First woman to run the Scottish Watershed


Elspeth Luke has become the first woman to run Scotland’s 650-mile Watershed.

When freelance musician Elspeth Luke was planning her month-long run of the Watershed, the drainage line that divides the river systems that flow east into the North Sea and west into the Atlantic Ocean, she could have had no idea that this would be one of the wettest summers in living memory.

In the event, there were only two completely dry days out of 34 and on every other day it rained either all day or for part of the day.

Elspeth, of Glasgow, says: “Like all Scots I know just how wet Scotland can be but I didn’t think it would rain almost every day. At least once every day, apart from two days, I needed to pull on full waterproofs.

“On occasions, there were also gale force winds to add to the rain and there were many times when the clouds were very low and tricky to navigate through.

“If you live in Scotland you just get on with it and dress to suit the conditions but it does seem ridiculous that I used my sunglasses and sun lotion only twice in the entire summer trip.”

The Watershed Run stats

During Elspeth’s epic run she completed a total of 650 miles – that’s the same as running from to Glasgow to Edinburgh almost 15 times – and changed trainers once.

She climbed 45 Munros – “one more than I needed to because of poor navigating in the Glencoe area,” says Elspeth – and 24 Corbetts. Her aggregate ascent of 40,000m is the equivalent of 4.5 times the height of Everest. Her longest day was 13.5 hours and 45kms.

Incredibly, despite the weather and challenges, Elspeth, 33, describes the Watershed run as “very enjoyable” and “a privilege to do”.
There were some sunny days – but not many

Inspired to run the Watershed

It was while chatting to Peter Wright, author of the Ribbon of Wildness, which gives an intimate account of the Watershed of Scotland, two years ago that Elspeth first had the idea to run the dividing line from Peel Fell in the Borders to Duncansby Head, in north-east Caithness.

Already a veteran of two ultra-distance 95-mile West Highland Way Races, the new challenge appealed to her physically and mentally.

Elspeth then looked at an account by Colin Meek, the first person to run the Watershed, in 2006. She says: “It was helpful to be able to follow Colin’s route and to avoid some of the bits that he said were hard to navigate.

“I also set about becoming completely self-sufficient in navigating in remote places and training to run on rough and wild terrain.”

Another driving force for Elspeth was raising money for a charity that is close to her heart. Her dad, Warren, has Parkinson’s and he is a keen supporter of Funding Neuro, which funds research into brain and spinal column diseases including brain tumours, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Bogs, bogs and more bogs

By its very nature, the Watershed is wet and very boggy. The line weaves from the very south to the very north of Scotland’s mainland, taking in a great deal of wild, rugged and trackless terrain.

Elspeth says: “I started out thinking I was prepared for the bogs and to begin with it seemed funny that they were so deep, wet and muddy. But after a while, as you can imagine, the appeal wore off and I found I had to suffer wet feet all day almost every day.”

Another aspect Elspeth was not quite prepared for was the muddy trails. She says: “Where there were paths and tracks these were far more muddy than they would normally be in summer because it has been so rainy. Nothing has been able to dry out and I was frequently walking and running through slippery mud.”

Sometimes it all got too much

Tough days on the Watershed

Many days of back-to-back running took their toll on Elspeth and she had to dig deep mentally to get through long sections with lots of Munro climbing.

Yet, she describes even tougher times. She says: “It was on the days when I thought it was going to be an easier outing, such as the day immediately after the last Munro, when I suddenly hit a low mentally.

“It felt so difficult to have a day that you think will be easier yet turns out to be slow and never-ending.

“But I knew I wanted to keep going because I didn’t want to let my charity sponsors down and also, in more practical terms, because I had booked accommodation at various points along the way.”

Elspeth stayed in a variety of places overnight, including hotels, hostels, bothies and wild camping in a lightweight tent. Low cloud on some days made point-to-point navigation on a compass bearing the only way to move forward.

And there were Munros that she would have liked to have had better views from. She says: “Surprisingly, given the rain, I did have a view from many of the summits but it would have been amazing, for example, on the South Glen Shiel Ridge, to have had a clearer day. I know the views would have been incredible.”

Running with friends helped Elspeth get through

The Watershed highlights

Elspeth recounts many great moments during her long-distance challenge. Among them, she talks about the superb support of friends – “someone ran with me every day” – the constantly changing landscape and the amazing sense of achievement.

She adds: “On the day, a week from the end, when I was on the last Munro I had a brilliant view. I could look back to see many of the Munros I’d already done and forwards to see a flatter terrain before me. I thought, thank goodness, the last week will surely be easier.”

Finally, a chance to celebrate!
Overall the last six days did prove to be a little easier going but there were still some long runs and after so many days of being on the move Elspeth wondered if she would ever make it to the end.

She says: “I think a large part of this challenge has been the mental side of it. There have been days when I wanted to stop, sit down and cry.

“But physically I fared well and suffered no blisters. I have nine toenails still intact and I kept to my original daily schedule, so all went well really.

“Overall I have really enjoyed the Watershed Challenge, seeing so many wild, remote and different places in Scotland and I’ve been so grateful for the friends and acquaintances who have come along to run and walk with me.

“I do love a huge challenge and being a freelance musician I never know what to do with myself for the long summer holiday.

“It has been a great way to spend my summer and amazingly it all went to plan. Just not the rain!”

* Your can sponsor Elspeth on behalf of Funding Neuro.

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