In almost two week’s time, I will be racing in the biggest event of my running ‘career’ ever. Along with Pat, I will be running the inaugural Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace, in the West Highlands of Scotland. Pat and I have been training all summer, accumulating hours upon hours of time on our feet, thousands of feet elevation gain, and seeing some stunning, raw and dramatic Scottish scenery along the way. As part of our training, we ran the current Ring of Steall race route a few weeks ago, to see what we were in for. It was an eye-opening ‘run’ that is easily the most physically demanding task I’ve ever done to date, encompassing 8200 feet/2500 metres elevation gain (the most for me in a single run), and the longest time spent on my feet. I write ‘run’ because there wasn’t much running done, and in my tired, emotionally spent post-recce state, I used the expression ‘unrunnable’ to describe the route because it is so technical and steep, I wonder how people will actually run the flats and descents.
I experienced my lowest lows and highest highs on this run – crying a few times and also in complete awe of the landscape and what we accomplished – and found it to be great mental preparation for the race. I now know what I’m in for and what to expect, and where. I know what the terrain is like, how difficult the scrambling will be, and how seriously muddy and wet the race route could be. While this was a training run to gage physical race-day readiness, I’ve realised that the training process also involves training the mind to deal with and get through the most mentally (and physically) exhausting of challenges. This recce, and subsequent runs since, has been very good mental preparation!
Now I want to share this race route recce in hopes that it will help those that are also racing, but haven’t made it out to Kinlochleven. I guess it’s the teacher in me that wants to plan, prepare and help others.
Our recce followed the current Ring of Steall good weather race route on the Skyline Scotland website, and this course preview relies on the given map for guidance. We were very fortunate to have ideal weather conditions for our recce: sun, clear skies, no wind, dry. But the midges were horrendous, so be prepared!
Race start to checkpoint (CP) 1: leaving Kinlochleven to forest trail
While we didn’t run from the race start, but as the website indicates, the race starts on a tarmac road, leaving Kinlochleven. We then go off-road onto a wide forest path, with some small rock. This is easy trail running in terms of underfoot, although we start climbing quite quickly. Underfoot becomes all of the above as we ascend: tree roots, medium-sized loose rock, small loose rock, larger embedded rock, and a mountain stream with a hand rail (I suggest holding on to it to quickly get over the rocks). It also becomes more narrow in some places, so bear that in mind if you want to pass people.
The trail joins the West Highland Way briefly as we turn left onto it. The trail widens, to landrover track width, and is undulating. There is a medium, steep uphill then downhill before we get to CP1.
CP1 to CP2: West Highland Way to Mamores Ridge and Ring of Steall
This section is quite technical and long: Kinlochleven is at sea level, and we climb to almost munro height (3000 feet) here. Pat and I power-walked this section. Expect all of the above for underfoot: mud, heather, deep and covered and at times narrow paths, rocks of all sizes, either embedded or loose. We also cross mountain streams. Pat and I found it quite difficult to get any rhythm and flow in our power-walking because of the technical demands of the trail.
According to race organisers, no poles are allowed in this section. Be sure to take in the view of the Ring of Steall formation of peaks, as well as have a peak behind you at Loch Leven.
CP2 to CP3: Mamores Ridge to our first summit, Sgorr an Iubhair (not a munro but 3284 feet/1001 metres high).
The ridge itself is quite flat, but there is much embedded rock, so while runnable, you might find yourself prancing instead. The single track climb up to Sgorr an Iubhair is quick and easy (especially after climbing from Kinlochleven!). It’s rocky all the way up with some hands-on-rock opportunities.
CP3 to CP4: Sgorr an Iubhair to Sgurr a’Mhaim (first munro of the race), via the Devil’s Ridge
A very narrow and slightly deep single track path takes you slightly down Sgorr an Iubhair and across the Devil’s Ridge, a very narrow ridge with huge, dramatic, steep descents on either side. I feel videos make Devil’s Ridge look scarier and more narrow than it really is, and I’ve long expected to have severe nerves while running this section. Because I was so focused putting on one step in front of the other and keeping both feet on the narrow path, I couldn’t let my gaze and focus deviate from the task at hand, and therefore didn’t get scared. I could, however, still see the vast space around me in my peripherals.
There is scrambling in this section, and one must be sure to stay on the at-times-faint path marked by scattered tiny pebbles. Pat went about five feet off path and found himself in a tricky situation involving a huge drop off and back-tracking. Although I was at great heights, I found that again, the focus required to scramble across this section distracted me from the heights. I don’t like heights.
CP4 to CP5: descent of Sgurr a’Mhaim into Glen Nevis
The descent begins as scree: small, loose rocks in a tight, steep switchback formation that move underfoot with your every step. I really enjoyed the scree and likened it to downhill skiing. This part is runnable.
Once past the scree, the trail continues to be steep and becomes very rocky, muddy and deep, similar to the higher sections of Ben Vorlich or Glen Tanar to Mount Keen. Again, it was difficult to get any moving rhythm and you really had to focus on the task at hand. Poles would be handy in this section, and it’s a definite burn on the quads and taxing on the knees.
You pass through a small gate, continuing the descent in hopes of the trail flattening out a bit so you might be able to run. But it doesn’t. It’s like this most of the way down and changes from mud underfoot, to shale/sand/small rocks all the way to CP 5.
