Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

1st July '17: Ultimate Trails 110k, a right beasting.

Off to the Lakes it was for my attempt at running my longest distance so far in the Ultimate Trails 110k. Travelling with me was neighbour Pini who was running the 55k. We arrived in Ambleside to the sounds of Blur on the iPod in time for lunch, pitched-up Pini’s tent and went off for a spot of pasta before registering for the races. Along the way we said hello to running buddy Dora who was also doing the 110 and met her running club-mate Fiona, who I was advised by Dora was a ‘shit hot’ runner and the previous year had won the 55k ladies race so was stepping-up to the 110… After lunch I put my head down for a few hours kip to get myself in the best possible shape for the best part of a day on my feet that I knew was about to come.

Briefing.
Waking as the sun slid down behind the hills I dined on a pre-race meal of champions: fish and chips washed-down with a bottle of beer for some extra carb-loading. As I readied myself for the race, from her tent I heard an expletive laden tirade from Fiona just like the one in the opening of Four Weddings and a Funeral. She had overslept and realised she only had a minutes to ready herself for the race briefing!

Fiona & Dora.
Haring-off at midnight was a totally new experience for me. The park was lined with the awesome spectacle, despite the hour, of a plethora of supporters cheering us all on our merry way. From the hooter we ran through the street light lit badlands of downtown Ambleside, before climbing up out the other side in the direction of Kentmere, leaving the lights of the town and civilisation as we knew it behind and below, only the small matter of a 110k looped route before we returned.

Haring round Rothay Park.
After just a couple of miles it was like we had entered a whole new world, another alternate dimension of reality... Once on the fells in the total darkness devoid of any sign of human life, all we could hear was us being continually mugged-off by invisible sheep. We could hear the chorus of incessant disembodied bleats but could not see anything in the pitch black; a darkness only punctuated by the pin-pricks of light from head torches of those in front.

Midnight mooch through Ambleside.
Following Newton’s laws after all the climbing we soon came to a descent - a cracking steep one on a wide boulder strewn track whose gradient was perfect for running... But how fast dare you go? With the darkness obscuring everything outside of the narrow beam of your head torch it was exhilarating to just let go and dare yourself to run as fast as you could without tripping, falling and doing some serious damage to yourself.

Running a rocky torchlit trail.
Once through the first CP it was a chase to the next big climb of the day, over Gatescarth to Mardale Head and the reservoir at Haweswater… Approaching from a couple of miles you could see the faint trace of lights on the hill in front, but with no light there was no way to judge distance so it seemed forever till we arrived at the foot, the switch-back path seeming to be lit by fireflies from the light of the torches of us nose to tail racers.

Dawn over Haweswater.
The climb was sapping, the muggy night making you sweat buckets. I had no choice but to stop and rest a couple of times for breathers as the relentless ascent was draining me. Eventually we neared the top, where marshals had built a yurt and rang us all across the summit with cow bells.


Coming down the other side it was a scramble over a boulder field as we headed east, seeing the first rays of dawn appear and begin to lighten our way. Once at the foot of the hill at Mardale Head on the shore of the Haweswater Reservoir, the silent dawn was breaking, which had a very unwanted side-effect: midges… millions of the feckers. As you got to the aid station and stopped you were instantly covered in a seething black layer of them on any bare skin and were eaten alive by them. I pitied the folks manning the aid station as they did not have any head nets or protection from them or were wearing any gloves to protect their hands.

 I was dying to see a man about a dog at this point but was more than a little concerned about what would happen to the old fella if I flopped him out for a spot of bladder relief: with any bare skin being instantly covered if I was to stop here how could I explain to LSS when I got back why my twig and berries looked like it had a pox from being attacked by the bitey feckers? Nothing would possibly cut-it as an explanation and saying I was attacked by midges when having a slash hardly sounds like a plausible reason for having a polka-dot penis even if it was true! Holding back I managed to keep it in till above the worst of them and syphon the python once clear of danger.

Continuing along the banks of Haweswater it was noticeably lighter as the sun now began to poke above the horizon. Making steady progress Dora & me bumped into fellow runner Paul who was making his merry way along. As we jogged along chatting I could feel my hammy beginning to cramp. I tried to ignore it but it wasn’t working, so I had to stop and attempt to stretch it out and lard it with Deep Heat - it seemed to work a bit, well, enough to carry on relatively unhindered for the time being. I knew it was only a few k’s till we were off Haweswter and at the next aid station with its bacon sarnies for breakfast, a thought that had spurred me on for many a mile, mind over matter I don’t mind and the bacon sarnie was the only thing that mattered.

