One of my favourite side effects of competing in athletic events has always been to travel to places I normally wouldn’t get to see and experience. So when in early 2016, I stumbled across an announcement for the Mamores VK, which would take place in a fairly isolated corner of Scotland, I jumped at the chance. The Mamores VK is named after the “Mamores” mountain range and the familiar “vertical kilometer” concept which has athletes ascend 1000m of elevation in a short distance – here, 5km.
With the race scheduled to take place on Friday, I decided to fly over on Wednesday already. This timeline had proven itself at last year’s Chamonix KMV, because it allowed me to check out the course on Wednesday afternoon, relax on Thursday and race on Friday.
Travel time was moderate – a quick 1-hour KLM Cityhopper flight from Luxembourg to Amsterdam, then on another KLM plane to Edinburgh for about an hour and a half. Since I was traveling light, without checked baggage, I was able to take a flight with a minimal 40-minute layover. In Edinburgh, I waited quite a long time at the Europcar rental counter, then spent another two hours in the car to drive to Kinlochleven, my home for the next three nights.
My plan to explore the race course on Wednesday evening did not materialize. Despite optimizing my travel experience as best as I could, I was still feeling a bit under the weather when I checked in at my hotel, the oddly-named Tigh na Cheo; so I decided to take it easy that evening. Of course the next morning the weather had deteriorated, so even though I was now feeling better rain clouds were looming. All of this was plain to see from the porch, which offered a panoramic view of almost the entire race course.
I nevertheless set off in the drizzle, camera in hand. From my hotel to the event center it was only a short walk, and the initial few hundred meters of the road course on road were also easy to follow. From there on out, route finding was slightly harder. While I had a course map on my cell phone (a screen capture from the website) I was finding it a bit of a challenge to see exactly where the race course would go. I had hoped that the course would be marked well in advance, but I would later find out that this only got done a couple of hours before the start of the race. Nevertheless, there weren’t a thousand options and I was confident that I’d found the right trail to get me away from the valley floor. I followed it for about two and a half kilometers, or about one-third of the elevation, which was also the spot where the established trail ended and the course would go off-trail straight up a mountainside.
Here, the ground turned into a soggy half-grass, half-moss covered mess. I made a few tentative steps, which thoroughly soaked my shoes. With no way to know where exactly the race course would be, I saw little point to continue any further. I headed back down to my hotel. The rest of the day, I relaxed, drove around a bit, and then called it an early night.
Since the VK was only in the afternoon, that left me much of the day to waste time and fret about last-minute logistics – mostly, in what I should wear and what I should take in my backpack.
As is often the case for vertical kilometer races, the race start was staggered out over many hours in a time trial format so as to reduce congestion on the narrow trails at the start. When signing up, I’d reserved a fairly late starting time (the faster your anticipated finish time is, the later you start). On race day, I felt a little less ambitious and a little more intimidated , so I asked an official at the starting line if it was possible to advance my starting time. It was, so I started about an hour earlier than I’d planned.
At the start, I got my own short personal countdown. The timing chip on my wrist was scanned and then I took off. Spectators cheered, and immediately, there’s a quick left and right turn to get you out of the event center. There’s a few hundred meters of straight road, as I crossed over the River Leven bridge and then through the quiet residential streets of Kinlochmore, the northern half of Kinlochleven. It’s a testament to the small size of the town that after a mere two minutes I was through it, and hit the first trail. Almost straight away, there’s a small climb, where I passed the first competitor and was, in turn, passed by another.
After that initial climb, where I kept my heart rate in check, the trail heads downhill ever so slightly to a stream, and then shortly afterwards the real climbing begins. My heart rate followed suit.
From 0.75 to about 1.3km, the rocky single track climbs a steep forested hill. I was power walking all of this, and the challenge here was to be as efficient about it as possible. Knowing the course from my earlier recon helped a little, but basically a lot can be gained here by being mentally focused on pushing yourself forward and upward with every step.
