First SYHActive day is a triumph

Rowardennan Youth Hostel on Loch Lomond is the perfect place to arrive after a hard run and bike ride, Don Currie finds.

Running and cycling are two of life’s greatest pleasures – for me, anyway. But what will they be like one after the other, I wonder, as I gather with a sizeable band of adventurous folk beside Rowardennan Youth Hostel on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond.

We’re a varied bunch, varying in age from teens to sixties and in attire from running vests and skimpy shorts to walking gear, complete with poles. We’re there for the first SYHActive Challenge, a 10-mile hill run/walk over the shoulder of Ben Lomond to Inversnaid followed by a 34-mile bike ride back to the start via Loch Arklet, Loch Chon, Loch Ard, Aberfoyle, Gartmore, Drymen and Balmaha.

Don Currie finishes a boggy section of the descent

Don Currie finishes a boggy section of the descent

I’ve only once before mixed my modes of locomotion like this. That was for a novice triathlon many years ago, done in the usual order of swim/bike/run, and I’ll never forget the leaden feeling in my legs as I started the run. This time there’s no swim to worry about – but the distances for the run and ride are far longer, and there’s the small matter of Ben Lomond to contend with.

It’s a beautiful April day of bright sunshine and little wind, but I’m still wary of being cold on the hill, as the run/walk route takes us above 2,500ft. I’ve erred on the side of caution, wearing a T-shirt, a long-sleeved running top and an outer shell top as well as leggings over my cycling shorts.

We set off along the well-defined main path up what is the most southerly, and most popular, Munro, alternating between a jog and a purposeful walking stride, depending on the gradient. I quickly get too warm, and take off first my Goretex top and then my outer leggings, tying both round my waist and taking the opportunity to turn and take in the glorious view of the loch and its islands.

We go through some patches of snow, and just before the last pull to the summit, we turn left to descend north-west towards Cailness Cottage.

On this stretch, which is rarely walked and has no path, we follow a line of small posts put there to guide us. There are also helpful marshals from the Lomond Mountain Rescue Team giving us directions and encouragement. I actually overtake a few people, my long legs proving an advantage in leaping over the boggiest patches – although at one point I do go in nearly up to my waist.

A competitor switches to his bike outside the Inversnaid hotel

A competitor switches to his bike outside the Inversnaid hotel

At Cailness, with nobody in sight either ahead or behind me, I join the West Highland Way and run the last couple of miles along the wooded loch shore to the changeover point at the Inversnaid Hotel, where our bikes and bags are waiting, having been brought round from Drymen, where we dropped them off.

Here I shed the T-shirt and stuff it, with my other excess layers, into my cyclist’s backpack. I munch a banana and an energy bar and drink some water. It feels odd at Inversnaid – and I remember this from when I did the West Highland Way years ago – to emerge from a wild, challenging landscape into a hotel car park with crowds of coach-borne tourists admiring the view.
Some of them are curious at the lycra-clad arrivals, and keen to chat. My stop is prolonged by an elderly supporter of Walsall Football Club, who tells me in detail all about his team’s recent first ever visit to Wembley, where they were beaten 2-0 in the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy by relative big-timers Bristol City.

I actually show more of an interest than I might have done – anything to prolong my rest – but then it’s time to get pedalling up the cruelly steep hill leading towards Loch Arklet. The gradient levels off, and from here to Aberfoyle the ride is a delight. The word undulating is often a euphemism for horribly hilly, but in this case it’s accurate – there are lots of upward slopes, but they’re rarely more than 100 yards or so long.

At Aberfoyle we join the cycle path that runs parallel to the A821 and A81 for a couple of miles before turning right to tackle the first serious uphill stretch towards Gartmore. The only sounds are birdsong and my tortured breath as I grind my way up in bottom gear, and there several equally punishing climbs between here and Drymen.

Outside the mountain rescue post at Drymen, three young German volunteers working for the SYHA are offering drinks and snacks. One hands me a banana, ready peeled and presented neatly on its skin. He clearly thinks I’ll appreciate saving the split-second of peeling time, and seems surprised when I stop for a chat.

Your correspondent toils up the punishing hill from Inversnaid Hotel

Your correspondent toils up the punishing hill from Inversnaid Hotel

But I’m thinking more in hours than seconds, and as I tackle the last stretch I slow down, beginning to feel seriously weary. It’s hard going between Drymen and Balmaha, with more traffic than anywhere else on the route, some steep climbs and a fair number of potholes. Beyond Balmaha it’s quiet again and my spirits ride as I turn into the youth hostel grounds about six hours after setting off. By now the place is alive with music and chatter, with a programme of activities well under way as part of the inaugural SYHActive day, intended to promote hostelling and the outdoors more widely.

A drum roll greets my arrival – but it’s just the band in the marquee starting another song. All over the grass, people sit and chat, kids play at the lochside, try out canoeing or have their faces painted, and there are some mouth-watering aromas from the barbecue. Time to claim my post-race meal.

Fastest finisher in the challenge, Killian Umbach, receives his award from SYHA chairman, David Calder, and chief executive, Keith Legge

Fastest finisher in the challenge, Killian Umbach, receives his award from SYHA chairman, David Calder, and chief executive, Keith Legge

I finish 21st in a time of 5 hours, 47 minutes, 32 seconds. By this time the first finisher, a young German named Kilian Umbach, has been back long enough to watch one of the longer films of Wim Wenders (his time – 4:06:48). He’s been spending a year with the SYHA as a volunteer, and this will go down as a highlight for him.

Keith Legge, SYHA chief executive, says of the day: “It’s been a truly successful and enjoyable day for all.  Almost all of the participants in the challenge said they would do it again next year. The icing on the cake for us all was seeing Killian coming in first in the Challenge. We were all extremely pleased for him and proud of his wonderful achievement at the age of 18. I would like to thank all of those involved in making the day such a success, learning about youth hostelling and the great outdoors and raising funds for SYHA’s youth programmes.”

For me, certainly, it’s been a brilliant day, and I’m glad it’s intended to be an annual event – perhaps next time with a less demanding challenge as well as the one I struggled round.

Back at Rowardennan, children cool off by jumping in the loch

Back at Rowardennan, children cool off by jumping in the loch

Compared to a high-profile road race, the challenge has a small field, which rapidly spreads out. For much of the way round I’ve had no-one in sight, ahead or behind. But there’s plenty of time to compare experiences back at Rowardennan, where the atmosphere is very relaxed and sociable.

Would I do it again? Definitely.

Photographs: Peter Sandground; Heather Sinclair

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