Bacon butties!
After the longed-for breakfast it was a long slow climb up on to the hills again to skirt around the cracking views looking over Ullswater moving clockwise round from the east towards Howtown. It may only have been pushing 7 in the morning, but the humidity and the heat was properly rising to the early twenties in the sun when it burned some of the clouds away.

Having wended our way through the Bobbin Mill at Howtown we then had a problem: stolen signage… All course markings and signs had been removed, which left us to attempt to navigate roughly on the schematic map we had been given. Fortunately at one crossroads that really was not obvious we were caught by someone who knew where they were and where to go, giving us all in the assembled group a get-out-of-jail card.

Last time out on the 55 I’d been obsessing over cheese and onion Sangers at the aid stations… But this time round they didn’t really seem to have anything that floated my boat… That was until getting into the hall I saw noodles - not the minging ‘slag of all snacks’ Pot Noodle that you have once every 2 years because you get a craving for one and then remember why you do not eat them when you taste it again, but a great tasting noodle pot by the name of Ko-Lee ‘Go Noodles’ which were truly awesome… I scoffed the warm tasty feast and had a cup of tea, scoffed some peanuts and crisps for salt replenishment and felt restored, properly able to face the next leg. And I had a new foodstuff over which to obsess for the rest of the day!

Back out on the course, amongst the verdant green of the valleys around the bottom of Ullswater the sun was properly burning the clouds away and I was catching the green shirt of Paul again, overtaking him as we were watched from the bracken covered valley side above us by a herd of red deer.

The Red Deer.
The heat was now beginning to build and the climb up to the head of the valley was really biting me on the arse - I kept having to stop to catch breath and composure before pushing-on. I could feel my hammies tightening noticeably, continually I was having to stop and stretch them out. Deep Heat was applied but it just wasn’t cutting through… Then as the descent started, the cracking long descent that normally I would skip down like a gazelle, whilst climbing over a rock my leg locked with cramp.

Cloud still to burn away in full.
I had no choice. I went over like a sniper had shot me and just couldn’t stretch it out straight away… Crippled like an upturned tortoise I had no choice but to try and slowly stretch it out, and then I found myself alone through necessity.

In an act of immense oversight, whilst running through the night Dora had realised that whilst she had packed her drop bag, she had forgotten to put it in the trailer with everyone else’s stuff, and after some hasty phone calls when day had dawned, she was having to rely on her husband to support her to get kit and supplies to certain points on the course with only certain windows of time to make it for either her not to need to wait around, or her family to not get bored hanging around for her. With me now a prone liability, she had to take the entirely understandable decision to leave me to sort myself out whilst she pushed-on.

Paul and his green top.
I watched feeling incredibly stupid as Dora bounded-off down the hill, I drank some electrolyte and had a rummage in my pack and found a couple of salt sachets, which I necked. Washing them down it was a case of stretching out and trying to get moving as the time passed and the salt’s rejuvenative powers kicked-in.

Soon I was able to hobble, then saunter, then eventually jog along… My mistake was not realising how much I had sweated during the night’s efforts. I knew I had been dripping with sweat, but without visually seeing it or feeling the heat of the sun it lulled me into a false sense of security about precisely how I had been sweating like Michael Jackson on Sesame Street the whole time and I had not taken any steps to mitigate salt loss.


Whilst trying to build-up speed again I was caught by Paul and we merrily jogged to the aid station at Patterdale ahead of the 55k runners who would also be passing through here on their run.

The climb up Glenridding was as brutal as ever, but at least this year it was not chucking it down… Instead the sun was hammering down upon us. When I reached the tarn at the top I couldn’t help but marvel at the deep sapphire blue of the water in the light. At this point the 55 & 110 courses split and those of us going longer headed round to the west to descend over an ancient river bed that was still a stream. You had to properly scramble over the boulders on your way down here, proper 3 points of contact action as you slowly picked your way down to the bottom and the main road. We followed a section of tarmac for a couple of miles, which I found jarring after the extended time on the rocky and grassy trails, till I eventually wound-up in a lay-by and the next aid station.

