On Saturday the 1st September, myself and Jon Williams ran in the annual Ben Nevis Race. The aim of the race is pretty simple. Up and down Britains highest mountain as fast as you possible can, and with Ben Nevis standing at 4406 ft this is a fairly daunting task!
The Ben Nevis Race was first run by a tobacconist by the name of William Swan, from the Old Post Office, Fort William in 1895 in a time of 2 hours and 41 mins, however nowadays it is ran from Claggan Park Football ground in Fort William. The race itself has a prestigious history with the record of 1:25.34 set by Kenny Stuart still standing strong even though it was set in 1984.
Myself, Jon & Garry stayed in sheltered accomodation in Edinburgh on the Friday night, kindly arranged by Mr. Mark Fry, so we had a comfortable nights sleep the night before which we were very grateful for! We left Edinburgh early Saturday morning (thanks to Mark for driving!) for Fort William and made good time arriving there at about 10:30.
When we arrived at Fort William there was a very strange atmosphere there. It was almost sombre, the kind of thing you would expect before being led out to battle. You could tell that everyone knew this wasn't your average fun run, and the mountain was commanding a certain respect from the runners.
Upon chatting to a few guys who had run the race over 20 times each we learnt that the first 2000 ft were going to be relatively 'easy' however things drastically change after that for the next 2000 ft. We were told that we should try and enjoy the views as you're not up there for long, however in reality this wasn't really possible when it came to race time as the mist had descended upon the higher heights of the Ben.
As time approached 1pm and the start of the race, myself and Jon started to get ready by donning the legendary Fairwater vests. Being the first ever representatives from the club to run in the Ben Nevis Race we did feel a sense of honour in being able to 'fly the flag' on Britains highest mountain.
At 12:50 the runners were led behind a group of Bag-Pipers to the starting line. Garry and Mark had decided to head half way up the mountain in order to cheer us on, and give themselves time to get back down for the finish. Before we started we had a time of silence in respect of Sandy MacFarlane, a Ben Nevis Race committee member and chairman for the last 14 years.
The next sound was the sound of the starting horn, and we were all away! There was one lap of the football field for us all before heading out onto a tarmac road for 1 mile before heading over a stile and onto Ben itself.
The runners stated to string out at this point, with people forming into their respective ability groups as the mountain naturally sorted us all out. People started darting up in different diections, mostly with the white and blue local vest of Lochaber AC. I decided it was best to follow one of these guys as they probably knew where they were going better than anyone! Garry and Mark were at the stream at halfway to cheer us on which was great for morale!
The first 2000 ft were not too bad, what I would describe as a typically hard fell race, however after we passed the stream at Halfway things started to drastically change. The first change was in the form of a horrendously steep bank, which rapidly morphed into a volcanic type terrain consisting of scree, and sharp, irregular boulders. It was hands on knees time for the next 1500 ft, interspersed with periods of bouldering and scrambling over the rock. We had landed on Planet Ben!
As we ascended the wind started to pick up to what we later learned was 60 mph, and around the 3000 ft mark I really started to feel the cold as my hands went numb. We were passing walkers who were dressed in full waterproof gear and face coverings, whilst we were just wearing our vests. By the time the summit started levelling out at 4300 ft my whole upper body was numb, and the wind was violently pummeling horizontal rain against our bodies. It felt like tiny needles piercing our skin.
There were a series of pyramid shaped cairns every 200 metres or so, tempting and leading us like stone aged signposts towards the summit trig point.
Suddenly a flash of blue and white came hurtling out of the mist toward us and I realised it was the race leader Rob Jebb starting his descent. I glanced at my watch as he passed and it said 1:02 which means he must have reached the summit n around an hour. Unbelievable.
I was running with a few other guys and one said that we were making good time. I asked him if we came down the same way, and he said 'yeah we do'. I couldn't believe how that could be possible as it was so steep and rocky, but knew it was inevitable however much I tried to ignore it!
The trig point approached out of the mist and I handed in my tag to the marshall at the summit. Big respect has to go out to all the marshalls as it was very bad conditions on the top. A quick glance at my watch said I had reached the summit in 1:15, so I knew that a sub 2hr time may be on the cards if I had a decent descent.
As we started down the mountain every step was carnage as the sharp pieces of rock were all jutting out at strange angles from Planet Ben. My vision got a bit blurred but I put it down to the fact that my eyeballs had probably frozen. Making our way down we passed a man sat down on our right who didn't look in a good way. We found out later that he had to be airlifted off the mountain.
Next came the notorious grassy bank. I had read about this bank in previous race reports, and for whatever reason I had in my mind that it wasn't that steep. It is steep. In fact it should be called grassy cliff in my opinion. Going down it was agonising on the quads especially after the long climb, and all around people were skidding and falling.
It was at that point that a purple blur passed on my right hand side. All I can say is that I've never seen anyone running down a mountain that fast in my life. Not even close. I consider myself an average descender, and the people I was running with were all going about the same speed, but this guy dusted us in about 10 secs as he plummeted toward Fort William. If he would have fallen he would have either died or broken every single bone in his body, no exaggeration!
Afterwards Jon said 'You need balls of steel for that descent, and mine were like blancmange!'
I tried to let myself go a bit but my legs started going a bit wobbly and I didn't trust them at all. Eventually we reached the stream at halfway and joined the tourist track back down the mountain where Mark and Garry were there again to give support and cheer us on – legends! I pulled back a couple of places on the road back in before completing the final lap around the football field to finish in a time of 1:57 with Jon finishing in a time of 2:52.
The first thing that Jon said was 'That was dangerous'. I laughed because it was. The two words that keep coming to my mind are 'horrible' and 'dangerous', however as the pain fades the Ben is already quietly calling again. Jon gave it his all and had a nasty fall on top leaving his knees badly cut and bruised, but we both finished relatively unscathed and we got the T-Shirt!
That night we had an awesome Chinese (good call Mark) and a few drinks with a nice walk along the sea front to finish. Overall it was a great weekend!
Big respect has to go out to Garry and Mark for their support, and to Margaret & Mark for sorting out such awesome & cheap accomodation. Also everyone involved in organising and marshalling the race etc, my Wife Naomi for letting me do these mad things whilst looking after two crazy boys, and my partner in crime Jon – another good adventure done mate!