Have you ever wondered what it’s like to run up Britain’s highest mountain? To ascend effortlessly into the clouds then glide back down, soaring on a wave of support and euphoria? If so, stop reading this and go listen to Finlay Wild’s podcast. He won it again this year, for the 12th time in a row.
For us mere mortals, however, the Ben Nevis race is one of the classic fell races of the year (or hill races, as they’re called north of the border). Simple in its conception, merciless in its execution, the race is a (roughly) 2-hour slog: go up 4,400ft. to the top, go back down 4,400ft. the same way. Easy, right?
I’d not really considered doing the race before and had heard it was hard to get a place, but I’ve Will Hall to thank for both. Back in March this year he rang me urgently, demanding to know which category A races I’d done. I was skiing so didn’t answer the phone. Fortunately, our race captain Johnny did, and provided the info on my behalf (thanks Johnny, you do look after me). Next time I checked my phone, a rather surprising email was waiting, informing me that “your entry to the Ben Nevis race pre-selection has been received.” A few weeks later I got the email I’d been simultaneously awaiting and dreading – “your entry to the Ben Nevis race 2023 is confirmed”. It’s been on the calendar since, written simply as two ominous words.
Naturally, I promptly forgot all about it, lost in the business of house buying, holidays and general work and life grind. It was only when trying to sort a completion date, and flicking over to September, that I saw the two words again. I messaged my brother for training tips. “Just get as much climb in as you can” was his advice, so I went out and did some reps of the Meanwood ridge for good measure. Needless to say, with race day approaching, I was feeling a little unprepared. Two days before the race though, just getting there looked unlikely. A positive COVID test from Will’s girlfriend and upcoming train strikes had combined to thwart my travel arrangements. But on Friday morning, the day before the race, there was good news: a negative test from Maddie, and some unlikely few trains running from York to Edinburgh. I drove over (no trains were running from Leeds to York), winced as I paid for weekend parking, and got on the train up North. The Ben was back on.
Will and I left Edinburgh Saturday morning in his van, making good time up the A82, through stunning Glencoe, and I felt that familiar crackle of pure excitement that arriving in the Highlands gives me. We arrived in Fort William at around 11:30, a full 2 and a half hours before the start, the earliest I’ve ever been! Fortunately, I was with Yorkshire’s chattiest man and around the registration area, we stopped every two minutes to chat with someone else that Will knew (runners from clubs, friends from school, a man he’d met earlier in a toilet in Tyndrum). Meanwhile, I spied a familiar face and svelte frame pinning a number to a yellow and green vest. Yes rather sneakily my brother Tom ‑- now living in Scotland and managing the Ratagan youth hostel but still running for Keswick AC — had also entered. Mum and Dad had even promised to come and watch too, although neither Tom nor I would be the first Day to run it: Uncle Richard had run a blistering 1:44 back in ‘87, and followed it up by running the races in 88, 89 & 90 (it seems he’d stopped after Tom was born).
Wait, isn’t Will a Bogtrotter now? oh aye, there he is in the wrong vest.
Registration included a generous haul, comprising a t-shirt, programme, small bottle of whisky and a voucher for a free post-run massage. It also contained a wristband – to be handed in at the top of the Ben – and a red card, to allow access into the starters’ paddock. It all seemed a little convoluted, but I can only assume some previous skullduggery had necessitated it.
At 2pm sharp, we were marched around the football pitch by the local pipers, then with the bang of the starter’s gun we were off, out on the [98th] Ben Nevis Hill Race. We left the football field and turned on to the road, which was having the desired effect of thinning us out before the climb began in earnest. Up ahead Finlay Wild was already well ahead and heading further out of sight. I glimpsed the yellow and green of Tom up in the lead pack and settled into my own race. It was hot. I began rueing the measly 300ml of water I had taken in my bumbag. A group of lads sitting on the grass beside the road had it right, cheering on with beers and cider. It was – as they say up here – “Taps aff” weather.
Off the road, we turned up onto the steps to begin contouring around the side of Meall an t-Suidhe. At seemingly random points, various runners dove into the braken, up trods and shortcuts to cut off the zig-zags. Crossing a small wooden bridge, we joined the main path from the youth hostel and began the long series of flagstone steps. Somehow, I managed to fall going up these, my Mudclaws slipping on the smooth rock, to a wry comment of “Steady on, save all that for the way back” from a watching spectator. The course has been changed this year, so that runners are not allowed to cut across adjacent to the Red Burn, and instead must continue on a long out and back up the path to the Lochan, then staying on until crossing the burn again. Only then can runners start hacking straight up. I did as told and followed the path, dipped my cap in the burn as I crossed it to cool my hot head, then turned upwards onto the scree.
Off the path, I picked my way straight up, with Tom Stapelton of Wharfedale, and an Ilkley Harriers runner beside me, a Yorkshire-based trio among the mass of white and blue local Lochaber runners. “Go on North Leeds!” I heard to my right. “Oh, hello Zoe!” I replied, seeing former black and blue Zoe Barber up above, out in support of her Glasgow-based club Shettleston Harriers. Her boyfriend was up above, battling out for an impressive 3rd, but she was kind enough to remark to me “you’re looking strong!”. I actually felt it too and began pressing on a bit, sticking to the larger rocks where grip was better, rather than the scree path, hopping from rock to rock.