The heat was intense, so finding the aid station was under the cover of trees was a boon. I noticed the number of people hanging round there was far more than I expected then realised why: they had run out of water. People were not continuing their run without replenishing their supply, which was understandable and were waiting for the aid station to be resupplied. Having plenty of my own I carried-on grateful not to be forced to wait through necessity.

Climbing up from the road I found the heat and humidity stifling. It was hitting the high twenties and it was sapping the life out of me. Fortunately the pathway was part stream, so I took the opportunity to sit in it at one point just to cool myself off!


Eventually the path topped-out on a boggy plateau. Emerging from the trees on to it, the temperature was noticeably lower and a cool breeze wafted over us. Unfortunately progress wasn’t as quick as I had hoped as you had to bounce from ‘babies head’ to ‘babies head’, small mounds of grass that were relatively solid. At this point I overtook a fella who was racing using cheat sticks and didn’t have a Scooby how to use them. What he did was to stand still on top of a babies head, prod the ground with a pole to see if it was solid and take a step forward before repeating. Truly bizarre!

The sun was running away to hide as cloud lowered and the wind was definitely picking-up as we bog-trotted along the plateau. At least we were approaching the next aid station and our drop bags once we dropped off the top…

Coming into the aid station I bumped into Dora on her way out and she gave me a conciliatory hug as she seemed very chirpy to be on her way… I found out why when I got inside the aid station: PIZZA! I had a couple of slices and a warm cup of tea and biscuits as I changed my trainers - I was not sure they were going to last the rest of the race, so took the opportunity to switch them over.

Back down Glenridding.
Traipsing out of the aid station and around the corner we took the path towards the final large climb of the day: Stake Pass. We could see it looming from miles off at the head of the valley we were walking up, its summit shrouded in the grey of clag, the wind steadily picking-up as we neared.

Looking up towards Helvellyn
Climbing the switch-backs to the summit the weather deteriorated with the strengthening wind feeling like a gale and the rain now properly coming-in blown on it. I tried to tough-out the conditions figuring-out I’d be fine once over the top and on the descent, but the temperature was now down in to single figure from the mid twenties of an hour or so ago, the wind sucking all the heat out of your body like a Dementor. I sheltered behind a rock and put my waterproof on to try and beat the elements, my hands going numb as I did so. I stomped to the summit as best I could, hitting the top in the very reduced visibility of clag as the rain drove down hard.


On the top the terrain was wet slippery rock, which is anathema for trail shoes and grip. Passing a marshal he shouted it was only 3 miles to the aid station and I tried to make progress off the summit and hopefully to get below the clag as quickly as possible. Trying to pick a path over the solid rocky surface I saw a gully worn as a path and made for that, skipping towards it before nearly stomping fully into the midriff of a freshly dead sheep carcass!.. Narrowly avoiding a messy accident I tried to descend as fast as I could but was slowed to a walk by the slippery rock, all the while being buffeted by the wind and my hands now freezing - I was faced with the choice of stopping in this highly exposed area to find gloves in my pack to put them on, or to try to tough it out and just put my hands up my sleeves and get down under the clag into more warm air asap.

Sapphire water.
All I could do was grumble to myself, mentally force myself onwards… The marshal was way off on his assessment - the aid station was another 7 miles away from the summit, 7 sodden miles of driving wind and rain. My fingers were like blocks of ice and white through poor circulation from the exertions of what I was doing. No matter what I did I could not get warm. I ate. I drank. I clenched my hands into fists inside the sleeves of my waterproof… At least having the waterproof on I was not losing heat to the wind, but I just did not seem able to shake the chill. Running over the slippery rocks was not an option and finally when it bottomed out I forced myself to jog along the ankle deep stream-like path to try and get some heat generated. Anything. Just anything to get through this. It just didn’t work.

Careful now!
Eventually I found myself on the valley floor near Chapel Stile, familiar territory at least, but knowing I still had a good 3 miles till the aid station. 3 miles of wallowing in self pity and misery, 3 miles at the lowest ebb I have ever been where I could happily have thrown it in… Just to compound my misery the course had now combined with the 55k again and I had the ‘delight’ of chirpy happy runners on that laughing and giggling their way past me as I just wanted to shout at them to FUCK OFF… Then there was the photographer: great that’s all I needed a fucking photographer to capture my moment of abject misery for posterity… I focused. I internalised. There’s no point in proving to the world that I’m a complete bell-end, so I tried my best to hide it away. I pulled my hood right over me and the cords as tight as I could so all that could be seen in the darkness within were my eyes, eyes staring at the ground avoiding contact with everyone.

