glen Way and began the West Highland Way, we had by this point covered more than 350km. But, while we had easily completed more than half of the distance, there was a real sense that another six days of this could be absolutely torture.

Stunning scenery during the Great Glen Way portion of the run
Entering the Devil’s Staircase on the West Highland Way

After a few very difficult days down the West Highland Way – where we split into two groups again, all nursing injured bodies and minds – it took Phil, from our support crew, banging our heads together and having a serious team-talk to get us working as a team again to try and get this thing finished. This was needed and really felt like a turning point.

Running as a unit again, and with friends and colleagues supporting us, we left the bonny banks of Loch Lomond and, on day nine, headed for Glasgow where, despite our bodies still feeling battered and after a slight adjustment to our planned schedule, our spirits were immeasurably higher.

With pit stops in dental practices to fuel up on tea and cake, and with the support of runners alongside us, we easily ticked off the next few days – thanks to the kindness of so many amazing people. While the scenery may have become less dramatic, in all honesty we were just happy to be progressing as a team again, with Gretna now seeming like an achievable target.

The end in sight

Some might say the M74 isn’t the most ideal backdrop to a length of Scotland run. However, the small motorway service road, with its more direct and flatter route, compared with the ups and downs of the Moffat Hills, was an easy decision to make. By this point we were moving, albeit with swollen feet, ankles and knees, employing a run-walk tactic.

But we also simply wanted to get this thing done, and if that meant a less scenic, easier route, then so be it. We ticked off the last few days from New Lanark, following the motorway towards the border, enjoying the delights of the many service station hotels along the way.

At lunchtime on 10 October, one day later than originally planned, we arrived at Gretna – to cheers and Champagne, from friends and family. We had done it. We had run the length of Scotland.

Running Scotland 2021 completed 

Starting the celebrations with Dave Scott, half of our incredible run support crew 

What next?

I wrote this several weeks later, almost feeling fully recovered, and partly considering my next challenge. I know that Stuart, Derek and Ryan are considering an attempt at the running the West Highland Way in one go, and possibly an attempt of the running the length of another country, let’s hope something a bit shorter this time! Would I run Scotland again? Maybe ask me that in a few months. I’m not writing off Running Scotland 2022, just yet.

I can probably speak on behalf of the whole team, when I say it was the most amazing, unforgettable and intense challenge we have ever done. At the time of writing, we have raised more than £12,300 for SAMH thanks to the generosity of so many people.

As our event slogan reads: “One run can change your day, many runs can change your life”. We hope our run has inspired people to get outdoors and enjoy the beauty that Scotland has to offer, but more importantly the money raised for SAMH will go towards changing lives for the better for people in Scotland, that is for sure. For that, thank you to you all.

Watch Running Scotland 2021 The Film

Running Scotland would like to say a massive thank you to their event sponsors and run partners:

Kalyani Dental Lounge, Extreme Business Academy with Chris Barrow, Rachel Barrow Web and Design, Quintess Denta, Quoris 3D, Sweden & Martina, PW & Partners, Vision Dental Laboratory, Kitchens International, Biohorizons Camlog, PerioAcademy, Tunnock’s, GSS Autocentre, Ashley Latter, Scottish Dental Study Club, Christie & Co, Dexshell, EDZ, Active Root, and Stewart Brewing.

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