“How can you not love this?” asks Norman Ferguson as he grins almost maniacally on the shores of Loch Trolamoraig as he strips down to nothing but his shorts.
Norman, who is Stornoway Running and Athletic Club captain, led a galloping gang of 22 on the traditional Flett Trek, first over a gruelling nine mile run between Urgha and Rhenigidale, including a descent down the glorious zig-zags – surely a contender for most stunning trail backdrop anywhere in Scotland.
But now he is braving the literally sub-zero temperatures to strip down to his shorts and within seconds he is off, catapulting himself into the surf of the Loch – after a quick sunbathing stop on the shore of course, this year complete with a coating of soggy seaweed too.
He is not alone. Far from it as nine of the Class of 2020 Flett Trekkers follow him into the chilly waters for their traditional Hogmanay Dip.
“Are you coming in?” come the next shouts from the sea.
Not a chance I say in my head as running up the Postman’s Walk in a near vertical climb to a bonkers 282m peak – according to my GPS – had already sucked all the life out of my legs for the past 30-odd minutes so I don’t think I could survive a full Flett Trek experience.
And besides the near blue tinge on the faces of the lads charging in and out of the sea is enough for me to pass and blame my need to keep my camera and note book dry.
SRAC mainstay Murdo Alex Mackenzie marked the 30th anniversary with his first Flett Trek Dip after many years of completing the run but keeping himself out of the surf. It might be his last dip too as he tried to dodge the attempts of club captain and good pal Norman to implement his best WWE moves to send Murdo Alex under the waves for a full soaking.
This Hogmanay was the 30th annual Flett Trek and it is firmly established as become the longest standing and most loved tradition in the history of Stornoway Running and Athletics Club.
It was back in 1989 that the Flett Trek pioneers Dougie Flett and Ross Munro first conjured up the now unmissable tradition of marking Hogmanay morning by galloping across the stunning trails and views of Rhenigidale before plunging into Loch Trolamoraig.
At the time Flett was making a twice-weekly run along the famous ‘Postman’s Walk’ path which linked Urgha and Rhenigidale before the introduction of a main road would finally open up the remote village the following year.
When the two great pals made the run on Hogmanay thirty years ago now, on December 31, 1989, it was fair to assume neither imagined that three decades later the club would still be paying homage to the boys’ Hogmanay hill dash.
Since then the New Years Eve trek has evolved with later runners adding ideas on the jaunt to mould it into the club’s most popular outing of the year.
Ross Munro explained to the Gazette previously: “It all started in 1989 with Dougie and I when we decided to run the old route before the new road was put in. We were the only two on the first one but it has grown so much since then.
“Initially the route took us all the way along the shore to where the boat came in rather than finishing on the main road where we do now.
“For the first few years we had no thoughts that we could stop and refuel with food or drink at the hostel which has now become such a big part of our tradition. Back then it was mostly a sausage roll and a can of beer sheltering at the gable end of a house for us.”
It was Rodney ‘Cheggs’ Jamieson who first broached the idea of a splash in the frosty waters of the loch in the middle of the run and remarkably his spontaneous decision to strip off and dive into the still waters has become one of the foundation stones of the trek.
“In the 90s we had more and more joining us with the likes of Tony Robson and ‘Cheggs’ and it was ‘Cheggs’ who produced a hand towel one year before throwing himself into the loch and a tradition was born,” said Munro.
Nowadays , the Flett Trekkers are split into two camps of runners with the stronger, faster and more experienced of the group dropped off in the early morning darkness to take on the off road 4.5 miles from Maurig to Urgha where the second group wait.
When the first group are spotted coming through the glen the second party take-off up the steep climb towards Rhenigidale with the aim of both groups reaching the summit together.
Ross says: “By the late 1990s we realised we had runners of different abilities coming along so we made the decision to add the long run to the start, 4.5 miles from Marig to Urgha to try and get everyone finishing together.”
While the near nine-mile combined distance is a gruelling cross country run it takes all the Trekkers across some of the most picturesque tracks in Scotland.
The second-part of the run scales up The ‘Postmans Walk’ where the two groups of runners, and any walkers, snake up the age-old track which once upon a time was the only connection between Rhenigidale and the outlying Harris villages.
For hundreds of years the track was the only route for the rest of the island to reach Rhenigidale by land as locals scaled the peaks. A road into the village wasn’t completed until 1989 with claims it was the last community to be linked to the UK network by road.
The track from the top of the peak to the shore zig-zags from left to right and back again all the way to the foot where giant cliffs cocoon the loch in the glen and where the runners strip off for their annual dip in the still waters of Loch Trolamoraig.
The charge into the water is always launched at full pace by the bravest of the Flett Trek gang as they bound into the water and disappear beneath the rising and falling waves.
After a quick change of clothes the runners begin their ascent up the other side of the glen towards Rhenigidale where the track takes the groups through the ruins of the long-abandonded Gearraidh Lotaigear settlement which is perched on the edge of the cliffs.
In the now 30-years of pounding the tracks and taking the plunge the Flett Trek has created countless happy memories as Ross recalls.
“Over the years we have had visitors from many other clubs come and join us for the Flett Trek with runners from the Edinburgh clubs and also Preston Harriers too.
“We have been piped into the water a couple of times with Dougie carrying his pipes to the shore which has been an experience to remember and it’s been 15-years or so now since we started to use the hostel in the village.
“We have fed countless hostel guests in that time as well who have been there at the same time and one Greek guest was so thrilled with us he sent us a gift in the mail after returning home.”
During one of their annual runs the Flett Trekkers took time out in the middle of their journey, at the peak of the ‘Postman’s Walk’ to help rebuild the cairn of Duncan MacInnes, who had died on the spot a century or so before (his Grandson sadly shared the same fate within sight of the cairn).
Kenny arranged for a tonne bag of stones he’d collected from the MacInnes family croft to rebuild the cairn mistakenly taken apart as part of the path repairs and drainage.
The track brings the runners to the main road before a short gallop leads all to the local bothy, the Rhenigidale Hostel, where even the coldest of bones are warmed gently and generously by a warm, two-course hearty meal and generous helpings of warmed mulled wine.
This year Mother Nature smiled warmly on the Flett Trek with unseasonably pleasant, and almost delightful, weather. It was light throughout, reasonably warm and with little wind so the Flett Trek wasn’t the slog it has been in the past.
As tradition dictates we all descended on the Hostel for some festive fun, banter and munch with vegan chilli, chicken curry and even a pudding served up for the hungry runners.
Of course all this was washed down with a few festive swallys by those not driving as SRAC brought the curtain down on 2019 and the decade in style.
Club captain Norman Ferguson added: “The Flett Trek continues to be a huge part of Stornoway Running and Athletics Club three decades on because it is always such an amazing day out.
“It is the perfect way to round off a hard year of training and competing with a bit of fun, with your friends and club mates but it is also a stunning route.
“It’s also a bit of a social thing too and it is great fun and makes so many memories. It is only once a year but it is something we all look forward to so much and it is the perfect end to the year and the perfect kickstart to anyone’s New Year’s Eve.
“Here’s to reaching the 50th anniversary now although I might not still be doing it by then,” he laughs.