The climb seemed to go on forever, but eventually, the gradient eased, which I knew meant we had about 150m more climb to go – just an Otley Chevin then (I spend a lot of my running calculating things in units of Otley Chevins, or OCs. Some handy conversions: Simon’s Seat: 3 OCs, Scafell Pike: 6 OCs, Ben Nevis: 9 OCs). We were back on the tourist route now and into the clouds, sharing the path with the ordinary walkers, who wore rain macs, over-trousers and weary expressions, the novelty of being overtaken by a sweaty, grizzled runner in vest and short shorts having clearly already worn off. A few were wearing matching t-shirts to commemorate the finishes of personal challenges and possibly felt slightly outshone by the gazelle-like progress of (some of) the runners. Some tourists stepped aside, others didn’t. I just carried on, trying to be polite and managing a “thanks” when I had the spare air.
It was around here, approaching the top, that I started to feel the first pricks of cramp in my leg. Fearing the worst, I gulped my second and final gel. At the summit, I handed in my wristband, grabbed some jelly babies that were on offer, took a deep breath, and prepared for the descent.
It’s a cliché about the Ben that the summit is only the half-way point, but one that I still refuse to learn. Quite soon into the descent, I was feeling the effects of my earlier efforts whilst “looking strong”. Actually, the word that flashed through my head begins with f and rhymes with stuck, but I had little choice but to carry on. Unfortunately though, you can’t blag a 4,400 ft. descent and despite my rigorous Meanwood ridge hill reps I just didn’t have the legs.
Down the initial steady part I was OK, if a little slow, and even on the steep, gnarly scree slopes that followed I didn’t have time to think about my legs for fear of stacking it. However once we turned onto the flagstones of the tourist path by the burn, I knew the remainder of the race would be all about survival.
I tried to accelerate into a run, but immediately felt a spasm of cramp in my calf. Counter-balancing this, my groin then cramped. I couldn’t run anymore, instead resorting to a sort of controlled hobble, gently trying to edge faster while keeping the cramp at bay. After the lochan, on the steeper stone steps, I nudged on too far, cramping hard on my right calf, and nearly falling off the side of the steps in the process. I collapsed and had to be given a humiliating cramp-and-calf stretch on the side of the hill by a nearby marshal. I sipped some water he gave me, then hobbled the rest of the race, variously overtaken by faster finishers. Hitting the road again at the end was no respite – in fact worse – and unfortunately here I saw Zoe again, who gave a sympathetic laugh, and also my parents, who clapped spiritedly. The long lap of the football field seemed to go on forever. At the end, I tried to “sprint” past a runner I’d been reeling in, cramped again, was re-overtaken by him, and all but crawled over the line. It was pretty ignominious.
I lay on the ground cramping for a good 10 minutes. Then eventually, after a river swim and a free sports massage, recovered enough to head back to Will’s van. We convened later in Fort William with his HBT mates and the Shettleston Harriers at the Black Isle Brewery for pizza and beers. Then decamped to the Nevis Centre to watch the awards ceremony (and have another beer). Things get a little hazy after that. We headed back to town to a pub, where a series of random connections occurred. The masseuse who’d sorted my calves was out on the town, so too was Zoe’s boyfriend Daniel, who’d come third. I’m good friends with two of her exes, so that was a slightly odd moment when asked how I knew Zoe. Another chap was cycling over to Skye to meet a mutual friend of Will’s, another turned out to be Alex Sharp’s best man. The strangest connection of them all though was being recognised at the urinals and asked “did you cycle to Vladivostok?” by a guy called Max who’d driven there in a Nissan Micra. We’d eaten at the same cafe in Vladivostok and got to know the owner. His reg plate is on the cafe wall, my cycling jersey is beside it. Small world.
Somehow, later I found myself in Roobarb, Fort William’s best (and only?) nightclub. Finlay Wild was there. So too were the Howgill Harriers boys, drinking beer out of the second place cup, with the shield for first team being passed from waist to waist like a boxer’s belt. I just wore my finisher’s medal. In the stumble along the high street I’d lost Will. Later I saw a message from him on my phone:
“What’s the craic?”
“Good for a shit club, where are you?”
“I had an amazing poo in Spoons then came to the van”
Sometimes it’s the little things in life.
A few hours later I joined him and collapsed into his van. The next morning we recovered with a Spoons breakfast, with the rain pouring down outside. My brother joined us for a coffee there too, having come back to pick up his car. He looked worse than me. At least I have one thing I’m better than him at. We parted ways soon after with a hug, then drove back down to Edinburgh, stopping to dip heavy legs in the cool waters of Loch Earn.
I left Will to go to a music festival his girlfriend’s brother was playing at and boarded the train home. Out of the highlands, the sun shone and I trundled down the east coast mainline on the train, admiring the blue waters around Bamburgh castle. I alternately napped, then watched the BBC footage of the Proms which I’d sung in the bank holiday Monday before (Rose – what a shameless plug, you can take that out if you want. Ed: nope). Even better, my car was still there in York, without a parking ticket. It had been a whirlwind 48 hour trip up and down the country and up and down Britain’s highest mountain. The Ben: what a race. Sign me up for next year’s.
Josh Day – 97th – 2:15:03
Will Hall – 105th – 2:16:46
(Tom Day – 27th – 1:56:01)
(Finlay Wild – 1st – 1:something stupid)