Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Salomon Glencoe Skyline

I'm standing alone in a small town a long way from home. I'm tired but happy; I've just finished the Glencoe Skyline. I'm also feeling a little, for want of a better word, traumatised. I just didn't expect this race to be quite so...hard. I had to have climbing experience & have finished a mountain race just to qualify for the opportunity to enter this race, but neither of these things made me a mountain runner. And this weekend I found this out the hard way.

So here I was, with a medal around my neck, having scraped in just in time to avoid putting on my head torch. But as I crossed the line there were only ten more runners out on the course behind me. Despite the enthusiasm of the crew and a few hangers on I felt like last orders had been called and the officials, like barmen late on a Friday night, waited patiently for the last few runners to sup up the final miles before the chairs were stacked on the tables and the lights went off.

Rewind twelve - no nearly thirteen - hours and I'd stood in the same spot, the sound of bagpipes piercing the early morning air. As the count down ended we surged out onto the start of the course.  A short flat section lead out to the trail and it was clear the pace would be quick as we began to climb. The first few miles lead up past the hyrdo electric plant towards the Devil's Staircase. A wide trail, rough in places, constantly uphill but at an angle that begs to be run. I soon realised the hill wasn't going to end any time soon and settled into walking the steeper bits, surprised at how many people were passing me but not willing to push any harder in these first few miles. The sun was up and the golden morning light spread like honey over the hills; having spent all week expecting rain this was a delight - although we knew the forecast for later was not so promising.

Before I knew it we were dropping down towards the A82 at Altnafeadh and the first checkpoint. Crossing the road we approached Buachaille Etiv Mor where the first technical section awaited. The mountain rears up at the Eastern end of Glencoe, the great shepherd of Etiv, looking out across Rannoch Moor and looming over us as we advance. Our route was via Curved Ridge - a grade III scramble - and to get there we had to work our way around the base of the mountain, climbing steadily all the way before finally taking a direct line up the steepening crag. The scrambling was absorbing and I was in my element. Eventually a bottle neck formed as the route reached its technical crux and we were forced into an orderly line, mountain guides were on hand to keep an eye out for anyone in difficulty but everyone here knew what to do and before long we had passsed the difficulties and climbed up into the clouds engulfing the summit.

After dibbing at the checkpoint we dropped down briefly before a steady climb took us up to another summit. From here we descended a long path on a variety of terrain, some quite technical, to the valley base. I stopped to quickly fill a bottle from the stream before crossing over and running a short way along its bank. Almost immaediately though we were climbing again and I settled into a rhythm. Everyone was quite spread out, a couple of runners behind me seemed to be moving at about my pace and we slowly caught a couple more towards the top. The last few feet were loose scree and mud and I prayed this wasn't a false summit. This was a ridge between two peaks and the path led off straight back down; I stopped to sort my laces out and grab some food and then set off on the descent. A larger stream ran down this valley and we followed it for a mile or so - some good flat running followed, overshadowed by steep, rocky buttresses above.

Soon we left the bank of the stream, crossed open fell and were directed up another thigh busting climb. Deteriorating conditions greeted us as we made the saddle and a sign post sent us up into the mist to the summit of Stob Coire Sgreamhach. Everyone was stopping to put on waterproofs then heading off into the clag in search of the next orange marker flag. The climb went on and on and with no idea of where we were going I was starting to feel a little jaded. Finally we reached the checkpoint, the marshals huddled by the summit cairn gave us words of encouragement though I felt they had the harder job sitting up there for hours. On we went, visibility no more than 100ft, just sufficient to find the next flag without which I'd have been lost and frantic trying to navigate my way onwards.

Talk among some of the other runners was turning to our progress, and how likely we were to reach the cut off at twenty miles. Confidence was high but it was clear we had to keep moving well to make sure we made it. I'm not the fastest running by any means but this was the first time I've felt quite such pressure to make a cut off.  The summit of Bidean Nam Bian saw us being sent on a short out and back section to take in a further peak. Dropping steeply down a rough, loose and broken path, we exchanged words of encouragement with those on the return trip. On the way back I turned my ankle - not what I wanted at this point. My first thoughts were that my race was over but after walking it off I found things weren't too serious, though it certainly knocked my confidence. We were eighteen miles in had over an hour to get to the cut off but I was getting really worried I might not make it, I felt pretty low as we descended scree slopes varying from large broken rocks to loose gravel. To be honest I wasn't enjoying myself too much at this point. I usually love descending but I found this terrain infuriating and couldn't make any kind of pace.

