Last weekend could not feel further away. The contrast between sitting in my parent’s garden with a cup of tea vs. nearly 9 hours of mountain running in the Scottish Highlands navigating bog, rivers and knife-edge ridges.
The Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace is part of the Migu Skyrunner World Series and one of the four races finishing in Kinlochleven that weekend. Skyrunning itself, though people have run in the mountains for 100s of years, as a sport has existed since the early 90’s. The Ring of Steall skyrace is an un-vetted race billed as,
follow[ing] in the tradition of Skyrunning, which consists of uncompromising mountain running, such as scrambling along mountain ridges with steep ascents, traverses and descents on technical and challenging terrain.
At the time of entering I had not run in any mountains, or really even hiked much in them. After receiving my place I felt the weight of this undertaking, 30km with over 2800m ascent, and a 9 hour cut off. To make it to the start line for such a race both Max and I needed to buy some new kit and re-think how we ran. Our first purchase was a 3-door 1litre secondhand Pugeot, lovingly nicknamed ‘Pug Mountain’ and our Challenge Peak dream was born. In the lead up to this race Max and I needed to get out into the mountains, not only for fitness, but to learn how to navigate, get confident on exposed ridges, kit test and get comfortable in mountain weather. The plan was to visit a different mountain range in the UK every month to get some ascent in the legs. Since February we visited 7 mountain ranges as well as several trips to the Peak District. We also ran our first ever fell races, timed race and mountain marathon and I also trained for and cycled from London to Manchester. I even won my first race! On top of this I began in earnest to work on strength. Despite all this work in the 6 months lead up, I had underestimated this race.
So the day arrived, beyond excited and up at 5am we left my family’s house in Glasgow and Pug got us to Kinlochleven by 8am. Out the rear view mirror we watched the sun rise behind Ben Lomond. I am not sure how we are so lucky in Scotland, but it was going to be a beautiful weekend. Turning up at the race weekend, surrounded by international elite athletes – some racing in our race, others in the vetted 55km Glencoe skyrace taking place the following day, felt amazing. Within a few minutes of arriving I had already seen Jasmin Paris. Registration involved full kit check, mug shots, GPS trackers taped to our packs, and an arm tattoo. It felt a little like in the Hunger Games before they get flown out to the arena to kill each other… except in this case every one was mega friendly.
After losing Max prior to even getting into the start pen I resigned to not being able to wish him good luck and kiss him good bye before he disappeared into the mountains. I was expecting to take between 7 and 7.5 hours and Max to be about 2 hours quicker than me. I had packed enough food for 100 calories every 45 minutes in form of gels and bars in addition to eating as much as possible at the aid station. This was my first mistake. Despite the course only being 30km, I should have prepared as I would have for an ultra. Sugary food and a lack of real food became a real problem in the race. My hydration plan was rehydration drinks plus a filter bottle so I could refill from streams. I started at the back and was overjoyed to find Max had waited for me at the front to kiss me goodbye! A quick hug and kiss and Max sprinted off.
The race itself was absolutely incredible; stunning, breathtaking and brutal. However, it turns out that I had neglected one crucial area in my training. A lot of my training focussed on ascent, plus you can train for up-hill without hills, using strength work. I had failed to appreciate the damage the breaking force in descending would have on my legs. I needed to have done a lot more down hill running and plyometric training to prepare my legs for such impact. Looking back on splits later, Max was 10 mins up on me on each mountain ascent. However, in each mountain descent he gained over 30 minutes on me. After getting across Devil’s ridge and reaching the top of our first munro, Sgurr A’Mhaim, we were treated to wonderful views of waterfalls, mountain ranges and lochs as far as you could see in all directions. The marshalls were incredible and there was even some snow falling at the top! Everything was brilliant up until that first descent around only 8km in. By the time I reached the aid station at the foot of the mountain I was in a really terrible way, my legs shaking so much I was struggling to stand. A rational part of me was considering that maybe I should retire. Beyond the checkpoint there was no way out, you were committed to finishing. A couple people around me did retire. I downed cola, coffee, water, cake, and cheese and pickle sandwiches. I refilled my bottles and stuffed another cheese and pickle sandwich square into my pack. Now I knew 7hrs was a dream, and I did not have enough nutrition with me.