Descending from the tarn.
The closer I got to the aid station the more the weather improved, the rain even lifted and the wind abated in the shelter of the valley floor. There was a problem though, I was shaking uncontrollably with the cold I was feeling right to my core, even though I could feel on my face there was now some muggy warmth after the downpour. I noticed I was visibly trembling to anyone who could see me, properly shivering and shaking, teeth rattling. I realised I was borderline hypothermic and probably in danger of being hooked from the race if there are proper medics visually assessing us as we arrived. I had to hold myself together as best I could, put all my steel and determination into getting this under control and not revealing how bad a shape I was in to anyone… The other side of the aid station was only a 10k blast up and over Loughrigg Fell to the finish. I couldn’t get hooked from the race within the time limit so close to the end: at worst case it was only a two hour slow plod. To now be so close, failure was not an option.

Stepping stone in the last of the sun.
Entering the aid station I did the most British of things and grabbed a steaming hot cup of tea holding it tight in my hands… And another tub of the noodles, a pot of lifesaving warm tasty noodles. The warming combination inside my belly worked wonders. A salve to the soul. Slowly I could feel the chill subside and was able to stop having to fight the shaking and shivering, slowly I could relax. I reckon I rested there in the warmth of the school at Langdale sitting on a chair made for a 7 year old for about 15 minutes before heading back out… The sun was shining now, the weather and my mood were no longer black.

Bog trotting in the murk
I still wasn’t totally out of the woods mentally or physically. I may have been on the way out of the dark place but I couldn’t afford to slip back. Distraction was the order of the day, so I put on my headphones and disappeared into podcasts: an episode of Ear Hustle about life inside San Quentin State Penitentiary was followed by Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast as he interviewed Jessica Napit. Taking my mind off introspection with the grim reality of life behind bars and onto a good giggle thanks to Richard Herring.

Approaching Stake Pass in the clag.
By the time this ended I was on top of Loughrigg as the sun began to set… I was going to make it back probably a bit earlier in the day than I had the 55k last year. Soon I was on the descent off the fell towards Rothay Park, the gradient forcing me into a proper jog to the finish and the warm claps and cheers of those still ranged around the line cheering us latecomers home.

That photo!
I’d made it. I’d finished. I’d managed to run the furthest distance I’ve ever managed: 110k, 66 miles or thereabouts. Wow. The enormity of this immediately sank in as I had had to battle the hardest I ever had before to finish and in my fragile emotional state I was nearly reduced to tears, overwhelmed with what I had achieved, more so than when I’ve ever pushed through a barrier before.

Trying not to collapse into a jellied emotional wreck, I went and grabbed some food from the finishers food cart and bumped into Dora who was sitting on a camping chair looking very pained… She had trashed her feet on the way to where we had last crossed paths and had been slowed to a shuffle but ground out a finish just one place above and 10 minutes in front of me. I reckon I must have made nearly half an hour on her over the last 15 miles even in my sorry state so she must really have been suffering and in severe pain, which put my travails into perspective.

I was supposed to go for a beer with Pini after the race, but I was facing a rush to make last orders and I really couldn’t face it. All I could muster was to shower, put on all my warm clothes and climb into the van for a kip.

The next morning dawned and soon enough I was up and cooking mahoosive brekkie baguettes of sausage, bacon egg & black pudding for Pini & me… It turns out he had finished in 14th place in the 55k, the first time he had ever entered a race like this and the first time for him running in the lakes. Oh and Fiona had finished 3rd lady in the 110. A pair of awesome running performances!

Pini perusing paperwork for positions.
It had been an amazing day out in the lakes, 66 long miles through darkness and light (mentally as well as in reality) and in all weather conditions, placing 167/203 finishers whilst squeaking home in under 22 hours by 2 minutes! Yes I know it wasn’t fast, to put it in perspective I took just under double the amount of time of the winner, but I made it and that was the goal. My nearest comparison for a course was the Lakeland 50, which to be honest I found easier than this as the climbs were fewer even if they were largely bigger. I learned a helluva lot today about looking after myself and also how far I can dig down without quitting which will hopefully put me in good stead for the future. With the changeable weather and the effect it had on me it also really brought-home why you have the compulsory kit you carry: it really is there to make a difference in case of emergencies. Emotionally the day certainly proved to be as undulating as the course. They say you experience highs and lows whilst out on tough long runs. Today I experienced this to the nth degree and now know and truly appreciate what they mean when they say it.

