The race village at the Glen Coe Mountain Resort was full of familiar faces, either taking part or part of the race staff. I packed and double checked all the kit in my pack, making sure that I had all the mandatory kit and sufficient food and water ready before heading over to registration. Photo ID was required for each competitor and we were given our Si timing dibbers and GPS trackers (from Open Tracking). RD Shane Ohly was doing final race briefings in small groups after we'd registered and answered any questions we might have. It's worth saying that a huge amount of preparation went into organising this race and as often is the case much of it isn't seen by runners or spectators for one reason or another. The local aviation club was keen to be involved and flew light aircraft up and down the valley, covering GPS black spots and keeping an eye on competitors. Fortunately there were also no incidents but I have no doubt there were extensive plans and teams in place to deal with anything that might have occurred.
Montane Fang 5 pack on, put on some sun tan lotion and Smidge insect repellant (crucial for a summer in Scotland!).
When the count down sounded on the speakers everyone went quiet, although most people knew what was out there no one really knew what would happen. The trail from the start to curved ridge was wide, flat and partially tarmac. Competitors surged forward, probably to get ahead of the crowd on the ascent of curved ridge to avoid queues. I was instantly hit by the effect my cold was having on my fitness. The pace I found comfortable was much slower than I expected and I found myself short of breath very quickly if I increased the pace. I figured if I don't listen to my body at the start I probably wont make it very far on such a demanding course. It wasn't long before I was close to the back of the pack, I had persuaded myself that it didn't matter because there was plenty of KMs ahead to catch people back up, finishing would be a matter of management round the course but I knew it would be close. Almost all the way up to curved ridge we were harassed by midges, although the repellent seemed to be working they were getting caught in the hair on my arms and legs and I began to feel like Lady MacBeth constantly rubbing my hands and arms, trying to get rid of the midges before they took a bite.
Mountain guides dotted the ascent on curved ridge, making sure that people were okay on the few more tricky sections. I found the climbing fairly easy and not too exposed, I couldn't see anyone else with a helmet on but I was glad to have it all the same. A bit like a survival bag, you never want to use it but if you need it then it can make the difference between a good outcome and a not so good outcome. As expected there was a backlog up curved ridge, I would guess that we were held up for roughly 30-40mins, it would have been easy to get frustrated but I just took it as an opportunity to eat some flapjack and enjoy the views. There was only high level light cloud cover with a great view back to the race village and out the valley. I was pleased when we reached the top, as I was itching to get moving again and make up some time. The frequently positioned marshals and spectators gave great encouragement and rang the classic Skyrunning cowbells enthusiastically. There were two noises that I was listening out for during the race, the sound of cowbells which was a reassuring sign that you were closing on the next checkpoint and a whistle which was either an emergency or if on a climbing section meant rock fall. I was hoping that there would be no whistles.
Montane Softflask with water. At the river crossing it was immediately obvious that it was not possible to get across without getting wet feet so I waded straight in, the cold water was quite refreshing and I toyed with the idea of ringing out my socks to try and minimise any issues with my feet but carried on, only stopping briefly to empty some small stones from my shoes.
I really felt the effects of my cold on the ascents, almost immediately my breathing would be laboured and despite (fairly) fresh legs I felt held back which was frustrating. The ever changing nature of the course meant I could distract myself from my inevitable slowing and enjoy the incredible landscape that we were traveling through. Since curved ridge I had made up a few places and tried to make the most of the decent down to CP5 where there was another river crossing. A smiling Ellie was a welcome sight who had more coke and water and this time I did ring out my socks and insoles after crossing. I felt good from CP5 to CP6, the stony single track path was only slightly uphill and I ran most of it at an easy pace, passing a couple of competitors looking worse for wear.