As we left the cloud behind we dropped steeply down towards the A82, any hopes for an easier time of it evaporated; the laid stone path was dangerously slippery in the wet. Several runners fell on the way down and I passed another whose day was done, hobbling on borrowed poles and looking dejected. On and on we went, I could see and hear the checkpoint in the layby across the road but it seemed to be getting no closer. Time was slipping away and I really wasn't sure I would make it.  In truth part of me was hoping I wouldn't - I'd spied the huge climb across the road in the days before and it looked like a real killer. As it was I ran into the checkpoint with ten minutes to spare. This was the only checkpoint on the route with food and drink available; I turned down the offer of tea - "No Time" - instead downing a couple of cups of cola and grabbing some mars bars before heading off again.

What to say about the climb up to Aonach Eagach? The runners nearing the top of the climb were tiny dots as I started and the climb - completely off trail - started steep and got steeper still. I started looking for rocks or other land marks to climb to before stopping for a quick breather. Towards the top of this waking nightmare of a climb the grass got so steep I was on hands and knees. Finally, after scrabbling up the final metres of dirty, insecure scree, the angle eased and soon the summit cairn reared up out of the gloom. Nearly nine hundred metres in less than a mile and a half, it took me an hour and twenty minutes from the road to the top.

The wind tore into me and robbed me of the warmth of my recent exursions in seconds. I crouched behind some rocks and sorted out some warmer clothes before moving on. Conditions were pretty grim, rain and strong winds not the ideal for this long exposed stretch of scrambling. It took a while to get to the meat of the ridge, but the path continually narrowed until the drops into the cloud on each side were only feet away from each other. I felt as if I was crossing a bridge over the underworld, with only my imagination to measure the distance I'd fall should I slip. The first few sections of scrambling were easy enough - a guide was on hand to warn us we were approaching technical ground. Then a steep descent demanded our focus - another guide was belayed at its base and as I aravied several runners were just reaching the bottom. I followed and immediately we climbed up and over another rocky outcrop, a handful of figures ahead of me in the gloom. We were soon separated but I caught up again as we got to the pinnacles - the most exposed and dangerous section of the ridge. Another guide gave me a quick bit of beta and I skirted left, then down, then around the vertical pillars of rock. In wet slippery conditions this was serious stuff.  Everyone became quite spread out from here - a couple of more hesitant souls dropping back and those in front of me making a good pace and leaving to my own devices. I was loving this part of the route! We wound up and down, heaving up steep faces, traversing narrow ledges, dropping down tight sided gullies.

After some time the difficulties began to ease though each time I thought I was clear of the ridge another techical section would loom out of the ether like the prow of a huge ship. I was quite worried that I wouldn't get to the finish before the final cut off at fourteen hours but there was no way I could move any quicker in these conditions. Soon though the last of the difficulties were done with and the ground opened out on each side of me. At a check point I was assured that I had plenty of time but almost immediately went off course and found myself hunting across the hillside for the next orange flag. From here the route follows rolling hills, alternating between tussocky grass and boulder fields, with a frustrating number of short, sharp climbs before finally descending to the path we had started on so many hours earlier. This last descent was very slippery, made worse by the passage of a few hundred runners, and I found myself on my backside more than once.

Reaching the path I was informed by a marshal I only had 5k to go - just a park run remained between me and the solice of the finish line. I managed to pick up the pace and ran well to the end, glad to be able to run properly at last. Crossing the finish line I was spent. I felt as if I'd left a big piece of myself out on the hills. I've done longer runs and been utterly broken at the end - far worse than I was this time, but the sheer effort per mile on this race outstripped every other experience.

In the days that followed I replayed the day again and again, I certainly got my money's worth. There is no doubt this is one of the greatest races in the country. With the Mamores VK and the Ring of Steall race on the preceding days this weekend is a must do for all who yearn to run hard in the mountains. Maybe next year I'll come back and run all three! Or maybe not!