Sky Running World Championships – Ben Nevis Ultra

Kerry Sutton   October 12, 2018

My first foray into skyrunning took place this September in the foothills of Ben Nevis. James and I arrived in Kinlochleven after a quick flight and beautiful drive through gorgeous glens and along the shores of Loch Lomond. We headed straight to the runner’s village which was set up and already buzzing (it had already hosted the Vertical Kilometre World Champions earlier in the day).

Kinlochleven is a small, sleepy village but had evidently embraced the mass of runners and supporters who would descend over the next few days.

I must confess to feeling a little overwhelmed when I arrived for registration. Groups of sponsored athletes – teams of men and women sporting their countries kit – walked the streets looking super-lean and not one over 5’5”! They were highly skilled fell and mountain runners. After all, it was the Skyrunning World Championships and the best had come out to play. In the 90-strong female field of my race, the Ben Nevis Ultra, only 18 of us were Brits.

After registration, we headed to our lovely B&B to get sorted and for an early night. Tomorrow was going to be our second 5 am start in as many days and a good night was called for.

We rose with the alarm and after inhaling porridge and a croissant we headed out into the dark towards the start. But we arrived to an alarmingly quiet start pen. We wandered around aimlessly for a while before someone confirmed the start had been pushed back to 10am, and the adapted “severe weather route” was to be used instead. This meant we would be running a more lowland version of the race.

The risks associated with traversing the high arrest and exposed ridges, along which a number of people have already died this year, was just too risky.

The lowland route comprised 2,000m of climb over 47km but that was quite a change from the 4,000m planned. This would favour speedier marathoners as opposed to the hilly experts, a disappointing change for the more technical mountain goats amongst the field and I wondered how this would affect the overall rankings.

We returned to the start line for 09:30 and I set about my warm up. The atmosphere was tense as runners fidgeted with their Garmin’s, readjusted rucksacks and bantered with the person next to them. The haunting sound of a piper cut through the drizzly, chilly air before a countdown and claxon sent us on our way. 300 of us funnelled out into the street to begin our journey.

We immediately hit the hills as we snaked our way up to the first peak in single file. It was a lovely climb, though to take your eyes off the trail for even a millisecond was a potentially ruinous move. It wasn’t particularly technical, but it was very uneven. Our warm, dry feet felt the freezing temperatures of the mountain rivers all too soon – this was the first of numerous river crossings we would navigate through the run.

One reaching the summit we headed onto a crazy downhill section. It was next to impossible to run, though we did our best. It was steep and very uneven, with large rocks hidden under clumps of earth and grass. It was muddy and wet, oh so wet. No such thing as ‘sure-footing’ here. Rolling, sliding, skidding, grabbing clumps of grass, we hooted and hollered down from the peak. It was fun and pretty crazy, much more of an adventure than your classic off-road marathon! I loved it!

Once we had negotiated this hazardous descent, we were greeted with an equally challenging section which sapped more of your reserves. Whilst this part was flat, we were running on extremely soggy peaty ground. Each foot sank over the ankle into brown, muddy, cold water. You were unsure with each foot placement how far you’d sink. It was humorous watching runners fall like flies, competitors ahead suddenly hitting the deck as their foot sunk so deep they were left hauling themselves out of the bog. This was tiring both mentally because you had to concentrate so hard and physically because you had to lift your legs so high. Still, this suited me and was my kinda running.

We carried on with the worst mostly behind us. The ups and the downs continued but less extreme now, though one technical section claimed a lot of weary runners. The path was peppered with people curled up in emergency blankets awaiting assistance having rolled ankles etc.

Once we hit the Ben Nevis valley things got easier and we ran along well marked trails. The first and only aid station was at the Ben Nevis centre and was stocked with water and food. I had decided to rely on Tailwind (liquid nutrition) to fuel me and supplement with occasional food, like chocolate bars and sweets. This was a departure for me as I mostly use solid food as fuel. But I find eating solid food so hard whilst running. I seem to loose the urge to eat and my saliva dries up so chewing and swallowing are so much harder. The only possible issue with this strategy was that to make my liquid food I needed to refill my bottles regularly. Due to the remoteness of these trails there were no aid stations until this main one at half way. It meant I had to rely on steams and waterfalls to top up. I loved this – it added to the sense that of adventure.

The second half of the race we hit the West highland Way, a well-made, undulating trail leading us back to Kinlochleven. I have to say this terrain doesn’t play to my strengths. I don’t enjoy undulating paths, preferring instead the varied, technical routes. But I got my head down and knocked it out. My trusty Garmin wasn’t so trusty on this run and chose to mess with my mind on this event. Though I whole heartedly accept it was user error. It was clocking up the miles at a speedier rate than I was actually running and, not realising the fault, I met James believing I only had 12km to go…only to be told I had over 24 left! So having thought I was shifting at a decent pace the opposite was in fact true.

I finished much further down the field than I’d have liked, but it didn’t matter. For me, this race was about immersing myself in the new world of Skyrunning and enjoying the challenge of the climbs.

It was about not going into a dark place mentally, but rather enjoying the sense of freedom the sport I love provides. It was about enjoying the beautiful surroundings I do it in.

All those boxes were definitely ticked on this day. I loved it and only wished we could have tackled the original course as it would have been incredibly challenging on many levels. However, from every negative a positive and that means I have a very good reason to return again next year!