Humbled by The Ben

6 September 2014 – Ben Nevis Race – 8.7 miles / 4419 ft

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Beinn Nibheis, the “Venomous Mountain” – Photo by Bart van Dorp

One of the great things I’ve noticed about joining P&B is how the wealth of experience changes your perception of what you are capable of. You’d be hard pressed to find a fell race that someone else hasn’t run, so venturing an unknown race – even one with a tough reputation – doesn’t seem so bad when you’ve got a friendly “Aye, it’s a good race that, you’ll enjoy it – get it entered!” to encourage you.

When I asked club stalwart Stevie for any advice for a first time runner of this particular race, he replied, “Oh, you’re doing the Ben are you? Hmm… Just try and enjoy the day.”

And so Rach and I, sticking true to our plan of doing all the highest UK peak races this year, found ourselves making the long journey up to Fort William for this infamous and historic race up Britain’s highest mountain.

Driving through the Highlands, the scenery is amazing. Every bend in the road treats you to stunning views across various Lochs, all duly bookended by serious looking hills and mountains. It’s wonderfully wild and the excitement builds.

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The starting field – the mountain itself is hidden away behind the hills…

Arriving at Claggan Park, where the race starts and finishes, we collect our race packs, affix numbers, have a bit of a warm up and then congregate around the showgrounds taking in the atmosphere. It’s nice to chat to a few friendly faces and good to see Caroline is running too. After being led around the field by the Lochaber Pipe Band, the starting horn blasts, and we’re off. Come on mountain, let’s ‘ave you!

Well, actually, there’s about a mile of road before you even see your first pebble of granite but the tarmac soon passes underfoot and you’re onto the track proper. It’s the usual elbows-and-breath jostle as people settle into position. A route diversion presents itself and the runners in front of me peel off through the ferns to the left, so I follow them, having no idea if this is tactically good or bad.

It’s not long before the runnable path gets left behind and we’re just climbing directly upwards, hands and feet clawing into the sodden grass and moss. At the Ford just after Red Burn I briefly stop to splash some water over my head – though it’s a bit claggy it’s still hot work.

Continuing with the direct route, we start to cross over the zig-zagging walker’s paths. It is very rocky. The spaces inbetween the larger rocks are filled in with smaller rocks and it all sits on a bed of even smaller rocks. Everything moves underfoot. “Has Ben Nevis been demolished??” I half joke to myself, “This is just endless rubble…”

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Climbing, climbing, climbing… Photo from Lochaber AC

Somewhere around the hour mark the faster runners are descending. I exchange encouragement with a few friendlies as they pass me on the way down and press on into the fog. I know Rach will be ahead of me somewhere – she just climbs with a bit more ferocity than me on this stuff. We pass each other (Well done dear. You too dear.) and by the time I reach the summit (4.5 miles and around the 1hr30 mark) I calculate she’s got about 3 minutes head start on the descent… too much for me to catch up? I decide to give it a go.

Straight away I understand what the Venomous Mountain is all about. This is the most dangerously un-runnable descent I’ve ever been confronted with. Sharp, loose rock, for miles. You don’t run down; you clatter.

When the scree is at its loosest, it’s easier to sort of adopt a strange skiing motion, allowing one foot to slide downwards through the gravel, then switching to the other, and repeating. The rocks and scree and the runners around you – everything is sliding downhill. I wonder if the mountainside is actually gradually expanding outwards. There is so much rock sliding downhill!

I manage to steadily overtake people on the steep descent through being completely reckless; I am constantly taking chances and frequently catching myself from near-falls. Even when the scree finally seems to fade, the grass is wet and slippery. But as I take the direct line over Red Burn, I finally catch up with Rachel. Right. Well descended. No more heroics! Just keep it steady from here.

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Rachel pushing the pace on the last bit of path. Photo from Lochaber AC

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Old-man-faced Graham not far behind… Photo from Lochaber AC

As soon as I’m back on the path, however, I’m having shoe problems – it feels like my left shoe is filled with gravel. Looking down, I notice a small tear between the sole and the upper has widened into a crooked grin which has gobbled up mouthfuls of gravel during my rickety descent. Every footfall results in sharp little prangs of pain.

It’s a poor workman that blames his tools – well, I’m not blaming them I’m blaming me! I thought my Old Faithfuls would be fine for ‘one last race’ but I should have known better – you don’t turn up for the infamous Ben in knackered old plimsolls, you idiot!

I stop to clear as much as I can before thinking sod it, it’s only a couple of miles, and carry on. It’s uncomfortable but I adopt an awkward, slightly lop-sided gait which seems to help.

Less than a few hundred meters from the start of the road section, however, my luck catches up with me – my tired and battered feet clip a rock and I take a tumble. Perfectly positioned, right in front of a couple of photographers.

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From the floor I wave on the concerned runner behind me – carry on mate I’m fine! Dragging myself to my feet, I dust myself off with bloodied hands. I’m not fine. I need to sit down.

“Did you get that?” I ask, shuffling over to one of the photographers and perching on the edge of a large rock. As it happens, in the shock of seeing me violently throw myself to the ground on the relatively safe and flat walker’s path, they hadn’t.

I take a personal moment to reflect on my idiocy. I reassure the photographers that I think I’ll be okay. A spectator hands me a bottle of something sweet and lemony. “Have a drink and up you get lad”.

I’m in such a physically and mentally drained state that I could have hugged the man.

The energy drink refreshes me enough so that my brain reboots and calmly tells me: right – let’s finish this race before you realise how much pain you are going to be in.

I hobble off down the road and into the showgrounds, complete the lap around the field and finally, mercifully, cross the finish line.

Yep. Hard race that.

That evening, in the nice hotel overlooking Loch Fyne, my injuries fully reveal themselves. My left thigh swells up like a ham, my big toe blackens, and a nasty bruise spreads across my ribs. I cannot move my left leg unaided and can barely walk. Though I still feel the slight sting of embarrasment at having fallen over, I count myself lucky to have not sustained anything more serious. There were plenty of other runners, bandaged and limping, at the end of the race who looked like they’d come off worse.

Serious respect to everyone who completes this race, it is definitely one to be taken seriously. I’m also in awe of the runners who can flourish in a race like this – particularly the likes of men’s winner Finlay Wild (who, in a time of 1:34:43, crossed the line not long after I had barely reached the summit), and ladies winner Lindsay Brindle (1:56:36). Outstanding running.

Rachel Pilling 194th 02:17:45.  Graham Pilling  230th 02:23:10.  Caroline Harding 409th 02:50:26.  (Full Results.)

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