A month ago yesterday was the Ring of Steall Skyrace, part of a phenomenal weekend put together by the Skyline Scotland team, Ourea Events and the amazing people that make up the mountain running community.
This was my big race of 2016. I was trying something new (skyrunning: big ascents, tough terrain), flirting with ultra running time-on-your-feet territory, and pushing my boundaries physically, but most importantly, mentally. I learned so much about myself during the entire training period, about what I can do, how my mind puts limitations on my abilities, and how to continue to push through mental barriers. In a way, when it comes to trail running, I grew up.
The weekend started with a drive in the dark from our home in Aberdeenshire to Kinlochleven, the location of the Skyline Scotland race weekend, as well as Ice Factor, the very important event centre. Pat and I arrived at Ice Factor with minutes to spare before registration shut. Thankfully, we were the only ones registering at the time, despite the many competitors lingering about the place. We picked up our race bibs and maps, got our dibbers fastened onto our wrists, got photos taken, picked up our complimentary race t-shirt, and got our kit bags checked by staff. We also impulse-purchased the Skyline Scotland hoodies. It was then off to our accommodation to attempt to unpack, unwind and get some sleep before the biggest race of our lives.
Morning came quickly and we tried to go through our usual bulletproof espresso, fruit and creamed coconut, nuts and seeds, and soft-boiled egg breakfast routine, but with nerves running high, it was difficult to get enough food down. We quietly dressed, packed up and drove to the Ice Factor to wait it out until the race started at 10am. I thought it might have been a bad idea to drive to the race, thinking about traffic issues I’ve seen at other big races (like the Balmoral 10km), and it was then that I realised although this race was a big deal to me, a big deal to Pat, and a big deal to everyone else involved with the race that day, it wasn’t a big deal to the wider public. The streets of Kinlochleven were quiet save for us skyrunner-wannabes, donning our gear, getting our satellite trackers attached to our packs, and nervously anticipating the start of the race. I guess this is what happens when you hold a race for the first time, which targets a very small population of the running community.
10am and race start came quick. We gathered in the starting pen for some last minute housekeeping-like business, and listened to the bagpiper play some tunes while time seemed to stand still. It was at this point that the reality of what I was about to do dawned on me. Yes, leading up to this race, I knew this was going to be the toughest thing I’d ever done in my life, and doing the recce a month earlier confirmed this. But now I was with all the other competitors, not just Pat. This race was such a big deal that instead of just a race number on our bibs, they put our name and home country. People had come from all over Europe and further afield to do this race. I felt hugely out of my depth at this moment, looking around and hearing different languages; I was so nervous and intimidated I whimpered and cried a bit. This has never happened to me. Thankfully, I was next to Pat so he comforted me a bit, but also said he felt exactly the same – and he had done more training than I had!
The gun went off and the race started; there was no backing out now! I started to run away from the Ice Factor and to leave Kinlochleven, heading towards the West Highland Way. Small groups of people were out in the streets cheering. A wave of familiarity hit me as I was passed by Rebecca and John, who are both in my running club; it was good to see some known faces, which really helped me to relax and come back down to earth. I even smiled. Just before we left the main road to begin our brief time on the West Highland Way, we passed a local man (?), blaring music from his vehicle, cheering us on. This was just the beginning of the incredible support us runners got throughout the race.
Once on the trail, there was some bottlenecking due to the sheer amount of people on such a narrow path. People passed me, I passed others, and we all continued to climb out of the woods to the start of the first big ascent to the Mamores Ridge.
I had one main goal for this race: make it to checkpoint 5 at the Lower Falls in Glen Nevis before the four hour mandatory cutoff. If I did that, then my next goal was to simply finish the race within the nine hour cutoff time and to have my race time count. I knew what the race route would be like, I knew exactly what to expect, and I knew where the most physically demanding points were. If I could do the Ring of Steall once in a recce, I could do it again; and if by chance I didn’t make that first cut off time, then at least I’d done the Ring of Steall once before. This feeling lasted as I left the forest, ran briefly over landrover track and started the first big ascent of the race up Allt Coire na h-Eighe, passing many well-wishers along the way, and even speaking French with a few guys as we power-walked up. I also dibbed at checkpoint 1.
My confidence and faith in myself disappeared on this ascent, however, as I started to see runners pull way ahead of me. I looked behind to see three people. That’s it. I was already in almost last place, I was practically alone on the mountain, and I hadn’t even made it up to munro height yet! Fear and worry of not making checkpoint 5 hit hard, and I experienced my only low moment of the race, right at the beginning. Self-doubt is a really tough emotion to overcome, especially since it is one with which I’m only recently familiar in the context of running. Despite this, I just kept going because I had to get to checkpoint 5!
