Richard Askwith’s book, “Feet in the Clouds: a study of fell-running and obsession” has a chapter on the Ben Nevis hill race and finishes off with a statement that one is not a hill runner until you have run the Ben race. This has been mildly frustrating for me as fieldwork has clashed with this race date for most of the last decade. Last year was the first time I could have run it and I did not get in. My grovelling over e-mail got rather pathetic. They would not budge.
So – 2017 – I was super organised, got my registration in as early as possible and along with Stuart, Gillian, Alan, Mark, Sadie and of course Chris (27th time!!) we all met up last Saturday lunchtime at Claggan Park Rugby Pitch on a warm bright sunny day with building apprehension and excitement.
For those who don’t know, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the UK and therefore every Tom, Dick and Harriet wants to do it – hence the difficulty in getting a place. The race, from sea level to the summit, is 14kms long with a hefty 1345m ascent and descent. What makes it doubly tough is that is a highly technical rocky gnarly course with very little of that nice soft peaty mud that we are spoilt with in the Borders region.
There are essentially four sections to The Ben – see map.
The first kilometre is on road – fast going out and can be cruelly slow coming back. I initially took my time on this hoping that it would leave some strength for later. Once Stuart was out of sight in the throng of the many runners, I settled into a comfortable jog and tried to keep my eyes on the track at my feet with a periodic look-around to see the glory of Glen Nevis unfold as we climbed. There was no chance to look around on the descent!
As we left the road, the climb started, initially gently, but by the 3rd km, the steep ascent begins. The path at this point has been modified extensively to reduce erosion which means that the whole track is like a large unforgiving cobbled path with periodic “steps up”. These are not always small steps and as you climb, you think that running down it would be a nightmare. Once the race route tracks round into Red Burn valley, we left the main tourist track and deviated up a now quite badly eroded track to cut out a large corner of the main tourist track south of Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. After the large blocks of the previous section, this was a nice change and there were some short sections of nice runnable track.
After crossing the Red Burn (about the half way point – with shouts of encouragement from Billy), the climb notches up a gear. While the tourist track zig-zags up to the summit plateau, the race route goes straight up through a tortuous blocky scree. Richard Askwith describes this section much better than I; “……….scrambling up a slimy scree slope steeper than a London Underground escalator, …….. – and trying to ignore the fact that, the harder I thrust myself upward, the faster the stones crumble and slide beneath me. The heap of sharp-edged rocks stretches upwards. Though my legs are already limp, I know that, compared with the bone-threatening descent to come, I’m still on the easy bit.”
It is indeed a tough section – steep, loose and you cannot help thinking, “how the hell am I going to RUN down this”. I simply focussed on putting one step in front of the other, trying not to lose any places while ensuring I consumed a gel and a muesli bar while drinking plenty of electrolyte so I would have the energy for the descent. Near the top of the scramble/scree section, Finlay Wild flew down past us – way ahead of the next fastest runner. He was obviously on track for winning the Ben race for an 8th time in a row.
On reaching the broad summit plateau, there is still about half a kilometre before the turn around at the actual summit. The tourist track is a knobbly blocky track at this point – not fun to run on at all, especially with my right foot still sore from Dollar and so this was probably my slowest section. It was at this point that I saw Stuart coming towards me. I shouted encouragement but as he came up to me, he stopped, grabbed his thighs and screamed at me “CRAAAAAMMMMPPPPP!” and then stumbled off down the track. To my utter shame, my sympathy was very short lived and I mostly thought, “Oooh – I might catch him”.
I reached the sunny, but cool, summit in 1hr 27 mins which I am pretty happy about, although, for context, Finlay finished the whole race in 1:31:37!!! On the turnaround I took it easy over the initial summit track although one could not go too quickly as you had to not only dodge runners coming up but also the 100s of tourists who were walking up/down as well. It was a very busy summit!
However, once the descent down the scree started, the manic madness started that would not let up until I hit the road at the bottom. Loose scree is actually much easy to run on than unresisting knobbly blocks. I wont say that this initial steep descent was fun, but I went much quicker than I thought I would and with other runners constantly breathing down your neck (literally), I only vaguely saw/heard the other Harriers going up. It was all a blur really and adrenaline levels were probably very high as I seemed to fly down with my arms whirling like a windmill to keep balance as my feet, with semi-control, flitted from one loose cluster or rocks to another. Before I knew it, I had crossed the Red Burn and was traversing round to the blocky tourist track. Ironically, this section is the only bit where there was a muddy track and most of us were slipping all over the place.
To my utter surprise, the blocky tourist track was not that bad although the temperature rose to uncomfortable levels as we descended and it was rather hot in the valley. Going down this section was a lot easier than the trudge up – more of a matter of skipping across the large cobbles – although this would however be quite slimy if the conditions had been wet. In my probably slightly unwise reckless descent I passed several runners on this section and somehow did not trip. It would not be pretty if someone went head over heels here.
As the gradient lessened, I realised I was coming towards the road. Everyone says that this is where many runners come unstuck as their legs cramp up as soon as they hit the tarmac. It was now uncomfortably warm and we were all sweating quite profusely. I had been sucking on electrolyte the whole way and as I started on the road for the final km, my legs seemed thankfully to be OK. I was not fast – never am on tarmac – but I managed to keep a reasonable pace with no muscle twinges.
I crossed the finish line in 2 hrs 18 mins – not feeling too broken at all. The atmosphere was fabulous with runner’s names being called out over the tannoy and everyone standing and sitting around enjoying the mid-afternoon sun. Stuart had come in around 2:08 and was on the ground groaning and whinging about old age. The rest of the Harriers came in over the next hour (Chris and Sadie being very close!) with Mark just coming in under the 3:15 cut-off.
This was my 140th SHR race and according to Richard Askwith, I am now a fell runner. What a relief! I can finally relax!
Of the 489 finishers, the Harriers results were:
106th: 2:08:44: Stuart Sanderson [FASTEST FIREMAN PRIZE!!!]
172nd: 2:18:30: Rob Wilson
339th: 2:42:58: Gill Cairns
441st: 3:06:33: Alan Thornburrow
446th: 3:08:06: Chris Downie
447th: 3:08:22: Sadie Kemp
461st: 3:14:46: Mark Dawson
Loads of piccies on the internet – here are a few