In running, as with everything in life, there’s good days and there’s bad days. Inevitably, you need to make decisions based on the cards you’re dealt. At Kilometer 4 my body told me “I’ve had enough” and I turned around even though I’d already covered 80% of the distance and 90% of the elevation.
After two prior finishes at Scotland’s first vertical kilometer race (2016, 2017), I thought I knew what to expect. I knew that I might get rained on. I knew that there would be lots of water on the trails, and that the soggy marsh that constitutes the steepest part of the climb would be slippery. What I did not expect was that nature would be at its worst while I was at my weakest. But let’s start at the beginning…
When I registered there was a long line of athletes ahead of me. This year, a record number of runners would be competing. In the inaugural edition in 2016, a mere 160 runners saw the finish; this year with the World Skyrunning Champs and final race of the Golden Trail Series taking place during the weekend, a lot of runners had decided to tackle the challenge. And because of the added international focus, a large amount of strong athletes from around the world had signed up.
The first runners set off at 14:00. In the two hours leading up to my 16:10 race start, there was intermittent rain. Sometimes it was pouring, sometimes merely drizzling. A few dry spells got my hopes up for a repeat of last year’s good weather window, but that was looking increasingly unlikely to happen this year.
I got dressed in my car, thankful that Enterprise Rental Car had substituted my reserved sedan for a rather more spacious Ford Kuga. With the rear seats lowered, I was able to sit rather comfortably in the rear cargo area and even stretch out my legs.
But then, as I did a short warm-up lap around Kinlochleven, it started raining again. While I stretched and did some strides, it continued drizzling. I maybe made a mistake in dressing too light during this – I did not want to get too warm, so I stayed in shorts.
Around 16:00, I got my timing chip and lined up in the start tent. I took off my long-sleeved layer I’d worn during warm-up, which meant I was in shorts and a short-sleeved technical shirt, in outside temperatures of 11°C and a drizzle. But I figured I would heat up soon enough. A few people scheduled to start ahead of me had not shown up, so would I be OK if I started a few minutes early? Sure, I thought, it doesn’t look like a few minutes more would improve the weather.
So I was off. The initial first few hundred meters are on pavement, and I was moving at a decent clip (4:30min/km). But that speed was short-lived. After a mere two minutes, I hit the gravel path that winds up, then past Grey Mare’s waterfall. Here, the going is still comparatively easy.
Before too long, the climbing started in earnest, up a hillside on a gravel/mud trail. The surface was quite mixed and occasionally there’s more than one way to get up a set of stones or around a tree. I had already been passed once.
After 7:30, my watch beeped with a 1km notification, although the official sign was nowhere in sight yet. I thought I remembered that last year I had covered this distance in slightly over 8 minutes, so I was still cautiously optimistic. At the same time, I could tell that my body wasn’t happy. I could tell I was reaching my maximum heart rate at an earlier level than last year; where I’d miraculously been able to move with a heart beat of 178. Today, I was forced to switch to a walk every time I saw 174. This happened increasingly often.
Soon, I had left the protective tree cover, which meant I was now fully exposed to the elements. It was still raining, and the wind was picking up too. With the exposed landscape also came deeper puddles and mud holes, as well as a few smaller streams to cross. Inevitably that means that after carefully skirting around a few deeper puddles, inevitably I had my shoes submerged in 11°C cold water.
Still, I continued speed-hiking up the incline, occasionally getting passed by a runner while not passing anyone myself. The watch beeped again, 2km covered. This time, it took me around 10 minutes, still within reach of the previous years.
Before too long, I reached the short stretch of gravel road that marks the end of the first third of the course (around 330m of elevation gained). Here, I decided that a short-sleeved layer wasn’t cutting it anymore, and reached into my backpack for the long-sleeved shirt. This is easier said than done, because to then actually put on the shirt I had to take off the backpack, hold on to the shirt so it doesn’t fly off, then put it on with hands that are already starting to feel cold; and at the same time still move forward.
And then the real fun started. Like in previous years, I was staring at a wall of green, with only occasional small red flags to confirm that yes, the course is just simply moving straight up.
