Monday, 24 August 2015
Glencoe Skyline 2015
At 0500 my alarm sounds. I’ve been sleeping on one of the Microlodges (A.K.A. “Hobbit houses”) in the car park of the Glen Coe Ski Centre about 100 metres away from the start/finish line of the Glen Coe Skyline Race. When I break out of the lodge, the carpark is already bustling with activity. Runners and their support crew are silently making their final preparations - checking all racing kit and emergency equipment is where it should be; taking on the last of the many pre-race carbohydrate loads; a few stretching, but no one “warming up” with any real intent. The race is too long for warming up, every joule of energy too precious. The sense of anticipation is palpable. Looming three miles to our West is the Eastern face of Buachaille Etive Mòr, the iconic peak that guards the head of Glen Coe. Most visitors to Glen Coe gaze in wonder at this near perfect pyramid of rock as they comfortably drive past on the A82. Today for us, our only passport to Glen Coe is to go straight up it. The grade 3 scramble of the “Curved Ridge” route is something not one of the 160 competitors in the race will be taking lightly. No running race in the recorded history of UK sport has ever taken on a route of this severity. The runners know this. They know they are taking on the unknown. But Curved Ridge will really just be the start. Afterwards comes mile after mile of running through challenging and often highly exposed terrain – including a two kilometre section along the Aonach Eagach ridge. The Aonach Eagach is widely regarded to be the most exposed ridge on the UK mainland. The whole race totals 52km, with over 4000m of ascent. Runners are expected to take between seven and 14 hours to get round. No wonder there are a few nervous-looking faces. I am especially nervous. When I heard earlier this year that the Glen Coe Skyline Race was going to take place I immediately made it one of my key objectives for the season. Like most other competitors I had taken time to go up and visit Glen Coe to “reccy” the course – attempting to accustom myself to the route, prepare my legs for the inevitable battering, and prepare my psyche for the vertigo-inducing exposure. Yet right now I feel glad to just be on the start line. On July 16th, just over five weeks before the race, I was training in the Conitson Fells in the South Lake District when I had a freak accident. My right leg went down a hole in the ground that I hadn’t seen, and the twisting motion with which I fell caused my knee to hyperextend (bend the wrong way). I immediately knew it was serious. I was unable to run again for the next three weeks. Having missed out on two planned reccy trips because of the injury, and with far fewer miles in my legs than I wanted, I am feeling decidedly uncomfortable about what now lies ahead. Will my knee last the distance? Will the rest of my body last the distance!? (I’d never actually done a single day race lasting longer than four hours before…). At 0700 we are off, the first mile taking us down the road from the Ski Centre and onto the West Highland Way. 7km of straightforward running on a well-built path lies between us and the Buachaille. As expected, the nervous excitement causes the front of the field to set off at an unsustainable pace, with the first mile covered in under six minutes. As we move along the path, many chatting and joking, the towering Buachaille comes ever closer, increasingly dominating our view, reminding us that there is no escape from it. After about 45 minutes of running we turn abruptly to the right and start scrambling up the lower slopes of Curved Ridge. I had been keen to be in a good position at this point so as to minimise the risk of being hit by rock fall, and to avoid any congestion on what would be a strictly single-file ascent. A group of three of us form at the front with Tim Gomersall quickly assuming the lead, and scrambling up at lightening pace. Knowing that Es Tressider is a far more experienced climber than me I invite him to pass me after the first section, and the two of us set off in pursuit of Tim. Es, Tim and I all reach the summit of the Buachaille Etive Mòr together after just over 70 minutes of running. Strangely I felt a lot less vulnerable climbing Curved Ridge today than I had during my reccy – I put this down to not having had time to look around and see what was below. recent Tranter Round record breaker. given her thoughts on how it compares to other races of this distance across the globe. To organise this event was of course brave, given the objective danger involved. But bravery often pays off, and you can mitigate against the dangers, as the organisers did, by taking appropriate safety precautions and vetting participants carefully. The competitors were in fact this event’s true strength and I would like to pay tribute to everyone who made it round. This was a massive challenge. Both Emilie and Jasmin are incredible athletes and it is truly humbling to realise how close both of them were behind me. Es and Tim were fantastic company in the hills; and Mark, though I never saw him all day until he came bounding up the finishing straight, ran so strongly. For reasons expounded on above I don’t think I was able to enjoy this event as much as I should have, purely because I ran the whole event in fear. Fear that my knee would give in, and fear that I wouldn’t last the distance – more than fear or falling off! Now I know that I can run hard in the mountains for more than seven hours, and this realisation excites me. I look forward to taking on more events like this. And I look forward to coming back next August to Glen Coe. If the race reaches the profile that it is expected to, the men’s field will be substantially more competitive in 2016, so I will have to up my game significantly. Now there’s a challenge.