The Ben is rightly one of the premium races in the fell running calendar and you have to be on your toes to get a place on the 600 runner entry list when entries open some nine months before in the January. I ran in 2013 and this year managed to persuade Hilary, Sheelagh and Ann to enter, with the promise of good weather, an unrivalled view and a great post-race night out.
My promise looked on dodgy ground as I drove with Sheelagh through a rain sodden Glencoe on the Friday afternoon. But it cleared as we got to Fort William and arrived at a sunny Glen Nevis campsite where Hilary and Martin were based with their camper van and most English runners appeared to be staying. We looked at the lower Ben slopes and all the runners stretching their legs in readiness for the following day and decided we should get some pre-race preparations in – two pints at the site pub and a special energy meal of burger and chips.
Bright sunshine greeted us on race day morning with the cloud high and the summit clear. By mid-morning the race HQ at Claggan playing field, about 1 mile from the start of the tourist path, was buzzing with a large turnout from clubs like Clayton, Rossendale, Wharfedale and Ellenborough. At the sharp end the talk centred on whether Ricky Lightfoot would beat local runner Finlay Wild who had won the race 5 times in a row. I was hoping to get a sub 2 hour time, whilst Sheelagh and Hilary wanted to avoid the cut offs and finish the race within 3 hours 15 that would avoid being excluded from future entries.
At 1pm the race started and we had a lap around the playing field before a mile of tarmac up to the mountain’s path. Ricky Lightfoot set off like an express train sprinting ahead of the rest of the field. It was hot and I settled into a reasonable pace amongst those I normally battle with and felt comfortable until the end of the tarmac and the climb started. For the next 10 minutes of the climb I kept my place, but the injuries from Borrowdale and Carrauntoohil, that had kept me from training, took their toll and I started to drop – like a stone. I can’t say I enjoyed a large part of the rest of the climb. The highest, steepest ascent in the UK is no place to be when you are not fit and the sun beating down did me no favours. I took a big drink and a gel at Red Burn, which is the half way point and trudged on, all hands on knees walking. The gel and water kicked in and I stopped losing places. Feeling a bit better I pushed on and even took back a few positions before the never ending climb started to flatten out and we could run to the summit.
The terrain on the mountain is pretty much all cannon ball sized boulders after Red Burn. Not easy to run on, but you eventually find a way that suits and with quick feet most runners seem to scamper across. Race leader Finlay Wild flies past going down. We all stand aside to watch, his feet barely seeming to touch the slope and legs at an incredible cadence. Rob Jebb was next, but several minutes behind and picking his way more carefully through the stones. The challenge from Ricky Lightfoot doesn’t materialise, I am not sure why, perhaps he set off too quickly, but he looks well within himself as he follows down in fifth.
This year I actually lift my head at the summit to look at the clear views (apparently only 40 or 50 days a year) – and immediately lose a couple of places. So its head down after handing the band into the marshalls and into the leg trembling descent. There is nothing like it. Steep, rocky, relentless and requiring absolute concentration. It goes on forever and I lose places to better descenders as I worry more about falling than my time and position. Eventually I hit the road at the bottom, the place where everyone’s legs traditionally turn to jelly. Yet this year I’m not too bad. My lack of effort on the ascent and lack of bravery on the descent means I have a little left in the tank to run properly on the road, re-claiming about 20 places before turning into the finish field and the final lap.
I finish in 2 hours 10, which is 2 minutes outside my 2013 time and well off the sub 2 hours I had been aiming for. But better than I would have settled for half way up the mountain.
Sheelagh and Hilary both looked strong coming in, beating many others and will not have any problems doing the race again. We had a great night out after the race and my head was sorer than my legs the next morning.
- Finlay Wild 1.30.56
- Dom Nurse 2.10.02
- Sheelagh Ratcliffe 3.05.49
- Hilary Lane 3.16.00