Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Running Up (and Flying Round) Ben Nevis

At the weekend my running partner, Lightning, flew us up to Scotland in a single-engine plane.

There, we ran the Ben Nevis Race. Ben Nevis is the UK's highest mountain. A 4409-foot stone monster. I can honestly say it was one of the toughest mountain races up I have ever done. This news article gives a bit of the history (thanks to Chris for the link.)

On the way back, we actually flew around Ben Nevis, as well as, later on, around some other mountains we've raced up in the Lake District. I have some great video footage of the flying, which I will edit and post later.

I was deposited by Mrs M at Wolverhampton airport on Friday morning. This was the plane we would be flying in.

Lightning hauled the plane we were borrowing out of the hangar...

...before completing a reassuringly comprehensive set of safety checks, then filling various parts of the plane with fuel while talking to a man about football. If I tell you this is not a cheap way to travel, I could be accused of understatement. The total fuel bill far exceeded what the pump is reading in this photo.

Once we had climbed into the cosy cockpit, Lightning began punching numbers into the navigation system and checking various settings and dials. The plane, he informed me, was built before I was born and the wings were made of wood. I could have found this information worrying, but since Lightning teaches other people how to fly, I was relaxed.

Once we had clearance from the radio tower, we taxied to the take-off strip and took off. Easy.

During the flight I wore a headset. This muffled the noise of the engine and allowed me to talk my companion. It also meant I could hear the interactions between him and the succession of traffic controllers who helped guide us the 2-3 hundred miles North to Oban airport. The preciseness, politeness and ease with which this took place was impressive .

I got some superb photos en-route - the wind farm and sand banks were just off the coast near Blackpool, I think.

We landed at Oban airport, about 40 miles South of Fort William. There, we parted with another substantial sum for fuel and picked up the hire car.

An hour later, we were in Fort William, which sits in the shadow of Ben Nevis on the shore of Loch Linnhe.

We loaded up with a seafood platter for lunch, which was a truly awesome spread. We spent the afternoon finding the start of the race and recce-ing the parts we could do in the car. On the way I found some wild blackberries and raspberries which served as dessert. Later, for dinner, some mackerel and Brazil nuts from the supermarket.

On the morning of the big day we had fresh mackerel caught from the loch, with scrambled eggs and fresh fruit. Fantastic. The race was not until 1pm, but I was happy to make this my final meal at 8.30 am.

We registered early, just as the sun was coming up over Ben Nevis. In these photos you are actually seeing a smaller mountain in front of Ben Nevis.

The welcome pack included a small bottle of Ben Nevis whisky, a race number, a tag to be handed in at the start and a tag to be handed in at the summit. That's the most rigorous race security I've seen.

The runners followed the pipers round the field once, then filed into the starting enclosure before being sent off by a blast of the horn. Lightning's last-minute lace tying was quick enough to avoid affecting our start.

It is hard to truly show the scale of the mountain with photos. To get a truly clear view of the whole race terrain, this YouTube video takes you along the route on a virtual landscape.

I have magnified small sections in some of the photos, to show how the trail of people dwindles into apparently nothing, but in fact there are tiny people out there in the distance.

The first half of the ascent was relatively benign. 2k on the road, then 500m of ascent to get to the base of the beast. Here is where the huge zigzag paths start, used by walkers because the slope is too steep to walk directly up. The runners do not use the zigzags.

I started my race pretty briskly, using my newly learned pose running method to progress a little through the field. I also worked reasonably hard in the pre-beast 500m ascent - but as the beast drew near, I remembered it meant a further punishingly steep 800m of ascent. This was as high as the highest uninterupted ascent I had previously done (Skiddaw). The first photo shows how steeply this part started - and the second shows how high we already were at this point.

The third photo gives some sense of scale. In fact the trail of people goes even beyond the part I magnified, but are too small for the camera to pick up.

After about 90 minutes, the front runners started hammering down past me. The increasingly barren landscape appeared to go on forever. Eventually, though, the top did come into view, where the mountain rescue helicopter was buzzing around and runners were handing in tags and turning round to head downhill.

For me, it took 1:47 to get to the top. I took one final photo, then strapped away the camera ready for the savagery of the descent.

Nothing has destroyed my legs the way this descent did. If I had been wearing my Vibram Five Fingers, I doubt I'd have made it down in one piece.

In parts it was horrifyingly steep, and in others, bone-crushingly rocky. Elsewhere, long stretches of grass and mud punished already tired quads; and sections of stony path guaranteed at least a few painful blows to the feet; by the end, every part of the legs had been assailed.

The final 100 metres of the main descent was on very steep grass. By the bottom of this section, my legs were like jelly. I had overtaken at least 15 people in the process, but was not sure it had been worth it.

