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.
For the next 90 minutes the three of us run together, the route taking us along the wide saddle of Buachaille Etive Mòr before dropping down into the Lairig Gartain then ascending again over the saddle of Buachaille Etive Beag (Etive Mòr’s sister peak) and into the Lairag Eilde. The three of us are moving well together, our paces well-matched, and we even spare the time to chat and be sociable as we run along. Tim is a medical student at Dundee University, where I graduated from seven years ago. After the Lairig Eilde the course heads south and into the highest peaks of Glen Coe, the towering beasts of Stob Coire Sgreamach (1072m), Bidean nam Bian (1150m), and Stob Coire nan Lochan (1115m). On the climb up Stob Coire Screamagh I am feeling strong and I start to pull very slowly ahead of the other two. We climb into the cloud and I lose sight of them altogether. How far ahead I am I have no idea. There is one out and back section of the course to Stob Coire nan Lochan from Bidean nam Bian. It is here that I am at last able to get a time check on my rivals. I have been descending two and a half minutes before I come across Es on his way up to the summit, so I conclude that I must have at least a five minute lead. After Es, the runners come thick and fast. I see the first lady Emilie Forsberg at the saddle between Stob Coire Lochan and Bidean nam Bian. Jasmin Paris, the second lady is hot on her heals, perhaps less than a minute behind. When I realise that I have a five minute lead my whole mentality changes. Briefly I get quite emotional as it dawns on me that I can win the race, then I remember that I am only just over three hours in – less than half way. I remember that my worst foe from now on will be either injury or hypoglycaemia (A.K.A. “bonking”, running very low on blood sugar). I resolve to be very sensible from now on, taking great care over where I put my feet, especially looking after my right knee, and consuming lots and lots of energy gels. I descend the 1000m to the A82 crossing cautiously. The path on this descent gets gradually more treacherous as you near the bottom as the rock gets slippy and wet. It is here that I come closest of all to losing the race. As the path crosses through a stream I lose my footing and slip sideways, banging the left side of my head against a rock. For two or three minutes I feel quite dizzy, but I emerge unharmed. The atmosphere at the road crossing is incredible. A huge crowd has turned out to cheer us on. I drink two cups of Cola at the aid station and make my way up towards Sgorr nam Fiannaidh and the start of the Aonach Eagach ridge. This is without doubt the hardest section of the course, the runners having to gain 900m of altitude in just over a mile. Not a section to try and run! As I assume a race walk through the heathery slopes my legs start to feel quite heavy. Am I starting to bonk? Or are my legs just bound to feel like this when I ask them to climb such a steep hill more than four hours into a race? I decide the only way to tell is to eat an energy gel and then see how I feel at the top. It is a huge relief to reach the summit. I take refuge in the realisation that or the next two kilometres as I scramble along the ridge my limiting factor will not be energy levels or leg strength, but my scrambling skills. In a strange way the Aonach Eagach is like a rest for me. As I make my way purposefully but cautiously along this very narrow ridge I start to really enjoy myself for the first time. For a while it is just me and the mountain. However somehow I do feel more vulnerable here than I did on Curved Ridge. Perhaps it is because I am now out on my own, or perhaps it is because there are some sections of downhill on the ridge so not looking below is not an option. Either way I am glad to reach Am Bodach, the peak at the Western end of the ridge, knowing that all the danger sections are now behind me. I am told at the Am Bodach checkpoint that my lead had been twelve minutes on Sgorr nam Fiannaidh. I say to myself that all I have to do is get to the finish in one piece now and the victory should be mine. I eat another gel. It is along slog from Am Bodach along to the West Highland Way at the Devil’s Staircase, then the 7km return to the Ski Centre. At checkpoint 15 with 7km to go I am told that Emilie has overtaken all the other men in the race and is now closing in on me! Lovely though she is I decide don’t want to be caught by her so I pick up the pace, crossing the finish line in 7 hours 36 minutes. Just eight minutes later Emilie finishes, just a handful of seconds ahead of Mark Harris, recent Tranter Round record breaker.
My overall reflections on this race are that the route was absolutely phenomenal. I can’t think of anywhere else on mainland UK that could offer such quality of extreme mountain running. It is no overstatement to say that this really was a first for us in Britain. Elsewhere Emilie has already 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.

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