The required gear list for the Ben Nevis 52k is the following: waterproof rain jacket, waterproof rain trousers, spare long sleeve midlayer, headlamp, warm hat, warm and waterproof gloves, mountain running shoes (as opposed to trail or road running shoes), sufficient food and fuel, and lastly an emergency bivvy sack. All of this, for a 52k.
So, when Yuch asked me if I would be interested in running this race in Scotland in September, I said, “Sure, why not?” Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how it went. Who can remember these things? It probably went more like – Me: “Is it scary?” Yuch: “No, it’s not scary. In fact, this is probably the easiest out of all the races in the series. You don’t even have to get vetted to get in.” Me: “Okay”.
But, let’s back up a bit. We didn’t travel all the way over here for one race. Earlier this year, Yuch got offered the opportunity to teach abroad at the London School of Economics for the Fall quarter. Of course, it was a no brainer. His schedule would consist of teaching one day a week, and UC Davis would give him a per diem which would cover more than enough for the flat, transportation, and living expenses. In other words, it would be an incredible opportunity to travel in between work days. He asked me to come along. Quit my job and do nothing for three months before starting grad school? That, too, was a no brainer. And so it only made sense to sign up for a few races while in the area. Running the Ben Nevis 52k would be a good excuse to venture over into Scotland, and a good way to tour and experience the Scottish Highlands.
After spending a day in a half in Edinburgh, we rented a car and headed over to Glencoe, a small village just 15 minutes away from the race start in Kinlochleven. The village seemed to be permanently shrouded in fog. I imagined what the mountains would look like on race day. Would they (and me), too, be covered in a layer of mist? Would there even be any views from above? The temperature was warm and moist, but I imagined it to be cold and windy up on the race course. I longed for race day to bring warm, kind weather, but Yuch said “But then you wouldn’t get the full Ben Nevis experience”. I said I was willing to take that chance.
I had no idea what to expect. This was the third running of this race. The first year it was a 100k with the same elevation gain. The second (last) year was a 47k on the “bad weather route” with far less elevation gain, 5400 ft. This would be the first year (if the weather permitted) that the race was held on the normal course – 52k with 4000 meters or 12,500 feet of elevation gain. The year it was a 100k, Mira Rai won the women’s race in 14:24. The year it was the bad weather course, Ragna Dabats won in 4:36. Yuch and I estimated 6-8 hours to finish, and I subsequently packed 1400 calories worth of fuel. There would be one aid station around 19 miles in. One bladder of water should be enough to get me to the aid station, and then another to the finish. For most 50ks, I don’t even finish one full bladder of water.
The weather on race day was, in fact, kind. The previously foggy Glencoe had transformed overnight, and the sky was clear. The forecast was sunny and warm with a high of 70. The good weather route was on!
I started the race out slow, back of the front pack. At the slightest ascent, the runners around me halted to a hike. Trekking poles clicked and clacked around me. I wasn’t really surprised. I had heard of and sort of witnessed this before. I knew these people around me knew better than I. I also hiked (sans trekking poles), but with spurts of running when I couldn’t handle the density of the pack and just how runnable some of these ascents really were. Before I knew it, I was on a nice runnable single track with a bit of dodging here and there.
The first descent was steep, muddy, and slow. Around me runners slipped and slided, because we all know sometimes the fastest way to get down whether it’s in the snow or in the mud, is with a glissade. However, I am a lady, and opted for the “in-control” look and behind which resulted in a slower descent and muddy hands. “This is good Scottish running!” I heard someone behind me say. I looked at my watch and realized I should fuel sometime soon, but the idea of eating with hands covered in mud did not appeal to me. At the first stream, I washed my hands. Soon, I would be able to eat, but first I needed to get through this trackless unstable grassy terrain, really only navigable by the orange course markings and the runners in front of me.
The slip and slide continued. The ground was precarious, fluctuating between a small percentage of solidish ground, and a whole lot of bog. The bog was fun and laughable at first, but quickly grew old with every twist and turn of my ankles. My feet seemed to be sliding all around in my sopping wet Lone Peaks and I wondered if I wore the wrong shoes. With the unstable terrain, the most minimal shoe seemed to be the most desirable. Every step was questionable and sometimes the mud was so deep my foot would sink in up to my knees. For a little while, I followed another guy and was able to learn from his mistakes. At one point, his leg landed thigh high in the mud. “Don’t go here!” he would warn me, but soon the gap between us grew and I was on my own.
The journey to Ben Nevis was unforgettable. The ascent itself was physically difficult, but my legs were strong. With my hands on my knees, I passed a number of runners. It had been a month since Castle Peak, and the last 3 weeks of mileage looked like this: 22, 48, and 50 – fairly light and easy. I knew what was waiting for me at the top. The CMD Arete connects the Carn Mor Dearg summit to Ben Nevis. The pictures of this ridgeline from the race site gave me goosebumps. The goal was just to get it done. However, after the first section, I realized the ridgeline was much lengthier than I had thought.
I was slow. Everyone who I had passed on the ascent was now passing me as I slowly and cautiously scrambled my way along often using my hands for balance. Although the ridgeline looks pretty skimpy from afar, I didn’t necessarily feel in immediate danger. Still, I was extremely stressed out and my back tightened up as a result. Adrenaline propelled me forward. The views were incredible and I tried my best to take pictures when possible. The climb seemed to take forever and each time I got to what I thought was the top, I would see a line of runners ahead of me continuing up. I looked at my watch. This was not going to be a 6-8 hour day.