During the next 500m descent round the lower mountain I tried in vain to play myself back into the game; but there were still too many rocks and steps for my ruined quads. I shuffled, staggered and lunged the rest of the race, even resorting to walking part of the final half mile.

I came in at 2:43, around 350th out of 500. This was okay by me.

Lightning was a mere 40 seconds and 9 places behind. At the top I had been roughly 3 minutes ahead. We are both pretty strong downhillers, so I reckon he must have closed most of that gap as I slowly disintegrated towards the end. If he had he known how close he was, I am sure he could have put on a burst to take the title.

After the race I went searching for protein. If I had thought ahead, I would have brought quality protein with me. The stalls were festooned with the usual dairy or sugar-landen garbage, so I opted for two bun-less burgers instead. Arguably no better, since they were probably composed of mechanically recovered battery chicken meat mixed with partially hydrogenated crude oil.

Meanwhile, Lightning was already stalking the tents for cake and beer, which he quickly acquired.

Then it was down to the river for some cold water treatment on our aching legs. We set the camera timer and inadvertently captured our faces upon first entry. For the next one, we had regained our composure. Further downriver, others were doing the same.

Finally, a round of applause for the knee. It took everything that race threw at it, which was a lot. It is still not 100%, but if it can handle that, then it has to be in good shape.

And the Innov8 x-talon 190 shoes need some credit too. I had only previously worn them for one 20-minute outing, yet I got no blisters during this race. Not only that, but they allowed me to run with a forefoot-first style thanks to being virtually minimalist and they handled the rocks and grass in equal measure.

In the evening, I had a fair bit of alcohol, but managed to stay pretty much paleo. I bent a few rules here and there (potato & parsnip mash + a little butter) but nothing serious. My strategic masterstroke had been to buy a bag of nuts and dried fruit (a semi-Paleo treat) ahead of the evening. This later averted a drunken cake rampage.

Lightning gave me a glass of Ben Nevis whisky, which pretty much finished me off.

In the morning, before departure, a quick dip in the loch. Not as cold as I expected, but the barnacles punished my already tender feet. I should have worn the Talons and given them a wash at the same time.

At Oban airport, the usual checks, the back into the plane.

We didn't fly straight back South. Instead, Lighting flew us down the loch to Fort William and did a loop round Ben Nevis. The first photo is of the beast, shrouded in cloud, the second is a great shot of part of the Caledonian Canal.

Then we headed back South. For 45 minutes we were treated to some great views as we flew between two layers of clouds.

The clouds cleared as we headed over the Lake District, so we did some exploring of terrain we are more used to running on than flying over. I captured photos of Skiddaw, showing perfectly the race route we took in July, and of Great Gable, part of the Borrowdale race a few weeks back.

Finally, as we neared our destination, a slight diversion so Lighting could fly over his own house. Fordhall Farm, where we buy our food was on the way, so we got a photo of that, followed by our old friend, The Wrekin where we do training runs.

Three days later, my legs are still feeling it. On Saturday we have the Peris Horseshoe. This is over 8000' of ascent and 18 miles of distance. I hope to be recovered by then.


Lightning said...

All in a days work (well the flying stuff anyway).
The race was a bit harder. I nearly fell down the stairs on Monday morning and kickboxing was a real effort last night. I'll be ready for the Peris Saturday, where hopefully, I will get back that 40 seconds ;-)

Methuselah said...

You may get a few more than 40 seconds on my if my legs don't start improving soon!

Steve said...

Thanks for sharing this race report! You guys travelled in style, and conquered the Ben!

See you on Saturday for the Peris, unless I can find a really good excuse... ;-)

Methuselah said...

See you Saturday Steve. You are right, it would have to be a really good excuse!

4 Winds said...

awesome report and photos!

Asclepius said...

Nice write up.

Methuselah said...

Thanks guys - you can always tell how much fun I've had by the size and quality of the write-up!

William said...

Brilliant report and pix. You were just behind me as we approached the main ascent (I'm on a couple of pix: black/white stripes with red bar across & black cap).
Sounds like you took over me on the beastie climb to the summit (along with 7 or 8 others).
Talk about touring in style, what a way to race the country.

William said...

Brilliant report and pix. You were just behind me as we approached the main ascent (I'm on a couple of pix: black/white stripes with red bar across & black cap).
Sounds like you took over me on the beastie climb to the summit (along with 7 or 8 others).
Talk about touring in style, what a way to race the country.

Methuselah said...

Hi William - thanks - how did you get on? Yes, it was indeed racing in style, and just a shame it was so expensive that we'll probably never do it again (unless we can find other people to shoe-horn into the even cosier back seats!)