I asked a girl behind me, Veronica, if the guys behind us were race sweepers (because they looked too fit to be slower than me), and she said we weren’t in last place, that there were others further down the hill that had started later. This put me at ease, and lifted my spirits. I made it up to the Mamores Ridge and dibbed into checkpoint 2.
This next section of the race was great. I made a quick ascent of Sgorr an Iubhair, using borrowed poles and power-walking, then dibbed into checkpoint 3. The poles got put away and I began my favourite section of the race: the Devil’s Ridge! I got through this quickly, even passing someone as I went. It was also at this point that I got my photo taken by Jordi Saragossa, the photographer who also captures photos of some of my mountain running favourites, all over the world. With the ridge complete, it was on to summiting the first munro of the race, Sgurr a Mhaim, which involved some breathless scrambling. At one point, I actually let a spectator pass me because I was holding her up; this was a bit demoralising. At the same time, however, I making more and ground on the guy I had passed. This brought my confidence up.
What goes up must come down, and so began the incredibly steep descent of Sgurr a Mhaim into Glen Nevis. Tackling the many scree-covered switchbacks was the highlight of my race. I liken this part of the descent to downhill skiing, and I felt so confident with my strides, even though my strides were sinking down into the rocks. I passed many people here; my confidence grew. The scree finished and it was onto the muddy, rocky deep ruts. Veronica had caught up to me and we tentatively planned to stay together for as much of the race as possible because we were of similar paces. As this descent carried on, and as I fell numerous times while trying to push it, it became clear that while I was the stronger climber, Veronica’s talent was in descents. She took off and made the rest of this section look easy. Again, we passed many more people.
Hitting flat land should’ve been easy (and a relief), but this section was incredibly muddy, which lead to much slipping and falling, again; I still managed to pass people though. I made it to checkpoint 5 – aka cutoff make or break – in 3:25:xx. I had achieved my first goal! As I got my hydration pack bladder refilled and ate snack number 3 of the race, I was starting to formulate my second goal of crossing that finish line within nine hours. It was also at this checkpoint that I had two small cups of Pepsi! It tasted pretty good, but didn’t bring back any addictive urges from the past, despite holding on to a curiosity of what would it be like if I tried it now for a few years now. That boat has long sailed away.
By the way, 3:25:xx was also the time in which the race winner took to run the entire Ring of Steall route; race organisers expected a finish of over four hours for the fastest runners. Unbelieveable!!!!
I dibbed at checkpoint 5 then proceeded to jog along the flat of Glen Nevis. This lasted a few minutes because my legs already felt shaky and a bit thrashed, and so they should: after examining my Strava stats of this race, my initial ascent to the Mamores Ridge was 15 minutes faster than the recce, and my descent into Glen Nevis was 20 minutes faster. I was working hard!
The course had changed between checkpoints 5 and 6 due to a recent landslide in the gorge, which made using the tourist path impossible. Instead, we kept to the Ring of Steall side of the gorge, traversing what can only be described as a mud bath. I think I would’ve had a meltdown here had it not been for the initial mental low combined with the small mud bath coming into Glen Nevis. At some points, I was knee-high in mud. I tripped and fell a few more times, got my shoe stuck and ripped, and I literally laughed out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of this section. I had entered a skyrace, not a Tough Mudder, right? It was also in this section that, all alone with not a competitor in sight, I grew completely fed up and pulled out my mobile phone. We weren’t allowed to listen to music using headphones, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t listen to music from our phones out loud, right??!?! On went Christine and the Queens.
I was so relieved to finally reach checkpoint 6 over an hour later. Had the landslide not happened, I believe I would’ve made it through this easy part of the race much faster. I dibbed then started big ascent number 2 of the race, up to An Gearanach. Unlike the recce, this section went by quickly and was midge-free. I caught up to and passed Veronica, and found myself surrounded by people, although further away; it’s quite an uncomfortable feeling for me to be all alone, in an already vulnerable position. Having other living creatures – humans, hares, pheasants, birds, anything! – makes it not so intimidating. My poles were incredibly handy in this section; I feel like I finally got the hang of them at this point. Christine and the Queens pushed me on simply by distracting my mind. I even sang along a bit!
From the summit of An Gearanach, it was a steady progression of ascent – scramble – descent – and repeat as I made my way through An Garbhanach, Stob Coire a’Chairn and finally Am Bodach. Throughout, there was much camaraderie between runners – the mutual thoughts of “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done” broke all previous barriers – and the unwavering support from the Skyline Scotland volunteers at each checkpoint was incredible! From checkpoints 7 to 9, we were consistently cheered on, encouraged, and supported in any way possible by these volunteers, who had spent hours upon hours in the same spot, at the top of these munros, shivering cold in the wind but still spurring us on. These volunteers made thes race.