There were now a lot of people in front of me, but I realized soon enough that they were all hikers braving the elements. So while I did catch them and overtake them, it did not give me a morale boost like overtaking a slower competitor would have.
Instead, I was increasingly concerned about my body. My nose was becoming really congested, which didn’t help with breathing. It was also getting increasingly colder. I put on my buff and beanie. I was still moving decently, albeit no longer able to push really aggressively; and the slope seemed slightly less slippery than last year.
But the higher I climbed, the more extreme the weather became. The temperature dropped steadily while the wind picked up. With the rain still coming down, I was increasingly getting blasted from the left side. The rain drops hit my face, or what was exposed of it beneath a buff and beanie with such a force that it almost felt like I was getting hailed on.
I still had my water-proof jacket and pants in my backpack, so I got out the former. I did not particularly want to wrestle my legs into the pants while standing on a 40% slope, so I still continued in shorts.
Eventually, the steepest part of the climb was behind me, and I was now approaching the ridge on a slightly more level climb. Of course what that meant was that I was now once again facing the elements from all sides. The wind seemed to pick up some more, and when I took out my cell phone to document this it took considerable effort to keep it firmly in my hands. At the same time, despite wearing gloves now, I had considerable trouble pressing the physical power and volume buttons on the side of the phone that act as camera shortcuts. Basically, my hands were not happy and the rest of my body wasn’t either.
I finally reached the stone cairn that marks the start of the ridge. From here, it would just be around 1km and 100m of elevation to the finish line. However, that distance would have me heading straight into that howling wind, getting blasted by driving rain.
Without much thought, more following instincts, I decided that I would not go on. The nature of the race is that while the finish line is at 5km and the timing stops there, you still need to get all the way back down to the valley on your own feet; descending that same treacherous slope I’d just came up on.
So moving up a further Kilometer would add 2km on my body that was already telling me it had had enough. Was that really worth it? If I stumbled or fell, would I have the necessary reserves?
My “Tempe” temperature sensor which I’d mounted on my shoe recorded 5°C at this point. Weather forecasting sites I checked later on logged winds gusts of around 45mph or 72km/h that evening on nearby Ben Nevis, so I would guess it was pretty much the same here. The windchill probably sent the perceived temperatures into the negative range.
So while people around me were still moving onwards, I turned around.
Back down the easier slope, back down the slippery bog. Here, I crossed paths with the leading international competitors who were still heading up, looking very focused and very fast. At one point I slipped a little and my calf cramped up. It took me a minute to stretch it back into cooperating. I guess this is specifically why I turned around – what if a twisted ankle or worse had immobilized me for several minutes or an hour? It wouldn’t have been safe.
I was done, my race was done, and there was nothing left for me to do but retreat down to the finish line. I was still fighting the cold, but at the same time there was nothing much I could do except to keep moving.
After I arrived and handed in my timing chip, I changed into warm clothes and headed back to my room in nearby North Ballachulish. The drive over the narrow and winding road felt endless. The advantage of staying in an apartment rather than an hotel was the presence of a washer and dryer, which meant that at least I could easily clean the mud off my shoes and clothes and dry them. This had been a real annoyance during previous editions.
Later in the evening, I looked at the race results. I was surprised to find that almost nobody else had logged a “DNF”. It seems that pretty much everyone else was either tougher, more stubborn or – alternatively – fine with a smaller safety margin.
So obviously, I’m more than a little disappointed. No finish, no finisher medal. But because I still covered the large majority of the course I still have almost all the fatigue and tired muscles to deal with.
But it’s a lesson, and a reminder that I could have worked both harder and smarter in anticipation of this race. Once more, I feel like I had not done the required amount of climbing in the months leading up to this race. I can blame a lot of things for that – workload both at my primary and secondary jobs, the oppressive summer heat, trouble with the plantar fasciitis on my left foot since Saarschleifen run race, etc. But ultimately, the number of people that finished, and that would finished far ahead of me even if I had gone until the end, prove that it’s possible to overcome most of life’s obstacles.