The ascent from CP6 to CP7 was long and although only just over 500m it was often steep enough to warrant walking rather than running. As I started to make my way up it started to rain, very fine and light to start with which got heavier as I closed on the summit. I was very grateful for my Montane Minimus 777 Jacket, it kept out the rain and fitted over my race pack without restricting my movement. It was tough and I was very glad to have reached the summit, I was beginning to think I was going to pull out at CP10 (In fact I'd almost decided to pull out), I felt like I was getting slower and slower. The track then went out to CP8 and back along the same path to CP7(or in this case CP9), on the way out you could see competitors who were ahead of you and on the way back I could see the few that were still behind me. After running most of the course without anyone nearby it was nice to exchange greetings with a few runners that reminded you weren't alone.
The next section of the ridge passed another summit (Stob Coire nam Beith) before the long ascent to CP10. I knew that I would have good patches and bad patches, most of the good were on the scrambles or downhill and most of the bad were slogging up steep hills. Almost as soon as I got onto the track down to CP10 (approx 3km) I noticed that time was getting close to the first cut of which was 15:00 at CP10. On a high due to the downhill I decided I was going to get to CP10 before the cut off, at least that way I had a choice of carrying on or not. If I carried on going slowly there wouldn't be any choice, I would be out at the half way point and missed Aonach Eagach entirely. My legs felt good and I really enjoyed plunging down the long scree track down to the river, a short traverse along the rivers edge slowed me down a little and I had to walk on the now wet rocky steps. I could see the road and I really wanted to get there quickly.
Pushing on had got me 30mins before cut off at CP10, I was still on a high but feeling out of breath was beginning to wind me up. I downed some coke, a cup of tea and munched on some salty crisps and a banana. Ellie filled my softflasks up and took my rubbish while she told me about the messages of support from friends. As you might imagine, these varied from "you can do it" to "hurry up you lazy boy". If I'm honest I didn't know what to do, but with all the encouragement and still on a high from the last section in the end I decided I had to give it a go. There are no escape routes off Aonach Eagach, once you start you either go back the way you came or carry on to the end. I knew that although I was fatigued I could haul myself safely along even if it was slowly. The thought of doing only one more big climb after a morning of a few thousand meters ascent was also welcoming. I felt the added pressure of people watching online too, I knew that some family and friends were watching my tracker, they would have known that I had stopped there at CP10, waiting to see what I would do. Pulling out when I could carry on (safely) seemed cowardly and I wasn't having that.
One of the mountain safety experts Charlie reminded me that CP10 was closing in ten minutes. Up it was then, I said goodbye to Ellie and ate a bit of orange. 900m of ascent, it felt like it went on forever, the steep slope gradually getting steeper until I was using my hands to grab onto the heather. This wasn't for fear of falling, more because I was tired and sharing the work between my arms and legs seemed to help me move more quickly. Looking back I could see a fast wave of low cloud coming in which quickly engulfed me, hiding the summit and the valley below. Now it really did feel like it was never ending. The heather eventually gave way to scree slopes and I knew I wasn't far off the top, the cloud had now receded as quickly as it had arrived revealing spectacular views. At the top was CP11 by a mountain shelter where I had a quick bite to eat, put my Minimus 777 back on and started along the ridge. There was a bit of a breeze now and staying still meant getting cold so it was time to crack on.
Initially a fairly wide footpath I shuffled along fairly well but it wasn't long before I began to feel really tired and out of breath again. The ridge then started its first technical section, essentially a series of short scrambles up and down. From a technical point of view they were easy, big foot holds and jug like hand holds presented not to much test of skill. The exposure on either side of the ridge did make me check holds before putting weight on them and moving more slowly and carefully than I would if it was a bouldering route at ground level. I began to get frustrated at moving slowly, checking my watch more frequently I was concerned about not getting back before the cut off. Then I started to wonder if I had made the right choice to carry on at CP10, should I have stopped and called it a day? I think if it was any other race and there were no trackers I probably would have, it was obvious that running with a cold was seriously affecting my performance but only to the extent it was slowing me down rather than actually stopping me.