At the top of Ben Nevis I let out a yelp and exhaled in relief. In my mind, the hardest part of the day was over. The descent from Ben Nevis takes the tourist path, and finally I got to use my running legs to dodge rocks and tourists down to the visitor’s center where I would find the one and only aid station. On the way down, someone told me I was the third female and that the second female was just 3 minutes ahead of me. I was over 5 hours in and had run out of water at this point. While a kind volunteer filled up my bladder with water, I scanned the food options: cheese and meat sandwiches, chocolate cookies, bananas, oranges, potatoes, some kind of cut up peanut butter bar, and cups of a 50/50 blend of Red Bull and water. I thirstily took in a number of orange wedges, but knew this would not sustain me. Although it sort of grossed me out, I decided to go for the diluted Red Bull. It went down easy and tasted pretty good. I had another, and left the aid station with my new Red Bull “wings”.
The fire road out of the aid station was, well, a nice friendly runnable fire road! I asked someone what mile we were at and found out the aid station had been at mile 19. I had been moving roughly 3.5 miles an hour. I felt like I had been out there all day, but it was only 12:30. The fire road transitioned to a nice solid single track in the forest, which transitioned into a more precarious technical single track in the forest, which then opened up to a water crossing with a waterfall, and more ascending.
Somewhere in the forest, I passed who I believed was the second female. Again, I powered up the initial climb, passing fatigued runners (probably the same folks who had passed me earlier on the ridge). But, alas, as we approached the Ring of Steall which presented more scrambling, they all passed me again. “You make it look so easy!” I said to someone who nimbly scurried past me. “That’s exactly what I thought about you on the ascent”, he responded. “We all have our things!” True, I thought. It is interesting to me how we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Scrambling, rock climbing, heights, and descents are not strengths of mine. In fact, they are downright weaknesses.
Although I had thought Ben Nevis would be the hardest part of the race, I actually thought the Ring of Steall was the scariest. Perhaps it had to do with my legs being properly trashed at that point, or the fact that I had run out of water. I wasn’t sure if I had been drinking a lot, or if the volunteer just hadn’t filled my pack up completely full. Whatever the case, I was out, and while I had one bar and a gel left, the thought of consuming them without water did not entice me. Eventually, I took the gel out of desperation. The thought of bonking up there worried me. The thought of becoming clumsy in a place where you didn’t want to become clumsy worried me. Others around me seemed to be out of water, too, and we all shared the same disbelief as we reached false summits and would see more runners up ahead continuing up.
I asked a volunteer at a checkpoint (not an aid station) how much further it was. They told me about 6k, but about 6k later it dawned on me that they were telling me how much further to the summit, not the finish. At the final summit, I again asked another checkpoint volunteer “how much further?” I felt slightly embarrassed that I was continuing to ask this lame question. I mean, here I am running in this beautiful place in a race that I myself signed up for, and I’m asking “Are we there yet?” I felt depleted and desperate. The answer was 6k, but that it was all downhill from here. The fact that it was downhill did not make it easy. The trails were still steep, technical, and then – the return of the bog. My legs were trashed. I was thirsty, but not dehydrated. I considered drinking from streams on the way down, but decided to avert Giardia and wait until the finish. The first view of Loch Leven was comforting. I was almost there!
At 4:54 pm, a volunteer told me I had 2k to go – just a little over a mile. I would not finish in under 10 hours, but at that point, I didn’t care when I finished, just that I finished. I felt like I had been fighting for my life the whole day, and I was ready for it to be over. It was the longest 2k of my life. Perhaps he meant 2 miles? I crossed the finish line in 10:13:12.
I immediately sat down. A volunteer handed me a cup of water and a bottle of something that looked sweet, but turned out to be this really not very satisfying birch water. A man approached me and introduced himself as the race director and wanted to know “How did you find the race?” “Difficult”, I responded and he seemed to like that response. I guess this is what race directors like to hear. He congratulated me on being the second place woman and handed me a print of the course profile and a card that said I had won 250 pounds, my first income since leaving my job!
Only a third of the field finished under the 12 hour cut off – 110 men and 9 women. The first place woman finished in an extraordinarily fast time of 8:05, only 14 minutes behind the first place man. Yuch finished 13th in 9:22, also a very impressive time. I felt slightly ashamed that I finished over 2 hours behind the first place woman. A podcast I had listened to recently remarked that having such big gaps between runners in a race implies a lack of competition that is not “good for the sport”. This comment is interesting to me. Part of me agrees that it would be nice to have more female competition. At the same time, I don’t think I should feel bad that I came in so far behind Superwoman, or any woman! In fact, I feel proud for even putting myself out there on a course in which I knew I would be anxious and completely out of my comfort zone. Clearly, not very many women are willing to do this, which is totally understandable to me.
This race definitely established the limit of what I am comfortable and willing to do in a way that no races thus far have. In fact, when Yuch asked me after how it went, I responded with tears in my eyes, “It was too much”. Physically, I could do it. Emotionally, it was just way too much. While he was happily and joyfully scrambling on the course, I was just trying not to die. However, I will say, to anyone who is interested in running this race. If I can do it, you can do it. For now, I choose to comfortably relax in our flat in Richmond with my Kindle and knitting needles. I look forward to our next race, the Chester Marathon, in two weeks which will take place on a nice, flat, safe, and scramble-free race course.
Full results here: http://www.skylinescotland.com/ben-nevis-ultra/results/2019-results/