The Ben Nevis Race 2016

The Ben race.  One of the most famous in the fell/hill running calendar, steeped in history and steep in height.  At 4,414 feet, it is Britain's highest mountain and one of only nine mountains in Britain (although all are in Scotland), over the height of 4,000 feet.

Me & my regular race buddy, Simon Taylor, made our way up on Friday afternoon and arrived to check in at the hotel just after 6pm.  In to the room, kit bag thrown down and a nice leg stretch out to check the facilities.  We'd booked in the Ben Nevis hotel & leisure club so we had a pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and steam room to make the most of over the weekend.  From our room the hills were visible, just across the road from us.  When I say visible, it was rare that we could actually see them, the weather on Friday was murky and on Saturday morning, pre-race, it was terrible.  The rain came down no end and the clag covered the hills and Meall an t-Suidhe (the mountain) which was towering high.

Prior to arriving in Fort William, we did stop around Glencoe for a couple of pictures.  When you drive past Stob Dearg, it's hard to resist a quick snap of the pyramid shaped hill.

Stob Dearg 

We drove the couple of miles in to Fort William to do our traditional big race "carb up", just an excuse to find good food locally really!  I opted for the local cuisine; haggis supper with a can of Irn Bru, ha!  It filled a gap nicely so back to the hotel for a swim.  I've not swam for a few years now, it's something I've always enjoyed but I just never get round to it these days.  20 lengths of the pool felt like more of a slog than it should've done but I got them done and relaxed for the rest of the night.

Race day had arrived.  After months & months of waiting, since the entry went in the post, it was finally time to do "The Ben".  Even though I visited Scotland many, many times as a kid, I'd never been up Ben Nevis before.  Other, more experienced runners had told me about the race (runners of a lot higher standard than myself, I might also add - including top 5 finishers and race winners!).  The descent was sounding like it was a lot tougher than the climb and the last mile, which is on road, sounds like another sticking point for somebody of "average" fitness levels like myself.  My uphill strength has improved a lot this year and after feeling great at Snowdon, I was quite confident I could get up The Ben in decent time (for my standards).

We registered in the pouring rain at Fort William FC and hopped back in the car back to the hotel to prepare for the race.  I also purchased myself a copy of "The Ben Race" book, I do love reading about the sport and this was one I'd never managed to pick up so had to grab the chance while I could ( ).  I stuck with my Inov-8 x-talon 225's.  They've served me well so far and have been to the Lakes & on Pendle already so I thought why not on The Ben?!

You also get a t-shaped card to hand in at the start field to confirm your attendance as they count runners in to the start pen and a wristband which you have to hand in to the wonderful marshals at the summit of the Ben.  Full kit required as you would expect.  Although something we didn't expect this time was the superb weather!  After a miserable morning, the sun was shining and the temperature was quite warm (around 16 Celsius I'd guess at), a few clouds dotted around but no real chance of rain - nothing short of a Scottish miracle!  Me & Simon met up with Mark Walsh, who was staying over in Oban for the weekend, an hours drive away.  None of the three of us had any real time expectations for the race as we were all first timers, although we knew Mark would be the first back out of the three of us!

Mark, Simon & Me - ready to go!

With the time fast approaching 1pm, race start time, we did a few laps of the pitch and took on some final fluids to hopefully tie us over for the race, and no, it wasn't the small bottle of whiskey we'd been given pre-race, ha ha.  I was warmed and felt ready to go, constantly warning myself to take the first mile on the road at a comfortable pace.  9 miles is a distance you can ill afford to burn out on, especially when it involves going up and down Britain's highest mountain.  There may be about to be a lack of "running" at a real pace but the energy required to keep moving on up the mountain at speed is huge (about a full days calories for the time I took to do it, according to my Strava, in fact).  We packed ourselves in to the start pen and off went the start gun, the 2016 Ben Nevis race was underway.

A comfortable first mile at around 7 minutes 30 seconds, we left the tarmac for the start of the mountain path, the route lined with supporters up until this point, fantastic to be a part of a race when the support is like this.  The sun was still beating down and I felt okay after the road start but knew that was the easiest part of my day ahead!  Mile 2 gives you just under 600 feet of climb to handle, nothing too major and essentially runnable as you bounce along the stones and flags.  Mile 3 gets very, very steep in places, some gradient nearing 50% and you also cross the Red Burn, which in the race has a one hour cut off time.  I arrived there after about 50 minutes so I was well clear of that, one little worry ticked off anyway!  I was relieved to get there and stopped for 30 seconds or so to drink some water from the Burn, much welcomed, fresh water and after the morning downpour it was absolutely gushing from the mountain top.