There were two particularly exposed sections that followed where two mountain guides talked me through the holds which made it a lot quicker to move across the ridge. It felt like the ridge was going on forever. On the flatter sections I wanted to run but a combination of breathlessness and the beginnings of chaffing made me choose a slower but more manageable pace. By this time I was the last competitor, with the two sweepers Dave and Charlie we slowly made our way along the remainder of the ridge. A text from Ellie gave me a boost for a few minutes running but that soon gave way and I was back to putting one foot in front of the other.
The last section of the ridge was almost all flat or downhill which made progress quicker than on the technical or uphill sections. It was now becoming clear that I wasn't going to make it back to the finish before the 14hour cut off unless something incredible happened. CPs 12, 13 and 14 came and went and now all I wanted was to get off the hill, it was starting to get dark too and yet I was still enjoying it. I felt pleased to have carried on and completed the ridge but I also felt guilty for holding up Charlie and Dave who were sweeping the course. Ellie had got a lift up to Devils staircase with James and Simon and she came up to meet me on the route. As it got darker we reached the road where Gary informed me of the news that I knew was coming, the route was now closed and my time was up. I was close to the finish and I think if the time was there I would have carried on --The midges were back too, with a furious vengeance so I was only too pleased to get into the safety of a van. On the way back to the Mountain Centre in the van I had mixed feelings, I had enjoyed the route a great deal, the mixture of climbing and running was brilliant. I also felt frustrated to have been so slow when I knew if it wasn't for my cold I would have been much quicker.
A single malt whisky and nutella & peanut butter wrap were welcome changes to water and gels. I'd been out 14hours and it was nice to sit down!
Many mainstream media companies and newspapers drew attention to the danger of the race. Yes it is dangerous, most fun things in life have an element of danger and even every day tasks like crossing a road are inherently dangerous albeit less glamorous than teetering on a mountain ridge. A strict application process and the teams and set up Shane had in place meant this risk was minimised as much as it could be. I noticed that in one newspaper it was claimed by a mountain expert that the race would spoil the day of anyone else (i.e. the public) on the route on their own expeditions. It's events like this one that encourage people to go off and do their own adventures, even if their abilities aren't up to the event its self. The hills are also for everyone to enjoy and sometimes you go out and it's busy then it's busy, deal with it! There are plenty of high altitude climbs that people pay thousands to summit, only to stand in a queue all the way up.
As for any comments about the race not being for charity, I find these among the worst. People should be allowed to make a living out of something they love doing, I'm fed up of the assumption that running events should be not for profit and raising money for charity. If competitors want to raise money then fine but if you want a professionally run race then expect it to be run by professionals doing it as a job. If the RD chooses to run it in a not for profit way or for charity then great but it shouldn't be expected of them. Of course much of the mainstream media is written in a way to sensationalise and provoke reaction and should not be taken seriously but there will be people out there who take it as the truth which is really quite saddening. The outdoors should play a part in everyones lives and to demonise it is to deny people some of the best experiences they can have.
Huge thanks to Shane and his team, all the marshals, mountain guides, supporters for making the Glen Coe Skyline what it is, a first class race over challenging terrain in a stunning setting. Massive thanks to Ellie for her support through my training and during the race as well as everyone that sent encouraging messages and James for ferrying Ellie around the course.
Thanks to Montane for their ongoing support and making great kit suitable for adventures like this one and Petzl for the super light Sirocco helmet.
Clothing & Equipment
I was really happy with the clothing and equipment that I took out on the hill. The Montane Fang 5 was comfortable and easily held all the kit I needed, with plenty of storage accessible without taking it off (full review coming soon). The Montane Minimus 777 jacket was brilliant, a small lightweight jacket that is genuinely reliable in the rain is invaluable. A combination of real food, e.g. flapjacks and Overstims gels worked well too. Some competitors took poles which I didn't have, they may well have helped on some of the uphill sections but would have added bulk and weight to my pack. In terms of footwear, my Bridgedale Speed Demons and Salomon Speedcross 3s worked a treat and I'd use the same combo again, I found them grippy and comfortable even after having wet feet for long periods.
Will I be back? Absolutely.
Will I be back? Absolutely.
|Catching up with some R&R post race|