A DOUBLE REPORT FROM DUNC AND ROB
Torridon is one of my favourite regions of the Scottish Highlands and I cannot believe I have waited this long to finally run the Slioch Hill Race. Slioch is a beast even for fell walking – its Gaelic meaning is “the Spear” – and the mountain dramatically dominates the skyline at the eastern end of the Torridon region. This is the 2nd race in the Scottish Long Classic Series.
The conditions were very wet this year and the race officials decided to shorten the race a wee bit and cut out the full horseshoe (about 1km shorter) which was a real shame as the weather did improve and I am pretty sure we would have had no problems on the descent off Sgurr an Tuill Bhan. Anyway – the edited route is shown below and at ca. 18.2 kms and 1100m climb, it is still not an insignificant race and in fact race times appeared quite similar to previous years.
Duncan and I stayed at his brother’s house in Inverness the night before so we had a leisurely start on race day and got to Kinlochewe with plenty of time to register, cogitate the alternative route and jog the mile to the start. The rain had lashed down all night and it was still raining when we were all huddled at the start line. Despite the rain, there was little wind and the air temperature was mild, so deciding on what to wear was not that easy as it was mild at the bottom but presumably colder on the peaks.
At noon the start “bell” rang and we sprinted off. The first 4 kms was a relatively flat trail (minor undulations) but a little technical in places as it was so wet. Rocks were slippy and all the streams coming off the hillside were in spate. I tried to keep up with Steve Fallon for a while who was loping along in his usual style but he kept going his own route through the undergrowth so decided to follow the main line of runners on the track. Duncan passed me after about 1 km meaning I could finally concentrate on running (and enjoying?) this race for the first time with no pressure of trying to beat a PB.
After crossing the bridge at the bottom of Gleann Bianasdail, the route started to climb – gently at first, but after about a kilometre, the route left the main path (more often a river actually) and went straight up to the summit of Sgurr Dubh. The cloud was down at this point so all one could see when looking up was this behemoth of a mountain disappearing into the cloudy murk. If you think the climb out of Glen Sax on Stuc a’ Chroin is steep, then you’re in for a shock if you do this race. Best technique – doggy style – all fours!! The main issue for me was that I assumed we would have to come down the same route (should have looked at the map) – that would have been horrendous so I was cursing the climb while mildly panicking about the descent. Luckily, the return descent was on the other side of the hill along the track although that was far from easy.
On reaching Sgurr Dubh, the route became nicely runnable and the cloud lifted for a while and we had great views. Bar a steep sandy/gravely section after the 2 lochs, the broad ridge traverse to Slioch submit was great fun and my legs soon loosened up after the steep climb. The wind kicked up for a while around the final summit and I had to put on my hat and gloves, but these soon came off again on the downhill plunge after the turn around.
One does not really fully appreciate the technical nature of a race until you are trying to sprint down a mountain. The descent was horribly technical and the wet rocks and bog made the descent a gnarly, slippy uncomfortable run. I fell quite a few times – my right arm having quite a few scrapes now – but did not do any serious damage. I mostly followed a V50 lady as she seemed to know the optimal route which only became embarrassing when she popped off the path for a pee. Enough said! Having made it down to the bridge at the bottom, there remained the nice leisurely “flat” 4km run back to the finish. However, despite sucking on an energy gel on the final descent, there was nothing left in my legs. What was a nice sprint out, was now a slow stumbling jog back with me reduced to walking every little rise.
This was a tough race. Although shorter and less height than Stuc a’ Chroin 3 weeks ago, the conditions really made this quite technical and was far from ideal for someone trying to overcome Achilles tendonitis. I would love to do this in dry conditions though – next year!!! Bar the technical nature of the terrain, the worst part is the ascent up Sgurr Dubh. From there to the summit is an epic few kilometres which I would love to do on a sunny day – the views are epic.
Now unfortunately (written Sunday), as my final training weekend before the Highlander in 2 weeks, I must go for a run today and see how well my legs function!
Although Slioch is a shorter distance than Stuc a’ Chroin, which we suffered three weeks ago, I was still slightly nervous about this race. I had walked up Slioch twice before and it had taken hours and hours! But mainly due to the 4km walk-in from Incheril – although, this is not usually a problem because of the great path and stunning scenery.
It was a bit miserable at the start with most people wearing their emergency waterproofs to keep warm and fend off the rain (except for the usual manic ones with just vests). And as well as the prospect of mist and no views, we wouldn’t even be running the horseshoe ridge (due to the poor conditions). A couple of minutes before 12:00, we stuffed our soggy tops into our backpacks and waited for the starter’s cow bell (the hooter had been dropped in a burn or something).
Once going, we soon warmed up, forgot the rain, concentrated on the wet path and tried to keep up with Steve Fallon of Carnethy. He seemed to be powered by something other than carbohydrate and we soon gave up – not even turbo-Stuart would have been able to stay with him. The field was obviously high quality (he says hopefully), as there seemed to be lots of runners in front of us. But I had resolved not to go too fast, pace myself and enjoy the run as much as possible.
Being used to the ‘tourist route’ up to the coire, the steepness of the climb was a mild shock, but having done the Arrochar Alps last year which had at least three such climbs, I wasn’t too perturbed. And, unlike Rob, remembered that we wouldn’t be coming back down the same way! From the top of Sgurr Dubh, it was much more pleasant and I was mostly running with three other runners – one of which was the first lady, so I must be doing OK.
We did get a bit of a view at the summit and could see all the way down to Kinlochewe and across to Beinn Eighe in some places through the patchy mist. Of course, we could also see the horseshoe ridge which looked perfectly runnable and quite inviting. But it was good to know that it was now all downhill, and I wondered if I had been going hard enough and had left too much in reserve. That thought soon disappeared as we slipped and slithered back down towards the main coire. By this time the rain had stopped but it had all been dumped onto the hill which was now beyond soggy with happy new burns appearing every few feet.
I thought that my down-hilling had improved over the last year or so, but I couldn’t shake off any of our small group and almost came a cropper a couple of times attempting it. After many slippery rocks, burns and bogs, we reached the raging torrent at the bottom of the hill and started the flat slog to the finish. Despite having eaten a gel and plenty of energy drink/electrolyte, my legs were not functioning all that well on the bumpy path and the first lady and the two other runners slowly pulled ahead. However, it was still a respectable pace and the finish appeared after not too much pain and joyfully no cramp!
I think I can truthfully recommend this race (in better weather) and the organisation was great with stupendously good soup/stew stuff in the hall and a bottle of beer for all finishers. We will definitely have to come back sometime to do the horseshoe. Now I have to get back to the Birthday Cake and Birthday Beer.
Full results here:
Winning time was 2hrs 12 seconds. Of 61 runners, Duncan came in 21st (2:24:18 – 2nd lady) and I stumbled in 38th (2:49:10 – 3rd FV50).
Rob and Duncan