Race Review - Ben Nevis Ultra Race
By Govinda Finn
I had entered the Ben Nevis Ultra with realistic expectations. It was my first proper ultra and the primary goal was to enjoy myself and ‘make it to the finish’. That seemed a modest ambition once the mud-splattered, carnage of the previous day’s VK race forced organisers to enact the bad weather route, lopping off 3 kms and nearly 2,000 metres of ascent. Absent the Ben Nevis summit and the big Mamores climb this was a vastly different challenge.
There was plenty of discontent with the decision. This was Scotland after all – you expect a little rain, bogs and bruising. However, I’d dragged my family up to the Highlands with promises of fun so grumbling was not an option. I focused my energy on adapting – just by the power of acceptance I could gain a competitive advantage.
By the time I stood on the starting line I was not thinking of Ben Nevis or the CMD Arete. I was in hill race mode, stripped down to shorts and t-shirt with trekking poles cast aside. A short blast of the starting horn and we were away. I was immediately struck by the unfamiliarity of the field. The Scottish hill runner’s lot is largely one of being marginalised and misunderstood. The men and women of the Skyrunning Ultra World Championship, resplendent in their colourful, high-quality kit were more confident in their running preferences.
The first hill out of Kinlochleven was to be the most sustained climb of the race. It unfolded at a surprisingly pedestrian pace. I reminded myself this was an ultra and pledged to take it slow. The gleaming gear, poles, shoes of those ahead kept me in check. However, once the gradient evened out I started to pick off places. The trail steepened again. Here we go I thought.
Ahead I spotted a runner who I’d seen at the start. He had cut a striking figure in luminous trousers and a tanned face. He had also started in the elite runners’ pen – impressive credentials! I anchored myself to his progress and prepared for the pain. Onwards and upwards, onwards and upwards. However, when I reached the coll it was not burning lactic but euphoria I was feeling. A snake of runners strung out ahead of me but I was 15-20 runners to the good at the top of that hill – including one elite!
The changing geography shifted my mood. The descent was muddy and wild. Trackless ground that left many feckless. However, I was grateful for the lessons of the Ring of Steall recce run a month prior and soon began to enjoy myself. Momentum only halted by knee-deep mis-steps and occasional tumbles. I passed a Japanese; short legs, sturdy and clearly perplexed. She was one of another 10 runners I ticked off on the descent.
As we emerged into Glen Nevis and flatter terrain I suddenly felt heavy-legged. I’d prepared for this beautiful glen to be a race highlight but hill running is not a predictable endeavour. As we passed the trail up to Ben Nevis that marked the original course I started to question my capabilities. Was I out of my depth?
The answer was quick to arrive. I sat in with two competent club runners and, hitting firmer trails, a more rhythmic symphony began: breathing, thudding feet, pounding heart. Before I’d left the campsite that morning, I’d attached my son’s plastic snowman cup to the front of my bag – useful for scooping up water from mountain streams and my own Swiss cowbell. Its clanging became a mantra for focus.
My strength was returning just at the point when we realised we’d gone the wrong way up a narrow ravine. ‘Flag?’ went up the cry. ‘Flag?’ the word bounced back through the field. We had missed a turn and the red course markers were no longer evident. ‘Flag, flag, flag’, the word kept echoing in my brain.
Once back on track, I swore to use the mistake as a force for good. Each subsequent flag drawing me on. One at a time I told myself as a grizzled American and I headed towards the aid station at the Glen Nevis visitor centre. A wooden bridge led us in and scattered on the other side were my family again. I was amazed at how unimpressed they appeared with my arrival. Was my efforts really worthy of so little attention?
Interest started to pick up when they became aware of the food table. Soon I had the kids running relays back and forth for food and drinks while Mayumi helped me swap my shoes. My splits showed I lingered too long at the aid station. However, I trundled away with renewed vigour and no regrets.
We were now on the West Highland Way. Another long hill. Unfortunately, I was backing up my lengthy stop with a sustained period of position slippage. It did not break me, just made me angry.
The next 5-6 miles were some of the best running of my life. Surrounded by skyrunners, the storied men and women of the Alps and Pyrenees, I felt strong. On home Scottish turf. When hills came, my legs responded. When my feet ached, they were soothed by mountain streams. High above Kinlochleven I felt effortless – and a closeness to physical and mental potential that runners endlessly seek.
I had prepared for a weary traverse through wooded hills. However, the tiredness stayed at bay. The final steep descent felt like a babbling waterfall. Working with a fellow descender, we picked off those ahead one by one. Two gunslingers on the trail. The final crescendo had me spurting ahead on my own.
Out on to the road and the final purgatory of pavement. Only 20 metres left. No puff left to push. The finish line gobbled me up, confirming my first Skyrunning Ultra finish and a sub-5 hour time. Bliss, hugs and broad, lingering smiles.
So what had I learnt? Yes, I could run ultras; yes, I could compete with an international field. But secretly I already knew that. The most striking lesson took me by surprise. Ultras are indeed difficult. However, not all are tales of disaster, fortitude or mental toughness. Ultra or not, running well can bring immense enjoyment. That also demands to be bottled and preserved. I’m grateful I found the time to comply.