Between control and chaos – Ben Nevis 2019

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Credit: Kirstie Arran

The year is 1895, and Fort William barber, William Swan, makes the first timed ascent and descent of Britain’s tallest mountain.

Fast-forward to 1951, and the first officially organised Ben Nevis Race sees 19 mavericks follow in Swan’s footsteps. Of the 19, nine finish – 10 are “mislaid“.

As 1955 rolls in, change is afoot. The winner of the race is legend Eddie Campbell, the local taxi driver, who is the new men’s record holder. But the main focus comes over an hour after he finishes: the first woman to compete, Kathleen Connochie, crosses the line.

It’s 1980. Eddie Campbell leads a rebellion of runners to the summit of the Ben and back after organisers halt the race for adverse conditions. The rebels report the weather to be perfectly fine.

It’s 1984, and Kenny Stuart sets the Ben on fire with a new record that remains unbroken to this day: 1.25:34. That same year, a man was born who would become synonymous with the Ben Nevis race. Indeed, his birthday is within days of the race.

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Races rarely come so pure: to race up and down the highest peak in the UK.

His name appears on the finishers list in 2006:

13th – WILD, Finlay, Aberdeen UNI, 1:45.23. His bib number? 1.

By 2019, he has won the race nine times in a row. Standing somewhat further back is me – running my first Ben Nevis Race.

About a month before the race, I turned at the top of the Ben and located the race route down. I gingerly picked my way through dirt and stones that moved like some insane escalator beneath my feet. We would be going up and down this on race day, I thought.

I love the Ben. I always have a fun time on it. Last year, I finished 10th in the half Ben Nevis race. Since 2008, I have ran or walked it about a dozen times. I have bad running days, but they never seem to fall on a day up Ben Nevis.

And yet – going down that racing line – I was bubbling with nerves. Why? I had done races double the length and elevation gain of Ben Nevis several times. I know the mountain.

Nevertheless, that long list of legends, the excitement, the old school place it holds in hill and fell runners’ hearts is – to say the least – mesmerising.

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A race with heritage. Photo: BNRA

Speaking to a few people on the line, you capture that same sentiment: the nervous blow-out of the cheeks and the wan smile – with a sparkle of madness in the eyes.

After being piped around the field, we stood in our battalion of 500 awaiting one o’clock. Those three or four minutes have to be the longest three or four minutes I have ever experienced. Everyone is bouncing on their toes so much I am surprised we aren’t increasing the amount of elevation we have to climb.

The start gun fired, but everyone was already moving. We cantered round the field, like hounds chasing the blue and white ribbons of the Lochaber AC hares.

Unlike most hill races where it is quite easy to tell where you are in the field, I found the pressure lifted as we ran along the road to the foot of the mountain. There wasn’t much telling as to where you were in the field. Places came and went. You find a pair of feet, follow them for a while, then find another.

The staircase begins, gentle at first but ladder-like soon. I noted the sounds of ragged breath around me, but I was still comfortable after holding back out the gates. I felt light, springy, relaxed. I wasn’t muscling my way up the hill, but being lifted by it; drawn by a cord upwards.

I kept passing people, less passed me. I held a line with a friend for a while, but found myself able to pull away as we turned right towards the Red Burn. I passed my parents at the side of the path, our dog barking so much to cheer on the runners I could hear her 500m higher on the hill!

A small amphitheatre had formed at the Red Burn. I amused myself as I put myself in their shoes.

Some had probably just conquered a feat they had trained for weeks for; others simply enjoying the window of sunshine. To be wandering pleasantly down the UK’s highest mountain and to find a runner in vest, shorts and a bumbag springing past you – followed by a dozen, two dozen, three dozen others – must be quite a sight!

I hiked after the Red Burn. Everyone does. The key is to stop before it hurts too much. Remember: You have the longest free fall in the UK to tackle. Cheering above: “Yes, Finlay! Yes, lad! Come on!”

The monarch of Glen Nevis came bounding past me, arms up and a bashful smile on his face as he thanked people for being out. Even when hurtling down a mountain at a law-defying pace, he still had breath to say, “Thanks”.

People had said it was the day for a course record. I looked at my watch – just under an hour and 10 minutes. Unless he pulled a set of wings out of his bumbag, Kenny Stuart’s record would elude Finlay for another year. 35 years and counting*.

As Finlay touched the road, I touched the summit. I knew there were people there: 10, 30, 200 – I could hardly tell. Memory has a funny way of removing that which is unimportant. In that moment, the thing at the forefront of my mind was dropping my band into the box and focusing on the descent. And grabbing a fruit pastille.

I have used this phrase before: “My eyes were in my feet”. I hardly looked at the ground as I moved across that high plane – my feet knew where to go.

We dived down the rocks, skiing on scree, boulder hopping and dancing through the dust – somewhere between control and total chaos.

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Somewhere between chaos and control. Credit: Steve Bateson

As I hit the Red Burn, I bent quickly to top up on fluids – and cramped. Frustrated, I just shook it out and took some long bounds on the descent to the main path below, eventually easing it off.

The second half is my favourite. On the Half Ben Nevis Race last year, I picked up a dozen places here, and it was the same again on the full race. There is something about the sheer instinct of the running that drives me on – brain off, reactions on.

Pitter-patter, left, right, left, right, drop, skip, fast feet, dodge, all the way to the infamous road section. All the tales of cramp, fatigue, dead legs came to me as I touched tarmac.

I reminded myself of one thing: The guy behind me was hating it as well. No one enjoys this part – you just have to keep moving.

As the hot tarmac slowly seeped into my legs, turning my muscles solid, I rounded the final bend and into the short descent before turning into the field. My family were all there, including my grandparents who had got the train up just to see me race.

I made every effort to put a burst of speed to the finish. To everyone in the field, it probably looked like I was running backwards, so hard were my arms throwing back and forth to move me on.

The clock stopped – 2:04.47. Finlay had been back for over half an hour. His tenth win.

However faint it might be, a strand now threaded its way from 1895 and William Swan’s groundbreaking run up and down the Ben to me, lying on the sunlit grass of Claggan Park at the end of my first Ben Nevis Race.

How, after that day, could you not love this sport? The atmosphere could have made the worst weather feel insignificant.

In some ways, I wonder if that is what caused Eddie Campbell and his rebels to report the fine weather on that wild day in 1980: a fire that has blazed for 123 years.

Next stop – the Ring of Steall. You can track me here.

Full Strava from Ben Nevis race.

Full results on BNRA website.

*Finlay has mentioned after a stumble higher up, he played conservative and went for the win and not a PB. Smart thinking. There’s always another day

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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