Anyway, chapeau to Pini & Fiona on their immense performances in the 55 & 110 and not forgetting Dora who managed to really show how tough she was in getting to the finish on feet that could not walk another step.

Will I be back?.. Too effing right!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.



Wednesday, 29 August 2018

16th September: Ben Nevis Ultra - I came, I saw, I was conquered.

I knew it would come to an end some time, and the longer you go the more likely it is to happen, and so today it came to pass that my heretofore unblemished record of finishing every race I have started was ended when I was hooked from the course of the Ben Nevis Ultra after 33 miles @ CP3 ... Was I surprised? No not really. Was I disappointed? A little.

I had set myself a target of getting to the halfway point before the inevitable but fell a stop short, although I was far from being the first to drop and by the time I got there I was ready to stuff the race up the organiser’s arse using a mallet and no lube. Only 16% of starters officially finished the race (although 28% managed to eventually finish the course when you include those who managed to get down off the mountains outside of the allotted time) which showed how badly wrong the race was planned for timing in relation to its difficulty... So here’s my take on the race itself and my tuppence-worth on everything following after.

When the race was announced I was absolutely buzzing to have a go - initially I had planned to run this with ‘Dora the Explorer’ with whom I had run the UT110 & UT55. Entries opened at the VERY steep price of £150 promising a 100k race with a time limit of 20 hours with only some video snippets of the course revealed at first... It was only after the event had fully booked and a couple of months before the race that they then decided to extend the course by 20k but keep the time limits as they were. At this point Dora (wisely) bailed and sold-on her entry as she felt it was too high a chance of a DNF to justify spending that money on the trip! But I fancied a galavant up in the Highlands anyway as It had been a while so stuck with it... Stuck with it even after it took me 22 hours to finish the UT110 which meant to finish this race I would have to go 10k further than I ever had in 2 hours less time!


Looking up at the Mamores.
At least I knew I was heading for a DNF from the start and weighing things up I set myself a target once the course was revealed, of finishing all the parts of the route I have never covered before ‘C’, halfway as a ‘B’ and anything beyond an ‘A’ of which I would be more surprised than a very surprised thing!

In the weeks leading-up to the race I received a message from running friend Theresa who had just finished her PhD and was entering this as a last hoorah before heading back to the States. This year she had already achieved something nearly as massive as her qualification in representing Scotland (qualified through residence) in the home nations plate 50k Ultra and I was looking forward to catching up with her one last time before she flew away.


View from the car park of the event base.
The Ben Nevis Ultra was part of the race card for the Skyline Scotland event where some of the world’s finest mountain runners were to compete on a 22 mile course the following day. The full event started on the Friday evening with the vertical kilometre race (the VK) the Ultra and the ‘Ring of Steall’ on the Saturday with the Skyline on the Sunday, where my friend Kirsty-Jane who was sitting top of the UK Ladies Skyrunning standings was looking to pit herself against some of the international big-guns. The event base is in the lovely village of Kinlochleven which is on the West Highland Way halfway between Glencoe and Fort William at the foot of the Mamores.

After I worked my way through the very smooth registration, kit check and tracker tagging (where I was greeted by the familiar friendly face of Richard Lander-Stowe who was marshaling for the weekend), I met-up with Theresa where she informed me they were now doing an early start of 5am for those that wanted it instead of the 6am main start - shame this was not communicated earlier by the organisers as I would have chewed their arm of for that as it increased my chances of getting further into the race, but the only coach available for this had booked-up already so I could not get on it.

I gave Theresa a lift back to Fort William and took myself to the Grog & Gruel for a pre race burger & beer with the place heaving with those up for the Skyline and the normal Friday night custom. All fed I kipped in the van till it was time to drive back to Kinlochleven stupidly early and to get the bus to the start.


Awaiting.
We all stood there shivering in the pitch black on the southern shore of Loch Ness at Fort Augustus waiting for the briefing. A little after the allotted start time we had it, where we were told to follow the flags, “not that you can see them in the dark but you will when it gets light” before we were then told that our trackers had the emergency buttons disabled, so pressing them will not achieve anything!.. This was the only briefing we had, a complete joke. We were also starting 15 minutes late on a day where time was the most precious of commodities which riled an already hostile crowd even further.

