There are more than 5,000 ultramarathons every year around the world, but none comes close to the Highland Kings, a new race in Scotland that aims to combine endurance and indulgence in equal measure. Just 40 people will be permitted to run the 120-mile course from April 25–29, 2022, each of them paying around $20,000 for the experience. This fee will cover everything from their gear to seven months of pre-race coaching and overnights in safari-style glamping tents specially erected in the Scottish countryside.
The ultimate off-road race was the brainchild of Matt Smith, a two-decade Special Forces vet in the British army who logged tours of danger zones across the world from Sierra Leone to Bosnia. He segued into extreme tourism after leaving the military, taking adventurers on equestrian archery jaunts and skiing through the Norwegian mountains, but his latest project is his most ambitious yet. “It’s never been done before,” says Smith. “I call it ‘Going Wild in Style’—why not go wild, but still have a little bit of comfort?”
Yes, it’s a bona fide extreme sport adventure: Participants are coached over months by former World Champion ultrarunner Jon Albon, so they’re ready to tackle the brutal course mentally and physically. Racers will snake around from the Highlands of Glencoe to the Isle of Arran, a total ascent over four days that tops 32,000 feet (Mount Everest measures 29,032 feet). The name of the event is a nod to three Scottish rulers, each associated with one of the areas in which they’re running, like medieval uniter of Scotland Kenneth MacAlpin. The toughest portion, per Smith, comes on the final day as runners reach the island. “People always say to me, ‘Why do the hard bit last?’” he laughs. “Maybe it’s my sick military mentality—we always left the hard thing to the end.”
At the end of each of the four days, though, participants won’t retreat to a shivering bivouac to IcyHot away their aches and pains. Instead, they’ll be feted in safari-style tents, with masseurs to soothe their muscles and a Michelin-starred chef, Alan Murchison, to cook meals with local ingredients. The last night’s blowout banquet at Brodick Castle will feature the event’s ambassador, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the explorer and cousin to Oscar nominee Ralph.
Organizer Smith has already filled more than half the places, even after COVID-related constraints made it harder for international runners to commit. Still, he’s proud of the diversity in age and gender; one inquiry came from a woman in her 70s, and the running pack is about 70 percent male. The April dates—chosen to avoid the midges, or mosquitoes, which infest the Scottish countryside in the summer months—overlaps with Ramadan (which precluded many observant Muslim runners however enthusiastic), so he’s mulling moving the 2023 edition to September. And Smith hasn’t discounted the idea of cloning this ultra luxury elsewhere, specifically Japan. “It’s about the qualities of kingship: inspiring people, confidence, leadership,” he says, noting that the real test is how tough the terrain can be. “We want folks to go ‘Okay, that’s a thing—it’s challenging.’ We don’t want Highland Kings to be easy.” highland-kings.com