This is a very tough section.
CP5 to CP6: Glen Nevis to Steall Falls
You must reach CP 5 within four hours of the race starting – if you fail to do this, race organisers end your race. It is also at CP 5 that there will be the one water and food station of the race. Presumably along this section there will be toilets too. We reached this CP in 3.5 hours, and that was including deviating from the trail to refill our hydration packs with water.
This section is flat in comparison to the rest of the race. We run along an at-times undulating tarmac road for a while, then reach the carpark for the walk to Steall Falls and the 16km Ring of Steall walk. Anticipate dealing with people and cars in this section, unless they close it for the race. The trail to Steall Falls narrows, but gives enough passing room. It is mostly flat and easy trail running, with some large rocky sections to run over. Forest cover opens to a view of Water of Nevis, Steall Falls and the rope bridge that crosses it.
The latest version of the race route bypasses this bridge (thank God!) and has us continuining along the path, then wading through Water of Nevis. If there is much rain in the days leading up to the race, we will be crossing at the rope bridge, where the handle ropes are higher than expected. I hated this bridge and was quite slow crossing it. It was FAR worse than the Devil’s Ridge!
I believe that, if for whatever reason, you’re unsure about whether you should carry on with the race, it is in this section that you should decide whether you’ll continue on and finish the race or pull out and get a lift back to Kinlochleven. CP 6 is the start of another huge climb and takes you back up to the Ring of Steall. Despite there being race support and emergency crew up along this top section of the race route, there are no ‘out’ options. You must either backtrack back into Glen Nevis, or finish the race route.
CP6 to CP7: Ascent of An Gearanach (second munro of the race)
Technical, steep, muddy, midges, wet – my lowest point. Our recce took us over a different approach to this ascent, resulting in treading through boggy parts (up to my thigh at one point!), which I found quite tough. Then, there were the midges. I spent all of this ascent, switchback to switchback, through muddy deep trail, looser rock and large rock, swatting away the midges. This distracted me, momentarily, from the arduous and long ascent of An Gearanach.
Like most munros I’ve bagged, the summit was deceiving. Just when you think the top is in eyesight, you climb higher only to see the summit is higher or further away. I hope my memory of this section is tainted with how mentally low and on the verge of tears I felt at this moment, and come race day, it isn’t as bad.
Regardless though, it is a long, steep, technical climb from the very bottom again.
Once you’ve made it to the top of An Gearanach, take in the view and prepare yourself for three more quick summits!
CP7 to CP8: An Gearanch to Stob Coire a’ Chairn (3rd munro of the race)
Once at the top of An Gearanach, there is a short, rocky plateau that turns into a rocky ridge, then a quick descent to another climb up to An Garbhanach, a top.
From An Garbhanach, there is more rockiness, scrambling, another descent and quick ascent, scrambling again and climbing up to the top of Stob Coire a’ Chairn and CP 8. Between each descent and ascent, there is opportunity for running and using your descent momentum for the next ascent.
I felt this section went quickly, despite the rapid succession of peaks.
CP8 to CP9: Stob Coire a’ Chairn to Am Bodach (last munro of the race)
I wonder if the route creators purposely put the most technical peak to summit at the end of the race, as if you haven’t done enough at this point! The climb to the top of Am Bodach, to me, had the most difficult of scrambling in the race. The boulders were larger, and required more effort to get up and over. Or maybe, by this point, I wasn’t nearly as fresh as I had been early on, hence the perceived difficulty. Who knows!
Regardless, as you may have noticed in this post, there’s rock, rock and more rock to be expected, but it does feel sweet once you’ve finished your last climb.
CP9 to CP10: descent of Am Bodach to Mamores Ridge
Again, although a descent, there’s lots of rocks and boulders here, which makes it difficult to do any type of running, let alone rhythm. Yes, there is relief in knowing there is no more climbing, but don’t allow yourself any “I’m almost finished the race!” relief because this section is only the start of a very long, very technical descent.
Once onto the ridge, it is level and runnable.
CP10 to CP11: Descent from Mamores Ridge to West Highland Way
Remember all the technical stuff you had to ascend at the start of the race, this post??? (go back and read CP1 to CP2 if you don’t) Well now you have to try to ‘run’ down it! I would like to see video footage of the race leaders after the race, doing this section because I found it so demanding of my strength and focus, and deemed it ‘unrunnable.’ My quads were burning here, my knees were aching, and I had mistakenly allowed myself to feel the relief of being close to the finish. Don’t make my mistake!
Though a descent, this section took quite sometime to clear.
CP11 to Finish: West Highland Way to Kinlochleven
Though not as technical, this bit is still steep and will feel much more difficult on tired legs, brains and spirits. With that said, this is where you’re allowed to feel the relief of almost finishing the race.
Once cleared of the forest, it’s back into tarmac (where you can run normally again!), and to the finish.
Your race is finished.
Based on the description, now you can understand why this was such a physical and mental feat for me. I’m still in awe of myself that I completed it and I’m looking forward to race day, despite feeling (knowing?) I’ll probably be in the bottom ten of finishers.
From now until September 17th, it’s taper, strict paleo, and mental preparation. Good luck to all those entered in this race, maybe I’ll see you in Kinlochleven! Or on the race route itself!
p.s. This post doesn’t mean I’m back. I just have access to a computer, briefly.