The next section was pretty flat so I committed to running it and managed to catch up with the people who I had ascended the first climb with. It was nice to be around people again, having some one to talk to and conversations to listen to. We were now in Glen Nevis and heading to the Steall Falls and our only river crossing. The land was green, lush and muddy. At the river I refilled my bottles and stood in the water up past my knees to let the ice cold water sooth my battered calves. The next ascent had 2 false summits and was our second munro, An Gearanach. This was probably the strongest part of my race. On the hour long ascent I got my head into gear and powered up focussing on overtaking everyone I could see. I found a rhythm, solid posture and summoned mental focus to not stop. Near the summit I needed both hands and feet as the ascent steepened. Whenever I glimpsed up to the ridge line above I could see small ant-like silhouettes of athletes and imagined Max was up there ahead somewhere. I struggled covering the rocky parts on the ridge that had any descent to their profile. I had thought on reaching the ridge that the hard part was over, that the top would be fairly flat, and it was this thought that helped propel me to the summit. I looked at my watch to find that I was around 1000m short of the total ascent. The realisation hit me. This was going to take a lot, lot longer than I had anticipated. The goal now was to just get to Am Bodach, the final munro and summit of the course before retracing the route down back to the West Highland Way and the paved roads into Kinlochleven.
After another hour of scrambling along the ridge I was desperately hungry and ate the cheese sandwich. I dropped some cheese and felt devastated by the loss! I acknowledged that this was not a good sign! I took a drink, reset my mind and carried on. I had 1 gel and 1 bar left for the top of Am Bodach to get me home. The penultimate summit and 3rd munro, Stob Coire A’Chairn, gave me my first view of Am Bodach. The view effected me greatly, I felt defeated. I marvelled at how physical this feeling felt so took a photo to remind me of it. It didn’t matter, I did not have a choice so I got my head down determined not to look at it again and started running. I was in a group of people again which upped my spirits and after sitting for a few moments to down my gel I began the scramble up to the summit near empty. I often had to stop and cling to the mountain to stop me swaying, I had been feeling nauseous for some time now. At the top, I sat on a rock in the sun and ate my Cliff bar looking at out at Loch Leven and even further in the distance Loch Lihne. Some people stopped with me, but I was too tired to make small talk. I checked my phone and posted a selfie, I saw Max had finished and felt relieved. Max had finished over an hour earlier and I still had at least an hour to go. So I got off Am Bodach and headed into the setting sun, unknown to me the lowest moments were still to come.
The next part of the race was like the scene in the Never Ending Story where the horse dies. This part of the course was the same as the start, so over 600 runners had already run through this already waterlogged mountainside, twice. I had expected to be able to run as I had recce’d this part and had run half of it back then. Anything beyond a careful walk had me sliding into the mud. I longed for the West Highland Way. I was demoralised and alone unable to keep up with any of the very few runners still out there. Plus I had started silently talking to myself in the third person. Not great.
Eventually I made it out of the Swamp of Sadness, and onto the West Highland Way. I felt guilty that I could barely muster a thumbs up to the marshals who had been there all day. My GPS watch died, but I was told I has about 40mins left to get to the finish line which was 3km away, so I ran. On the finish line I did not care beyond being so grateful to see Max there, diligently waiting hours for me. The relief on his face was clear, without phone signal he had no idea where I was and was worried. After racing the course himself he knew there was a chance I could not do it. Close to tears and extremely grumpy I received my medal and a hug from Max.
Mentally this was the hardest race I have run. Unlike the Fling, I was not uplifted by the experience at the time. The race was hard right from the start and it was not a simple task like an ultra where you just have to keep going. The terrain required continous focus, one slip of mind could lead to slip on a descent, and in places a slip to certain injury. I had turned up underprepared and the course had punished me for it. I finished very close to last, but just in time in 8hrs45, only 15 mins to spare. Max finished in an amazing 5hrs35.
It was humbling and thrilling. I cannot wait to train harder and go back next year.
A massive thank you to the race organisers and marshals for such a well run race and awesome weekend.