A saltaire-d up Theresa ready for the off.
The mood of all the runners was somber to say the least, except amongst the paid elite athletes who were looking at another day at the office, albeit with different scenery. As we all headed off under headtorch light, they all shot away and the rest of us silently trudged onwards. Everyone already had a face on like someone had farted in a packed lift, so I thought I’d break the tension of the moment by saying loudly.

The pink of dawn.
“Jesus this must be the most fucking morose start to a race ever... Anyone else shitting themselves about not finishing?”.. The unanimous reply was yes - it seemed outside of the pros, the whole field was resigned to failure and the chat turned to where everyone was planning to get to before they were hooked from the course having timed-out. The chat the previous night with competitors in the other races were such that they were offering condolences to us running the ultra, as everyone realised we had been stitched-up a treat by the organisers with the race impossible to finish for those outside of elite standard, which was not how it was advertised! We all enter races with the element of jeopardy that you will not finish - it’s part of the challenge, but being set-up for failure before you have had a chance to start after they take your cash is plain wrong.

Loch Ness behind us.
My plan was to go until I was hooked from the course - I was confident on my pace over distance of reaching the halfway point at the foot of Ben Nevis where I could take the ‘fast forward’ option rather than climb the mountain if I was at the aid station by a certain time. This would mean I had traversed all the parts I had not been over before and the fairly flat benign military road I had already run before, so I would feel I was not be missing-out on anything new so-as-to-speak. Hitting around 37 miles in the stunning surroundings of the highlands is still a good day out!

Remote.
The sun rose behind us over Loch Ness as we wound our way up into the mountains, the gorgeous pink tinged light that you only ever experience in the Highlands and never truly translates into photographs bathed everything. Soon I was nearly at the back of the field, which I could see from looking back on the switch-backs, but comfortably on my target pace. As I ran along looking down across the valley I watched a herd of red deer gallop though the heather, something magical to behold.

Into the cloud.
As we climbed we soon made it into the cloud line with the temperature dropping noticeably, although you still remained warm enough not to bother putting a layer on.

The surface underfoot was mostly wide access track so pretty solid underfoot crossed with streams and the occasional large puddle with a line of electricity pylons to guide us. The only sounds were just your feet on the gravelly track, the sound of your breathing and the rumbling of water in the nearby river - a total absence of any man-made sounds, a true solitude you rarely ever experience unless you are able to escape to the wilderness.


Not last!
Eventually the path led us down from the Corrieyairack Pass to the first building we had seen since leaving Fort Augustus; arriving at Melgarve and the first checkpoint of the day around 14 miles in.

Turning off the track we picked up the path following the River Spey towards its source and the lush green surrounds of the valley floor was all around us - unfortunately this brought a problem: bog.


 
 Bog.
Squidgy bog!
We were running along a flood plain, a sodden flood plain so we were dipping in and out of bogs varying in depth from ankle to waist deep as we blithely followed the flags that marked our path. From the steady ease of progress of the first leg we were slowed by 50% where what would have been a 10 minute mile before on the flat now became 15 wet minutes of wade...

 
Follow the flags.
These soaking miles were punctuated by getting even wetter with a couple of river crossings - proper thigh deep refreshing wades through the waters swollen from the rains of the previous day... Still, our feet were soaked through, so you did not mind this; the real difficulty was the strength of the water pulling you off balance or a loss of grip on the slippery stones that formed the river beds. At least the freezing cold of the water anaesthetised against any foot pains!



One crossing took us right to the door of the picturesque bothy of Luib-Chonnal - it was pretty tempting to nip inside for a moment to slack-off, but time was the order of the day so I moseyed-on past.

Bothy ahoy.
This leg provided us racers with a big shock - as we followed the path at one point I took a step forward and the ground disappeared... I found myself for that fraction of a second sinking down with a gasp with no idea if I would hit the bottom of the bog and would I do so before I went fully under? Fortunately being 6ft of idiot it had only came up to my chest when my feet found the bottom, but I had to stumble/ swim over the uneven invisible depth to get the few metres across to the other side of the bog where it began to shallow and I could walk and clamber out the other side properly drenched.

Mid river view.
Eventually the path began to firm-up as it rose slightly above the flood plain so it was back to just wet feet rather than total immersion and an attempt to move as quick as possible to keep body-heat up and to dry off through warming-up with increased effort.




