Running a whisky marathon
SMWS member Howard Calvert takes on 26 whisky-soaked miles through Speyside’s distilleries as part of the annual Dramathon race
PHOTOS: ANDY UPTON
The bagpiped notes of Scotland the Brave swirl in the chilled morning mist surrounding the 300 runners, nervously stretching their arms, twitching their legs and eyeing the hill that winds its way up from the Glenfarclas distillery here in deepest Speyside.
The runners are lined up for the October 2021 edition of the Dramathon – in this case, the ‘Full Dram’ – 26 miles through the centre of malt whisky country, passing through some of the region’s most famous distilleries on the way. I am one of those runners soaking up the music, preparing myself to face the Speyside trails in a quest for what is undoubtedly the best and most exclusive finishers’ goody bag of any race, ever: a collection of whisky miniatures from each of the distilleries we visit on the way to the finish line.
ABOVE: Runners by the old railway track at Tamdhu distillery
ABOVE: The Dramathon route goes through the heart of Speyside
The idea for the race was formulated by whisky and running fans Ian King, Jon Dunderdale and Paul McGreal around six years ago in the same way many of the greatest (aka ‘unhinged’) ideas are formed – over a few drams.
“We were aware of the popularity of the Marathon du Médoc [the vineyard-based marathon in France where runners drink wine as they run] and, after a few drinks, we came up with the idea of doing the same thing in Scotland, but with a whisky theme,” Jon tells me. “It’s one thing to sit in a bar nursing a dram, but it’s another thing to nurse the same dram having run along the River Spey and seen the distilleries first hand.”
“It’s one thing to sit in a bar nursing a dram, but it’s another thing to nurse the same dram having run along the River Spey and seen the distilleries first hand”
As an avid trail runner myself and member of the SMWS, this all combined to provide the perfect opportunity to take the next step in my whisky journey. It’s a unique opportunity to see nine distilleries over a four-hour period and learn more about the distilling process while immersed in the Speyside environment, after which you have the perfect excuse for enjoying a few drams following the end of a gruelling 26 miles.
“The social aspect of the race is really important, too,” adds Jon. “You know that the people you’re running with share your passion.” Many participants return year after year from countries around the world, as the draw of the surroundings, the terrain, and of course, the drams, are too enticing to turn down. “What I enjoy most is that, at points, you actually smell the distillery before you see it,” says Jon.
The scent of whisky is everywhere on the Dramathon route
“Or you see vapour rising from behind some trees and think, ‘I wonder which distillery that is?’ It spurs you on. Running tends to sharpen your senses, and you end up nosing the air while you run.”
After a short coach journey past the stacked pyramids of barrels at Speyside Cooperage, we arrive at Glenfarclas distillery where the race is due to start. Usually, runners can enter the visitor centre, and legend has it that some have even been known to enjoy an energy-boosting dram pre-run, but unfortunately Covid restrictions mean this isn’t possible this year.
Glenfarclas makes for the perfect place to begin – it feels like we’re on remote, wild, windswept Speyside moors, except there’s a vast copper still next to us and the aforementioned bagpiper playing us off.
Dramathon runners pass historic Ballindalloch Castle
Running past distilleries is a sensory as well as a physical experience!
We head around the boggy fields in the shadow of Ben Rinnes towards the historic Ballindalloch Castle, where we join a footpath skirting the majestic River Spey for the first, and not the last, time in this race.
The oak, ash and birch leaves are turning copper and butterscotch, gently raining down and coating the floor around us. A sign says we’re entering a red squirrel zone, although I fail to spot any of the shy creatures, but two deer bound across the fields at the somewhat confusing sight of runners passing through their usually quiet grounds.
After cutting across an exquisitely manicured golf course, we reach the small, recently built Ballindalloch distillery. The sweet, intoxicating, sugary smell of the mash that Jon mentioned drifts out of the building, making me slightly giddy – running so close to distilling whisky is a rare and wondrous sensory experience that I’d recommend to all whisky lovers.
Next we head uphill to Cragganmore’s whitewashed buildings hidden away surrounded by fields of sheep – sure, we had to work up a sweat up a climb to reach it, but it’s worth it as we run through the historic grounds that were once connected to the Great Highway Railway Line.
Following Cragganmore, we wind our way down to the Spey again to join the popular Speyside Way walking route. I run alongside a kilted runner from Edinburgh who shows me an unusual sight – some whisky miniatures he’s been sipping to power him through the race. I ask him if they’re helping or hindering. “Helping,” he replies, before thoughtfully adding, “for now.”
They certainly seem to be as he accelerates off into the distance. The vast Tamdhu distillery signals the halfway point. This is where the Half Dram runners start, and they cheer us through as we pass by, providing a much-needed morale boost. As it turns out, ‘much needed’ is the appropriate phrase, as we head straight into a leg-wobbling climb up to Cardhu distillery.
The Society’s very own Andrew Park, who looks after whisky tastings and events as well as our EU members, is a regular runner at the Dramathon, having done the half marathon distance every year since 2017.
“It’s the perfect place in the world to run,” he says, “and it really does give you a pick-me-up when you get the smell of the washbacks when you pass one of the many distilleries. Plus, there’s usually a great party at the end!”
INSET: Andrew with his partner Anna Ostowska
But it’s worth every teeth-clenching hamstring twinge: we’re surrounded by golden fields of barley and views of the undulating Speyside hills, with pine forests stretching out in every direction and the Cairngorms in the distance.
A pair of shaggy Highland cows eye us suspiciously as we wind our way back down to the river (I later discover they are named Beyoncé and Shakira), where we join the ‘Half Dram’ runners who have just begun their journey from Tamdhu. The next aid station is at the Chivas Brothers’ shiny Dalmunach distillery, which looks distinctly different from traditional distilleries thanks to its architecturally award-winning glass front.
From there, we pass through Aberlour where the 10k runners set off. Us marathon runners are 32km in and beginning to hit the wall (or should it be barrel?).
It certainly feels like a long way to the next distillery – the long climb up to The Balvenie can only be described as tortuous. We run along an ever-rising path through woodland, and the glorious surroundings of the distillery are a welcome sight.
A train at the Keith & Dufftown railway toots its support to tired runners as we stumble and trip towards the finish line at Glenfiddich. Running through the middle of the giant, final distillery is a unique experience due to the sheer size of the warehouses, and as we run past the famous stag, suddenly, there it is: what we’ve all been working so hard for. Forget the finish line, every runner there simply wants to grab hold of their finisher’s bag containing the unique medal carved from a used barrel stave and, of course, the precious whisky. With nine bottles to choose from, I crack open Chichibu’s Ichiro’s Malt, which I’m surprised to find is exclusively awarded to the first 50 finishers of the 2021 Dramathon.
“Tatsuya Minagawa, who owns The Highlander Inn in Craigellachie, is one of our biggest supporters,” says Jon. “He introduced us to the Chichibu team, five of whom come every year to run. Ichiro’s Malt is only produced in small batches, so we only have enough to reward the fastest runners.”
I savour this dram like few others before it. After all, it’s one that I feel I truly earned. Fancy taking part next year?