A rare runnable section of The Ben race, just on to the mountain path
(photo credit - No Fuss Events)

The terrain starts to get more "mountain like" once you cross the Red Burn.  Rocks, boulders and scree are pretty much your only terrain from here to the summit itself.  Running here is pretty difficult, even picking your line is mentally tough, constantly scouring the landscape in front of you for what you hope is the easiest and quickest way to keep going up!  The scree gives way under your feet and the rocks are slippery in places.  Then I hear what sounds like a shed load of scree flying down the slope followed by a "sorry people!" in a broad, Scottish accent.  I looked up and Finlay Wild was already coming back down, 1 hour 7 minutes on my watch.  Unbelievable.  I continued to climb and Sam Tosh soon came by, running well down the scree slope but the gap was rather large and it looked like a 7th win in a row for Finlay was well on the cards.  I saw a few of the other lads who I regularly see at races; Karl Gray, Sam Watson, Goldie etc but my shouts of encouragement would've been lost in the mountain breeze...some seriously good running there, lads...they all managed to finish in the top 10 by the end.

As I started getting nearer to the summit, the steepness did ease off a little, from an average of about 44% gradient to about half that over the next half a mile or so, still, difficult to run up with the uneven and technical surface.  As more and more runners passed on their way down, I could sense the summit getting nearer, the cairns and increasing volume of walkers also gives you a pretty clear indication, as the visibility up here is pretty poor to say the least.  The summit breeze was very welcoming, I was roasting by this point, even in just a vest but my body was obviously working hard.  I could feel the gradient again easing a little on my legs, surely now at about 10%-15%, it was runnable and I started to pick up my pace.  Unlike some hill/mountain races, Ben Nevis is flat on top, so I managed to start getting some pace back in my legs before scouring the summit for the marshals to hand over my wristband.  1 hour 40 minutes to the top.  As I mentioned earlier, I didn't have any real time gauge for this race but I was quite happy with that, considering the cut off is 2 hours here, I was really comfortably under it.  So, time to head back down - there was no view, even if I wanted to have a look around.

The descent is like nothing else I've done, and I've done quite a few races in the past 18 months.  The mix of rocks, boulders, scree, mud, mountain path & grass just makes your mind work overtime.  It drains you mentally as much as it does physically, just purely because of the concentration needed on your footing.  Scree I don't mind running on, I seem to have developed a decent technique for that and felt comfortable coming down it, then the gradient started to steepen again and it became increasingly difficult to take the brakes off!  My shoe choice was definitely a correct one, a few suggested wearing trail shoes due to the amount of rock and stone on the route but on races like this I always feel like I need maximum grip so my x-talon 225's did me proud (review of those coming very soon, by the way!), although they now look like they're a few years old, not 1 month old, after their battle with The Ben...better get my shoe brush out eh!

Once I hit the road after the long and arduous battle against the steep slopes, I didn't have much left in my legs to finish the race how I wanted to.  I did want to push on along the road and hopefully catch a few other runners...I did overtake a few but I lost a few places too so overall I probably neither gained or lost on the road finish, seeing a few familiar faces in Karl Gray, Lee Shimwell, Ste Smithies, Kirsty Hall was a welcome boost - obviously they'd all long finished the race, ha ha.  I was battered and thankfully not bruised too badly, and finished in 2 hours and 40 minutes in the Fort William sunshine!  Would I do it again?  Of course!  Amazing race in a stunning part of the world...I've got my eyes on a 21 race plaque, 1 down, 20 to go!

Finlay Wild did win the race in a time of 1 hour 28 minutes, the fastest for 15 years and his 7th consecutive victory!  Tom Owens finished in 2nd place in 1:34, seconds ahead of 3rd placed Sam Tosh of Rossendale.  Sophie Horrocks of Rossendale won the ladies race in 1:56, followed by Sharon Taylor in 1:59 and 3rd placed Judith Jepson in 2:02.

Shuffling towards the finish line, very tired at this point! (photo credit - Paul Birdsall)

Overall, the Ben race is an absolute monster of a fell race.  Both the ascent and descent are very tough in equal measure and I imagine if the weather was different, times would've been significantly slower on the day, we were quite lucky in that respect.  I would advise serious hill reps and hill training before hand, along with experience of another "big" hill/mountain race...the races which are straight up and straight back down will provide you with a taster of what the Ben has to offer but none can compete on the same level with it.  I've now done Snowdon, Scafell and Ben Nevis and this is by far the toughest of the 3 in terms of racing them.  Scafell round 2 is fast approaching, a week on Saturday, in fact!  Looking forward to another Lake District classic and completing the 3 Peaks for the year, which also means I now qualify to enter the "King of the Mountains" trophy, although I will probably be close to last, if not last, on that table, but last year only 15 people completed that treble so I would be on quite a unique list.

I would like to dedicate my run on The Ben, and all future races, to my Grandad, who got me in to the sport from the beginning.  I wouldn't have any of these experiences if it wasn't for him and hopefully one day I can be half as good as he was...miss you mate, see you on the fells...x



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