The Ben Nevis Race
3rd September 2016
The Ben Nevis Race is probably one of the oldest and most well known races in the fell running calendar, going back over 100 years, the first race dates back to 1895. It’s just under 10 miles long and goes straight up ‘n down the highest mountain Great Britain, standing tall and proud at 1,345 metres high.
Ever since my entry was accepted for this race back in February I’ve been so excited about the thought of having a crack at it, just hoping that I could complete this epic race and get up ‘n down in one piece.
We headed up to Scotland on the Friday, and after what seemed like an eternity, over 7hrs, we finally arrived in Fort William in heavy rain. We were staying in Fort William Backpackers Hostel, basic digs but ok for us.
Woke on Saturday morning to find it still raining cats ‘n dogs and cloud so low you could almost touch it. Great I thought, “I’ve looked forward to this all year, it’s chucking it down and I can hardly see a bloody thing“ Thankfully about an hour before the 1pm start, as if by magic the rain stopped, the clouds lifted and the sun even made an appearance, thank the lord for that.
The race starts at Claggan Park, home of Fort William FC. As all the runners gathered together on the field the sound of bagpipes filled the air as we were joined by the Lochaber Pipe Band who proceed to lead us round the field into the starting area. After a kit check, a quick briefing and some Scottish gibberish, never understood a word, it was a case of 3,2,1 the blast of a horn and we were off.
A lap of the field and then out onto a tarmac track. The first mile is reasonably flat before it leads us to the start of the ascent, and some ascent it certainly is. The rocky tourist path up starts off been fairly gentle as we skirt round the base of Meall an t-Suidhe but soons starts to increase in steepness and difficulty. The stunning views down into Glen Nevis briefly take your mind off the strenuous climb ahead.
I try to keep running for as long as possible, but it’s getting harder and harder, and eventually I submit to the gradient and my running turns into a hands on knees hunched walk. Attempting to run all the way up this is impossible, not sure how the fast lads at the front are getting on but everyone around me adopts a similar approach, hands on knees trying to power our way up. Legs are working overtime even though we aren’t going very fast, just trying to keep moving at a reasonable pace, easier said than done. To make matters worse the sun cream I blathered all over my bonce is now mixing with my overly sweating head and running into my eyes, can’t see a bloody thing. Luckily there’s a gushing stream just ahead so dunk my head in it, a good swill, then crack on.
Nearly half way up now, need to reach halfway in an hour, a glance at my watch, just under 50mins, that’ll do. A quick drink from the cascading stream at Red Burn and then onwards and upwards, sweating like a pig again and blowing pretty bad. On all fours for a while as I try my hardest not to slip back down a muddy slope, then thankfully back onto more rocky ground. The rocks leads to boulders, then to scree, then back to rocks, then scree again, so on and so forth. Zig zagging our way up and glancing across to my left seeing Carn Dearg I knew we were nearing the top as the cloud and clag was beginning to engulf everything around us.
Suddenly out of nowhere the leader came hurtling down past me, flying down the loose rocky scree like a gazelle, local runner Finlay Wilde looking on course to win again, closely followed by Sam Tosh and Tom Owens. How they descend so quickly over such rocky terrain is beyond me.
I soon forget about them as I plough on. Finally the gradient begins to ease and the temperature drops significantly as we get close to the summit, and I manage to get running again. Through the cloud I can just make out the fluorescent jackets at the summit trig point, near to the old Observatory ruins. I make my way across the boulder strewn plateau and drop my numbered wristband into the marshals bucket, quick look at my watch, 1hr 39 mins, well inside the 2hr cut-off, that’ll do me, turn round and start the long tricky descent back down.
Feels good to be running strong again, although it’s still very dodgy underfoot. A few feet to my right is the sheer cliff drops of Gardyloo Gully on the northeast face of the mountain, looks scary, best stay well clear of that. The descent is unbelievably hard, not so much physically but technically, watching closely where you place every footstep on the wet slippery rocks. For almost the next hour I run, jog, shuffle, trip, slip, slide, and fall down the mountain, thankfully not picking up a serious injury. And even though its hard work and you’ve really got to concentrate, it’s also great fun, especially the scree running. I remember thinking how lucky I am to be taking part in this unique race and just loving it, add to that the amazing views over Loch Linnhe shimmering in the sunlight in the far distance, amazing.
A few runners have passed me coming down as my descending isn’t great, I’m probably a bit too cautious but my aim is to finish, so I just concentrate on my own technique and forget about everyone else. Eventually the steepness begins to level out and I could see we were nearly there, but still had to really concentate as we strode from rock to rock and dodged round the numerous walkers tackling Britain’s highest mountain.
Legs battered, but feeling reasonably good at this point, just got that last mile on the flat back to the park. Managed to claw back a few places as some runners were struggling more than me, then one more lap of the park with cheering crowds and a last sprint(ish) to the finish line. Wow, finished in one piece, what a feeling, buzzing!
2hrs 37 minutes. Didn’t really know what time to expect, the finish cut-off time in the race is 3hrs 15mins. I’ve walked Ben Nevis a couple of times between 5-6hrs so gotta be pleased with my time, especially as I managed to complete the course unscathed with no bad injuries, a few cuts and bruises but nothing serious.
Finlay Wild won the race for the 7th year in a row, in 1hr 28mins, a new pb for him, what an amazing athlete. Some of the best fell runners in the country tackle this race every year, and he wipes the floor with ’em every time, awesome!
Gotta say, loved it. Not everyone’s cup of tea I know, but anyone who enjoys getting out on the fells and the mountains has got to have a go at this race. Its definitely a tough bugger there’s no getting away from it, but if things weren’t tough they wouldn’t be worth doing. The longest single climb and the most technical descent I’ve ever done, but well worth the long trek up to Scotland, and another race ticked off my bucket list. Dead chuffed!
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