Glencoe Skyline was probably the most exciting and painful 10 hours I have ever had on the hills. This was a race that promised brutal thrills and it delivered them with (cow)bells on. Shane and his team deserve enormous credit for having the guts to organise a race like this. The media were waiting and watching for something to go wrong but they delivered a perfectly executed race. So before I bleat on about my race a big, big thank you to everyone involved in making this race happen. A huge amount of people worked very hard on this and I’m sure every runner is extremely grateful for allowing them the opportunity to participate in this spectacular event. So, serious bit over lets talk about just how much this race battered me.
We set off at 7am on saturday morning with the prospect of 52km of mountain running and over 4000meters of climbing. Having only reccied the scrambling sections on Curved ridge and Aonach Eagach much of the course was going to be unknown to me. My tactic was to start slowly in the hope of preserving the legs knowing that I would hit Aonach Eagach with around 3500m climbing in them. I didn’t fancy tackling that section with jelly legs. I was really keen not to be the eejit who killed the race in it’s first year by falling off the ridge. The 1st section is a nice runnable section along the west highland way to the 1st checkpoint at Altnafeadh. Most people seemed to choose the tactic of running fast here in the hope of avoiding a bottleneck on Curved ridge. My biggest fear pre race had been rockfall, with 170 people on the ridge the chances of this seemed quite high. Despite this most people chose not to wear helmets (myself included, though I did wear it for dinner the previous night).
However the marked route up the ridge did a good job of minimising this risk. Massive kudos to the course setters. My slow start meant I got a bit caught in the human centipede snaking it’s way up the ridge which made for quite a relaxed ascent. About half way up Talk Ultra’s Ian Corless was there taking photos. I got ready to pose for a nice photo, I got my best really hard climbing face on and casually wafted my team logos in his direction to keep Nathan boss Stevie Bongo happy. But it turns out I was totally photobombed by someones Garmin . Fail.
After summiting Stob Dearg (checkpoint 2) I breathe a sigh of relief that the 1st scrambling section is done, from here to checkpoint 11 I am in unknown territory. Mentally I figure just get to the road crossing at checkpoint 10, a big climb, hop along Aonach Eagach then you are practically home- these are the lies you have to tell yourself to get around.
There is a really fiddly descent down to Lairig Gartain with lots of wet slabs before climbing back up to the saddle of Buchaille Etive Beag where I was surprised to see Elsie jumping up and down. She gave me a very, very tight hug which suggests she was more worried than she was letting on. I give her a sweaty kiss before continuing down to Lairig Eilde where to my relief is a couple of km of runnable track. I think it is somewhere along here I bump into “team cowbell”
Matt, Dawn, Jonny Fling, Fionna, Lorna, Keziah and many others who are making an incredible noise which gives me a great lift. From here it is a big push on to the highest sections of the course. On the climb up to Stob Coire Sgreamhach I am overtaken by the familiar long legs of Alan Smith. I make it my challenge to hang on to him but he is such a strong climber on the steep sections that I can’t hang on.
The next summit is Bidean nam Biam, which is followed by an out and back section to Stob Coire nan Lochan. This is a useful section as it allows you to see were you are in relation to the rest of the field. Quite far back as it turns out. Alan had gained such a big chunk by this point I realised I couldn’t hang on to him so I decide to find some shorter legged people to chase. Next was probably what turned out to be the trickiest section of the race. On a dry day the descent down the polished slabs to the A82 crossing is probably a doddle. However with a moist layer of water on top they were absolutely lethal and I took a couple of tumbles. The 2nd tumble I had an audience for and to add insult to injury my legs cramped as I hit the deck. As I lay in a puddle with a bruised bottom, dented pride and cramping legs I couldn’t help but smile. This was exactly what I came for, Glencoe Skyline was delivering me the beating it had promised. I picked myself up and trotted onwards, at this point someone overtook me at high speed. I tried to follow at his speed, and realised the slabs were equally as slippy at high or low speed so you might as well run fast and get it over with. Brain off, brakes off.
Checkpoint 10 had a fantastic party atmosphere, I refilled my bottles, necked a couple of cups of coke and soaked up the atmosphere for a minute. I then headed off up the steep climb towards Sgorr nam Fiannaidh and the start of the Aonach Eagach ridge. Looking at the map I had thought “that looks a wee bit steep”. Er just a wee bit it turns out. 900 meters climb in about a mile. To top it off as you get towards the top you are on very eroded rocks. This section turned out to be more dangerous for rockfall than curved ridge. I sent quite a few flying and had to shout to warn the people behind me a few times. Fortunately I didn’t bonk anyonet. I hit the summit relieved that the last big climb of the day was done. However the bad news was the weather had turned and it was now claggy and wet. My plan to go slowly early on to save the legs for Aonach Eagach had gone wrong on two counts:
(1) The ridge was now wet, 30mins earlier I would have got it dry.
(2) Going slowly hadn’t saved my legs.
The onset of cramp while scrambling over a very narrow wet ridge didn’t fill me with glee. When I reccied Aonach Eagach a few weeks earlier in the sunshine with fresh legs I had loved it and found the scrambling challenging but well within my abilities. However with tired legs, tired brain and wet rock it was a very different proposition. I found climbing up fine, but down climbing was very tricky especially when my legs were cramping when I stretched for a foothold. On one of the trickier downclimbing sections I found myself a bit stumped as to where to go. Fortunately a walker coming in the other direction shouted a good piece of advice and said he could see a good foothold down to my right which I had missed. I was very grateful for his help. It just goes to show how much conditions and your state of mind can affect your ability to cope with terrain like this. Back on my reccies I had skipped over these sections with ease. Today it was much more of a challenge. A couple of people passed me on the ridge moving much more quickly, I couldn’t help but admire their skills on this terrain. This course is about so much more than fitness, the ability to move quickly on technical terrain when tired is key. In fact other than on the climbs it is difficult to push hard on this course because the terrain is so technical.
I was pretty relieved when I reached Am Bodach at the western edge of the ridge, this marks the point when you know you aren’t going home in a helicopter. However I had underestimated just how much of the course remained at this point. In my head it was a wee trot over to the Devil’s staircase and back to the Ski centre via the west highland way. However there is actually a long hilly drag up Sron Garbh, and Sron a Choire on some very rough ground before a boggy pathless trek to Devil’s Staircase where we rejoin the west highland way back to Glencoe ski resort. The last bit of run along the road is quite cruel, similar in it’s cruelty to Jura fell race where you can see the distillery but it never seems to get any closer. Here you have the same the same optical illusion with the ski centre. But the prospect of a beer was pulling me along and I had enough left in the legs to outrun the clouds of midges at least.
I made it across the line in 10hours21mins, my pre race estimate of 8-9 hours proving a wee bit optimistic, however as I always say when you don’t quite meet your time targets: sometimes it’s not about the time you get it is about the time you had. And as a tight Scotsman I like to think spending 10+ hours out there is getting good value for money on your race entry. Joking aside one thing this race has done is reinvigorate my hill running mojo. It is properly inspiring to see the speed the likes of Joe, and Emilie can do on this kind of course. I can’t wait to spend a lot more time in these hills and am looking forward to next years race already.
Next up for me in a couple of weeks is another Skyrunning event but this time in France for Serre Chevalier. I don’t know too much about this event, but the length and amount of climbing look similar in severity to Glen Coe. I think the terrain will be less technical though. Less midges too.
I was too late to get a sweaty hug from leading lady Emilie Forsberg so Joe kindly gave me one instead.