After 22 miles I reached the first aid station and the sights of the first people for ages with those running the station. When I arrived I heard a familiar voice: Teresa was there amongst others who had decided to bail from the race distinctly unimpressed with the fact you could not run through 10 miles of bog, as we had all just discovered, combined with a warning from those manning the aid station that we had plenty more to come on the next stage, as well as her experiencing difficulties in keeping warm when soaked to the skin!.. There were also a couple of casualties there with competitors suffering from turned ankles caused by stumbles in the bog.



Bidding Teresa goodbye I began the climb away from the aid station, heading up in to the hills and away from the bog of the flood plains onto paths that were streams with all the water on the ground and a different kind of bog: peat marsh.


Soon I was in the wilderness once more, picking my way over the path where there was a path, passing some stunning small waterfalls, jinking and scrambling around and over some rocks to make it to a bridge over a small gorge. I made as much progress in as rapid a time as I could... Until the peat marsh arrived. We were faced with a climb over a hillside that was pure peat. There was what was left of a wire fence marking our way up. The single top wire was long gone from the iron stake posts, now lying on the ground or part buried in the peat where it had fallen, it occasionally acting as a tripwire if you approached the line of stakes to closely.

Follow the 'fence'.
This was a proper wade through the mud, a mix between ankle and knee deep. I tried to move from tussock of grass to tussock but it wasn’t working... coupled with the gradient this was a sole destroying slog. Looking at my watch I knew I was timing-out but trying to make any pace on this leg was not possible. Eventually I summitted and started on the slippery descent where a path had sort of become visible. Eventually it led us to a field where following the flags it led us closer to a river. Soon I found myself beside it and waist deep in water once more as the field had become a paddy. There was no way across and I was not willing to try swimming. I took stock and realised I must be off-track but I could not see any flags marking a correct path.


I retreated back a little and made my way to a fence that bordered the field and eventually climbed across it finding a footpath and a route onwards, realising as the final hour for this section of the race ticked by that as soon as I hit the checkpoint my day was over... The path soon led to a fire road, past a caravan sitting in the middle of nowhere. From here I could hear the sound of cars so figured I must be close to the A86 and the checkpoint. Sure enough, down a steep sloping quagmire of a field I found myself at CP3 and timed-out of the race by an hour.

Where I was, was about 3 miles from where I had holidayed a few years ago just outside Roy Bridge and about a mile to the east of where I had crossed the A86 when running back to there from the top of Ben Nevis.




I had successfully negotiated the part of the course I had never explored before, but cold now I was no longer moving, wet and hungry from my effort over the 30 something miles, my day was over. I was ushered into the support vehicle to warm-up and recover as I waited for those behind me to arrive and the course could be closed and us drop-outs could be driven back to the race base.

To be honest I was a bit gutted to have ‘failed’, but I was more fuming about the organisers and the time-limits than my lack of pace... I know I am not quick by any stretch of the imagination, but I am good enough to finish one of the toughest 50 mile races in Britain twice in a row within qualification times for its 100 mile counterpart, so I am by no means out of my depth. I felt I had been cheated, although I had managed a good 33 mile run/ wade across some stunning landscape that for me was heretofore unexplored... Its a case of balancing things out in my mind... and enjoying a lovely hot cup of tea in the marshal’s warm vehicle covered in a blanket to warm-up.



So that's my 'review' of the race experience, below is my view on the event:

I was very disappointed with the Ben Nevis Ultra, especially when you consider the good reputation of the Skyline Scotland and the Ring of Steall have managed to build in a short space of time. From speaking to others in the race I know I am not the only one to have the same concerns, either all or in part.


There are huge areas of attention that are needed to be addressed for any future iteration of this event to prevent people feel that they are not being ripped-off by being set-up for failure in something that appears to have been cobbled together in a half-arsed manner.

Don’t get me wrong, the marshals on the course and at the aid stations were all very noble and able, being drawn from experienced runners/ climbers etc. and the support they had on the day from the race HQ cannot be faulted - the registration process was smooth and efficient and the race base well managed and run. The problems lie with the forethought and planning that went in before the event by the organisers.



The main areas of concern I would say are:

Disabling the SOS on the trackers when you are having people going through miles of bogs that in places are up to your chest on a 6ft man when you are at the most remote point over 7 miles through such terrain (either backward or forward) from the nearest help/ human contact.

