I signed up to this race in haste on a cold February night when, as a new mum firmly mired in all that that job entails, I was looking for a challenge that would give my running the focus and kick-start it so badly needed.
Having watched the inaugural Glencoe Skyline last year with Gilly and Sandra, I was excited to see the introduction of two other races to the series: the Ring of Steall (25km, 2500m vert) and the Mamores Vertical Kilometre. Quite sure that the Skyline and Ring of Steall were both well beyond my capabilities this year, I decided that the VK sounded very doable. I’ve done this before: signed up to brutally short hill races, seduced by the distance and forgetting to take gradient into account. As the days went by and I thought more and more on it, I realised I had signed myself up to something that would make Greenmantle and Berwick Law seem like pleasant rambles…
For those not familiar with the VK concept, the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) defines a VK as a race up a mountain with a vertical gain of at least 1000m, not exceeding 5km in distance. The format is popular in the summer European skyracing calendar, but this event would be the first official ISF VK in Britain.
Fast forward through a summer of NOTHING BUT HILLS, and Friday saw me and my wee family arrive at Kinlochleven, me staring slack-jawed at the giant of a hill standing before me. Na Gruagaichean stands just shy of 1100m above sea level, and my job that afternoon was to get from Kinlochleven to its summit as quickly as possible, via what appeared to be the steepest route ever. I had hoped that many many reps of the Turnhouse path over the preceeding months might have prepared my legs for the onslaught that awaited them, but seeing the beast in the flesh brought me to the crashing realisation that I had massively underestimated the challenge ahead of me. Gulp.
After registering (kit check complete, dibber attached, and £45 spent on an event hoodie!), it was time to ‘relax’ and wait for my start slot. The race was a staggered start, the first time I’ve started like that. Knowing I would be at the slower end of the field, I requested an earlier start time, and at 15:06 I dibbed my dibber and waved farewell to the people who had gathered to watch. I had seen the first few runners go off before me, and was so relieved they’d gone off at a sensible pace (watching youtube clips of VKs had convinced me that everyone would be sprinting out the gates).
The first few hundred metres took me down the main road and then right towards the WHW and the waterfall. From there, the climbing started, not steep at all, but horribly stony underfoot meaning that trying to gain any purchase was nigh on impossible. I hate running on this stuff, I can never find a rhythm, so decided not to waste my energy so near the start, and began to power hike. I was overtaken by a good number of people but I knew that if I tried to match them, I’d be wrecked before I even got to the proper climbing.
After the first 1500m or so, we emerged from the trees, up a better track, across a forestry road, where marshalls were holding open a deer gate to take us onto the hillside itself. From here, I could see a line of people going up, up, up. Straight up. The sight was really quite breathtaking, and any remaining notion of feeling prepared went out the window. I actually said “oh my God” out loud, and a marshall replied “yep, it’s incredible isnt it?”.
Nothing to do but crack on. No path at all was visible, the course marked with a series of orange flags. The gradient immediatly ruled out any attempt at running. This would be hands-to-thighs all the way. The terrain was mossy, boggy, heathery, tussocky, grassy. In short, it was about as far removed from the familair Turnhouse path as you could get.What I found most exhausting was constantly having to look up to try to find the best line, and to make sure I wasn’t veering off course. In my training, I simply put my head down and got on with it, but that just wasn’t possible here. There were also areas where it was necessary to use hands to help pull up.
After what seemed like ages, we emerged onto the top of a shoulder, to be immediately confronted with another, rockier, shoulder up to the sumit ridge. By now I was getting a bit light headed and my legs were demanding respite. I shoved some dried cherries and apricots in my mouth and started to shake my legs out, willing them to find the energy. Drizzly clouds were stating to form, and the marshalls encouraged me not to stop: “You can shake it out but you can’t stop!”. Let me say here and now, the marshalls were fantastic, but at that point I wanted to shove both these guys back down the near-sheer slope I’d just hauled myself up.
Onwards. This was my lowest point. I finally understood the meaning of ‘unrelenting’, but there was nothing else to do but keep going up (on my way down, I saw a woman pulling out at this exact point, and I know how she felt). It became rockier here, which made it hard to find a rhythm to sink into. The pull up to the ridge was short, and once onto the ridge itself I could hear bagpipes floating down from the summit. I began to allow myself to think of the finish, and there were some finishers beginning to come back down, yelling encouragement all the way. It was thick cloud by now, with a wind and heavy drizzle. I was still warm enough for this to be refreshing, but stopping was not an option as it could have got a bit hairy quite quickly.
Reaching the bouldery summit itself was a little anticlimatic: no line to cross, no arch to run under: just a miserable looking marshall holding out the dibber for me to dib, and that was it! Even the bagpiper had given up by this time. Quickly donning my jacket (er, Susan’s jacket, thanks Susan!), a hasty summit selfie with a friend, and it was time to go. We had planned to wait on the summit for friends and to cheer later runners up, but the conditions forced us down after just a few minutes. No place to hang about in a skort, the stormy summit of a Munro!
Going down was about as painful as going up, with much bumsliding and crab walking. I attribute my swollen knees to the descent and the constant braking I needed to do, rather than the ascent. However, we were able to enjoy the stunning view down Loch Leven, with moody lighting and the Pap of Glencoe in the distance.
Getting back down at about 6.30pm (with the last runners having just set off up the hill at 6pm!), I was delighted to see that my time was 1:38. The organisers had estimated an average ascent of 90mins, so I was hoping for anything under 2hrs. I think the field may have been faster than the organisers anticipated as I was firmly at the back of the pack with my 98mins (143rd/160). Winning time was 42mins. I can’t even…
The rest of the weekend was spent feeling smug and sore, and enjoying the atmosphere as we watched and cheered on friends doing the other two races on Saturday and Sunday.
This race was a big deal for me, as it was the first one I’ve done since having a baby last year. I had intended to race much sooner but never felt quite ready. I would just like to say thank you to Bill for lots of excellent advice and training tips, and to Susan McF who has been a wonderful running buddy this summer, and full of encouragement.