An Army veteran from Aberdeenshire is going the extra mile for mental health by running an ultramarathon nobody else has attempted before – because he designed it himself.
On September 18, Gavin Taylor will be attempting to run an extraordinary 123-mile route from the heart of the shire to the easternmost tip of the country in under 24 hours.
And the road is far from direct: starting in Ballater, the 37-year-old will travel mainly along former railway lines into Aberdeen city centre and all the way up to Fraserburgh, before backtracking 15 miles and running east towards Peterhead.
The wild challenge will be the ultramarathon obsessive’s longest route to date, and his main motivation is raising money for a cause close to his heart: the Scottish Association for Mental Health.
Highlander at heart
Mr Taylor grew up in Mintlaw and joined the Army at the age of 16, training at the Army Foundation College before joining the first battalion of the Highlanders.
The job took him around the world – Fallingbostel in northern Germany, Bosnia, Canada, Austria and Poland – and introduced him to many good friends.
Sadly, not all of them are still around.
Mr Taylor said: “I’ve had a handful of friends who have unfortunately lost their lives due to mental health.
“Some of them have been able to voice it out but have still not been able to get through the struggle, and guys who have also served in operational tours came back and have been struggling ever since.
“There are guys who have left the forces and went to go and try and introduce themselves back into civilian life, which is a very hard factor after being in the military so long.”
He added: “Probably one of the hardest points of my life was the first six months to the first year of leaving the forces, trying to adapt back into civilian life.”
After leaving the Army, Mr Taylor began working offshore and said he did “nothing for four years” – just following the motion of whatever everyone else was doing.
“It became a part of my life where I was thinking, I can’t see myself keep going this way because it just didn’t feel right.”
Pastime to passion
A major change came on the day his youngest daughter, Brooklyn, turned three.
A smoker for 13 years, Mr Taylor decided he would cut out the cigarettes and take up a light hobby: running.
Brooklyn is now eight, and in that time her dad’s pastime has grown into something rather more substantial.
Since signing up to Scottish athlete Paul Giblin’s Team Ultra coaching programme in 2016, he has run around 30 ultramarathons, ranging from the 10Peaks Challenge in the Brecon Beacons to the Speyside Way (five times) to the West Highland Way.
Last year, Mr Taylor received an unexpected knock which could have derailed the progress on his mental health, losing his offshore job as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
He said: “After losing my job, it got me on a downer, just thinking, ‘now what am I gonna do?’ I’d just bought the house two years ago, thinking I was just getting on the straight and narrow.
“But I actually managed to turn it into a positive, even though I wasn’t working.
“I kept the training going, and it actually led me to leave offshore, not wanting to go back.
“I said ‘I’ve seen a different side of myself’.”
Mr Taylor has now started a new job in care, looking after a young man “who needs help to keep him going, and promoting a good lifestyle for him”.
The big challenge
Raising money for mental health may be Mr Taylor’s main motivation for running 123 miles, but it is not his only one.
For the past two years, he and his friend Kevin Mottram have been planning an ultramarathon that took in part of the former Formartine and Buchan railway line, but have been unable to go ahead with the event due to the Covid pandemic.
Then, last weekend, Mr Mottram beat the record time for the 57-mile Bennachie Ultra Marathon – by an hour and a half.
While the pair are good friends, they are also great rivals, and the need to one-up Kevin spurred Gavin on to attempt something even more impressive.
One night at work, he jotted out a route that linked the Formartine and Buchan line with the Deeside Way by taking in the existing railway line between Dyce and Aberdeen: “I just said to myself, ‘well, the penny has dropped, this has put it in my head. Let’s do it’.”
The date of the challenge has been set for September 18, on the weekend the Highlanders mark the anniversary of their regiment’s formation in 1994.
Cheered on by wife Tasha and kids Abbie, 18, Jamie, 14, and Brooklyn, Mr Taylor will try to run the full distance in under 24 hours – because the distance alone would not be hard enough.
He said: “The 24-hour marker is set, I don’t want to go over it and I want to be under it.
“I do have a sneaking suspicion that if everything goes fine I could be well under that.
“But for that, everything has to work, and in a 100-miler race, a 24-hour race, nothing really ever goes to plan.”
Mr Taylor’s JustGiving fundraiser for SAMH can be found here.