The wisdom of not allowing at least one drop bag in a 75 mile race which meant those that made it to Ben Nevis without being timed-out had to climb into freezing conditions in soaking wet shoes/ socks/ clothes.



If you are wanting us all to be self-sufficient in our food/ drink so you do not need to provide food in quantity or variety at aid stations, then you should allow drop-bags so the full weight is not needed to be carried over the full distance.

A proper safety briefing for the event rather than “The course is marked but you can’t see it at present cos its dark, but follow the markers when you see them in daylight, until then follow the lights in front.” given 5 minutes after the race should have started.

Stating the race to be X distance when people enter then changing it to X+ distance after everyone has entered and not adjust your timing accordingly is also not the most helpful of moves either.



Fall.
If you are putting on an event deliberately so difficult that you have a 16% finish rate within your stipulated ‘course closes’ time, then you should be vetting entrants so only ‘elites’ can enter, especially as you set your time-limit to exclude anyone but these from finishing… We all paid £150 to enter a fair race with jeopardy that we would not finish, we did not pay £150 to enter a race that the vast majority had no hope of finishing before we had even started. The organisers need to decide whether it is an ‘open’ ability event or to be treated in the same way as Skyline. There was a very bitter taste in the mouth of us competitors as we felt we were rinsed to pay for the likes of Killian Journet’s appearance fees. I understand the costs involved in putting-on an event like this, but to not have any hot food at aid stations, food that was just crisps, biscuits and jam butties and not allowing drop-bags just smacked of this whole race being a bit ‘Heath Robinson’ and put together as an afterthought. As good an idea as it was on paper, it was poorly translated into reality from a competitor’s perspective.


Funky rock stripes.
The idea of an ultra in the surroundings as part of Skyline Scotland is a sound one, but this was a disaster that will have put a lot of people off considering returning - a sizeable proportion of the field was from overseas and is now returning home feeling let down and disappointed by their experience having spent a lot of money for a DNF!.. If a realistic time-limit had been put on the event (24 hours would have been more appropriate) then there would have been a vastly improved number of finishers which would have amounted to around 75% as far fewer would have been timed-out… The final third of the course was very close to the event base with the finish there, so this part was manned or very easy to man/ marshall over the whole weekend and therefore would have been able to cope with the course being open for longer.


I did address all these concerns directly with the organisers who replied to me (and others) with a lengthy press release piece that was full of obfuscation and twisting of stats to suit their own ends. For balance this can be read here - I have also rebutted this point-by-point to other people on the trail-running scene who asked if it was accurate from a competitor’s perspective.


Having spoken to the marshals on the day and the person who set-out the course I know they were instructed to make the path as ‘difficult as possible’ and with local knowledge they said there was always a recognised path/ trail within 50-100m that could be used as an alternative - but we were instructed to follow the path as set and not doing so risks a DQ!

I also saw the paperwork issued to the marshals and saw the anticipated drop-out rates and finish times of the organisers - the finish time of the winner was SEVERAL hours slower than they anticipated and the drop-outs, which they anticipated to be around a half was a far more extreme 84%!




Speaking with the man responsible for the trackers, he confirmed that the SOS buttons were disabled due to reliability issues at their end, mostly due to the tech requiring a signal that they knew would not be able to be guaranteed over the full length of the course and I fully get why they did this as there would be nothing worse than people putting blind faith in something they knew was highly likely not to work especially in an emergency - he did say there was a team continually monitoring the progress of all the trackers and anyone stopping for periods of time was causing them a lot of worry as they were aware of how remote the course was and they had med teams on a standby to react as quickly as they possibly could… Unfortunately this did mean NO-ONE was guaranteed to find you should something happen. Case in point was the lady who timed-out behind me; she fell into the bog where I did and went down to her neck. She said her instinct was to scream but she stifled herself as it was pointless as there was no-one around who could hear you!

Caravan in the middle of nowhere.
Since I wrote this, the 2018 edition of the ‘Ben Nevis Ultra’ has been announced and is ENTIRELY different in length, location and terrain, so it seems the organisers have realised how badly the inaugural event went from a competitor’s perspective and hopefully a repeat experience will be avoided!

Would I return? Not for a good few years and only if the event has consistently run without issues for the majority of competitors outside of weather related problems on the day.


Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.