From 1.3km to 2.6km, as you leave the forest and can see ahead a little more, the incline gets a bit more manageable. I reverted back to running whenever my heart rate would allow me to. The trail was less rocky, but instead of making the trail easier to run it made it more difficult. Rocks at least mean the ground is solid. Wherever there weren’t any, there was at the very least some mud, and at the worst there were decently-sized puddles. Initially, I tried to go around them, but in some places the entirety of the trail is one single puddle, so inevitably my shoes got wet; at which point I cared less about the shallow puddles and only watched out for the big water holes that could have swallowed my entire foot.
Before too long, I reached the point at around 2.5km where the single trail crosses a Jeep road. While the earlier drizzle had stopped, there was now a biting cold wind. At this point, I put on gloves and a hat.
Being on easy terrain was short-lived however, because now I was looking at a solid green wall. There was no trail to be seen (because there is no established trail), but a small red flag indicated that indeed this was way – straight up. I could see a few competitors ahead, battling the green wall. Almost straight away, what little part of my shoes that wasn’t soaking wet got saturated. The entire ground felt like one giant sponge. I concentrated on moving up as well as I could, but was hampered by a sky-high heart rate that quickly reached 181, which is right there with the highest I’ve ever recorded doing an athletic effort over the past years.
I had not taken out my cell phone to take photographs during the first half of the race. Looking ahead, there wasn’t any major attraction – just an almost uniform surface of moss and grass. It was when I turned around to check for people behind me that I was stunned by the scenery that had unfolded without my noticing – the clouds had lifted a little over Loch Leven and the sun was piercing through from the West, providing a dramatic juxtaposition of bright light on one side, and doomy rain clouds on the other. My phone was not water proof, so I quickly put it back in its plastic bag, but if this hadn’t been a race I could easily have spent some more time here to play with composition and exposure. But of course this was a race, and I focused not just on catching the people in front of me, but also on not getting caught by anyone behind.
And then, suddenly, the peak of Na Gruagaichean came into view. At the same time, the cloud cover lifted and even though I still felt bitter cold the blue clouds and warm tones from a setting sun made the landscape seem so much unlike what it felt like at the rainy start of the race that I had to unpack the cell phone for some more pictures.
At the 4km mark, and after about 58 minutes of effort, we joined the final ridge. I could clearly feel the effort I had put in so far, and also that I had slacked off somewhat on my preparation over summer. Basically, I was spent. While the climb mellows out a little over the final kilometer, the footing is a little more treacherous in the upper reaches towards the peak; so most of the time I was power hiking even though on fresh legs I could probably have run a little more.
Finally, after almost 5km of distance and about one hour twelve minutes, I reached the point where I couldn’t climb any higher. Race officials were waiting there, and once more the timing chip on my wrist was scanned.
The scenery around was dramatic – the sky was still filled with clouds, but everywhere around there were specks of sunlight illuminating parts of the mountains and valleys around, providing a stellar contrast not just in geographical highs and lows, but also of brightness and darkness, of saturation and dull grey. And then, of course, my cell phone died; presumably because the battery was too cold.
Unlike a lot of vertical mountain races in the Alps, the Mamores VK does not go up a mountain that is easily accessible by cable car or other mechanical means. So unlike those races in the Alps where you can give your all on the way up, safe in the knowledge that you can just relax while the cable car takes you back down to your hotel or car, here you basically turn around at the finish line and make your way down on your own feet.
Because the race only times the way up, obviously, you can do so without time pressure, except for the fact that eventually the sun will set and light will disappear.
On the way down, I talked to a fellow runner who would do the Skyrace the next day (I guess he planted a seed, I’d do the same in 2017); and then as I descended the steeper parts of the course my energy was spent on doing my best not to slip and fall. What I called a green wall felt just like that on the way down, too; except that unlike when you’re heading up there’s a bigger risk of sliding back down.
I reached the valley, checked in at the finish line (so they know that everyone is safely off the mountain) and got a print-out of my finish time along with my position.
The official results put me at #90 of 160 finishers, and I covered the race in 1:12:31. The winning time of Alexis Sévennec was a whopping half an hour faster, at 0:42:17.