Ben Nevis Race
The leader had long since passed, apologising as he fell back to Earth. The summit cairn was soon in view, perhaps only 300 metres across the plateau. Pale grey rocks, the size of oblong dinner plates, wobbled and cracked with every footfall. On an OS map, this final section would seem like a doddle; in fellrunning terms almost easy. After climbing nearly 4500 feet nothing was easy. The best I could manage was a fluid shuffle; faster than walking but hardly running. I recalled a similar feeling and style during the final miles of my first marathon. I exchanged my summit band to the race officials in return for enthusiastic words of encouragement, most of which drifted by me. I turned and raised my head. The Western Highlands were revealed all around me. I’d taken 1 hour and 50 minutes to reach the top of Britain. Unknown to me, the race was won 20 minutes ago.
A few questions had rattled around in my head during the final fitful sleep. What shoes to wear? Should I carry water or scoop from the Red Burn? Would I have issues with route navigation? I thought some advance knowledge would help. Soon after entering I asked a seasoned fellrunner what nuggets of advice he could offer from his race experience: ”Ben Nevis! Me? You wouldn’t get me doing that bloody monster! Only the crazy would attempt that beast of a race…” Online forums similarly explained that no amount of training could prepare a runner for the endless scree, cannon ball rocks and jelly legs on the tarmac return. One anonymous entry simply suggested that Ben Nevis runners should “…find the nearest steep hill, run up, then roll back down. And then repeat.”
Anxious faces looked out on the grass field at Claggan Park. Race numbers were shakily affixed to the front and rear of vests. Waist packs were checked and stretches undertaken. Scree gaiters were clicked over ankles and suncream massaged into necks and shoulders. Heads occasionally rose in the direction of Ben Nevis. Much like a good horror tale though, the monster couldn’t be seen – hidden by the unassuming nearby lump – and for now only the scary description from others would fill the void. Nervous laughter rippled between the portaloos and the Pete Bland van sale. The tension and trepidation were palpable. In short, most were kackin’ it!
Registration red T-cards were all deposited. I’d chosen to wear Mizuno Wave Harriers and didn’t see the need for scree gaiters. It felt good to be finally stretching out the legs. The bagpipes and drums soon drifted silent as the race field circled the grass field and exited on to the single lane tarmac road. The scene of colourful vests, bobbing up and down along the sun-soaked road, was spectacular as usual. Watches soon all beeped in tandem at the Ben Nevis Inn to signal the end of the first mile. I’d started very steady, as planned, and was comfortable. Inside my waist pack a half filled water bladder bounced in the small of my back. The concentrated applause soon ebbed away, along with chatter – game faces were quickly adopted.
The route cranked upwards. I glanced – too late – to see runners high among the bracken on my left, then another fork, followed with grunts further ahead. Unwisely I followed others to the right on a lower path that leveled out and, for a short time, offered increased pace. This quickly ended. The route turned into the steep gradient and an energy sapping scramble was required. A couple of short shuffles delivered me at the foot of the Red Burn, and the start of the stone steps. My Dad offered me support and cheered me upwards. I glanced at my watch and immediately wished I hadn’t. Another 100 metres up I shuffled across the Red Burn, in 55 minutes, just ahead of the advertised cut-off. I wouldn’t properly run again for another hour.
The endless, leg-numbing and brain draining section of scree is hard-going. In the clag this could be very disorientating; in clear summer weather, every crest just meets another ridge, which leads on to another crest. Stones slide in all directions, and a long line of runners shuffle upwards in silence. Then the silence is broken. A waterfall sound of falling rock gets louder. From beyond a crest, a bearded runner wearing a white vest, effortlessly skips down over sharp stone and danger. His gaze is sharply focused on his descent. Every few seconds, though, he generously warns those ascending of displaced, airborne stones. And says sorry. Soon, he has gone, falling further back down to Earth. Again, almost silence. Others soon repeat the leader’s freefall, albeit with more numbers and therefore greater noise. I start to get into a comfortable groove and periodically glance back at the view.
After the summit the race really begins. Tired legs disconnect from an overworked brain, and falling is inevitable. As best I could I decided, given the glorious weather, to enjoy the experience and save myself for other pending challenges. Route finding, footwork and braking were still extremely challenging and despite my seemingly pedestrian pace, not without risk. Large swathes of scree washed downwards, under heavy footfalls. Some other runners around me fell, and fell hard. Bloodied knees were a certainty, while some braver efforts were unfairly rewarded with scraped elbows and hands. I don’t remember looking up at any point, and was elated to finally reach the top of the grass bank taped section. That elation soon drained away.
The choice of footwear would now be exposed. The taped section – approximately 500metres of sharp descent – was only 5 metres wide and installed to minimise erosion from the race. Like many others around me, I spend much time on my backside, or lunging down earth steps at 3 and 4 feet high. Shrieks and yelps could be heard far below and also up above. Running never entered my head. A final steep mud bank dropped into the Red Burn. I stopped, washed my face and took a drink from the cool, clear water. My Dad again cheered my effort as I slowly trudged up to the stone steps of the Tourist Path.
Sweat dripped from my forehead as I bolted my eyes on the large stone steps. I thanked many walkers who kindly stepped aside. My legs wobbled on the wooden footbridge – the first flat ground for hours – and I collapsed down a narrow trod, through green bracken, unable to see where my fee where landing. I stumbled a few times but remained upright. I shadowed a Lochaber runner as we approached the Ben Nevis Inn. Supporters cheered in the sunshine with frothy pints in hand. I somehow managed to kick on here, passing several other runners over the next mile – some were starting to weave, while others simply reduced to walking, as cramp obviously set in. Claggan Park was alive with celebrations, pipe music and the tannoy announcements of each runner. I’d survived the fall back to Earth, a little over a milestone time, in 3 hours and 6 minutes.
Later: Fort William, 10pm. My Dad and I were full of beer, and it was time to return to the campsite. I gingerly eased myself off the bar stool, and turned to navigate towards the exit. A bearded face caught my eye. The winner, Finlay Wild, was smiling with a pint in hand, and celebrating with Lochaber clubmates. I briefly congratulated and thanked him for warning of the flying stones. Like most other fell winners, he seemed modest and genuinely humble. He certainly didn’t appear tired, broken or aching. I creaked towards the door and wondered if he’d have the decency to at least wake up in the morning with a sore head. I maybe hadn’t fallen back to Earth, but after camping I certainly knew I’d wake up with a few bumps.