This section wasn’t without difficulty though. Going up Am Bodach, I met up with small a group of lone guys, each one experiencing some mental or physical barrier: blown knees, “I didn’t expect it to be this hard,” and general mental barriers. By this time, we had been at it for over seven hours; Christine and the Queens was replaced with the three Arcade Fire albums on my phone. If I hadn’t have recce this route, and used my music to help block the negativity, I too would have been in the same boat. I said the same thing to each guy “The only way you’re going to get off of this mountain is going the same way down you would to finish this race. Just keep going, I know it’s hard.” What else can you do?
Once I dibbed at checkpoint 9, my poles went away for the final time and I started a slow jog to checkpoint 10, the final point up high. As I was dibbing, I asked how much time I had left in the race, my Garmin having died a munro ago. It was 17:40 – I had time, but it was tight! Thus began my attempted quick descent back into Kinlochleven. Though not as steep as the one into Glen Nevis, it was still full of deep ruts and lots of mud. I ran what I could and plodded through the rest. My feet were both sore and thoroughly saturated. I couldn’t imagine what kinds of disgusting I would face when I took off my already-holey shoes.
Veronica passed me one last time on this descent – she just made it all look so easy. I managed to pass several men who were walking down and taking a more cautious approach. I finally reached checkpoint 11 and the West Highland Way, where a volunteer asked how I was feeling. “My feet hurt, my knees hurt, I just want this to be over,” I replied, slightly whimpering. “I know,” she said, and she stuck out her hand to help me down the final bit of rocks before I got back onto easy, level running tracks.
I jogged this bit and walked up the last hill, then plodded down through the woods, again passing some guys. I encouraged them all to just keep going, we were almost finished. One replied “I’m just done.” We were less than a kilometre from the finish.
I passed the final set of volunteers stationed at the tarmac road back into Kinlochleven. I yelled for a time check – it was about 18:30 at that point. I still had time! And they reassured me I had less than a kilometre to go.
I picked up the pace as best as I could, considering I’d been on the go for almost nine hours. Around one bend, I saw Pat jogging towards me, having long since finished his race in a very respectable time of 6:40:xx, and probably wondering Where’s my wife? We saw each other and waved, he ran up to me, I cried to him. I had unknowingly been holding it in all race and it just came out. “This is hard, I so want this to be over!” I said. “I know, you’re almost there, just keep going!” was his reply. Very familiar words I had used throughout the race to others.
And I was just almost there. I saw the finish line up ahead and tried my best to run my fastest. People shouted words of encouragement and stopped to clap. I crossed the finish line and was presented with my medal by Helen, a volunteer that had many mutual friends from my running club. “Congratulations!” she said.
“Did I make it???? Did I finish within nine hours???” I asked.
“What?! Of course you did! There’s still plenty of time left in the race!”
I burst into tears at this news. Tears mainly of relief, but also of disbelief and happiness. I had actually done the Ring of Steall Skyrace, reputed to be as tough as some European races that the pros do, AND my time had counted. That was all I had wanted, and now I had done it. So I cried. Helen hugged me and we just stood there for what felt like minutes. Being an ultrarunner herself, she completely understood every emotion I was feeling in that moment.
I walked to the tent, still crying, to get my dibber and satellite tracker removed. I also got a print out of my times: my finishing time but also between each checkpoint. I finished the race in 8:47:49. I was the last official female finisher, but nonetheless stayed true to my completion goal. I was comforted and hugged by another race volunteer and Shane Ohly himself, the face in all of the Skyline Scotland videos we’d watched leading up to this day. Finally, I got a big hug from Pat.
We went into the Ice Factor for food and water. I took off my shoes and found that I had quite the accumulation of mud caked on the bottom of my feet. My shoes were completely wrecked with many holes torn through them and the stitching come apart all over. I later binned my shoes.
We sat and I ate a very non-paleo plate of beef chili with kidney beans, rice and tortilla chips. I had just completed a race taking almost nine hours; I needed immediate sustenance. Pat and I chatted to each other and to other runners. This was the best part of the race: the camaraderie both on and off the field. Everyone spoke to everyone, and found support and empathy in each conversation. This was a highlight of the weekend for me, being surrounded by so many like-minded people.
Pat and I left Ice Factor for our accommodation, and most importantly, a shower for me! Though both wired from the day’s activities, all we wanted to do was eat and rest in our comfies, rather than head to the ceilidh that was being held. We spent the night doing this and a few rounds of legs up the wall to alleviate swelling.
Both of us had a very restless sleep, probably still hyped up from the race, and tossed and turned most of the night. By 6 am, both awake, I suggested we get up and watch the start of the Glen Coe Skyline, the big race of the weekend, packed with pro runners from all over the world. We made our way back to Ice Factor before 7 am and watched a talented and fit group of skyrunners take to the hills of the West Highlands of Scotland. I saw Veronica and we chatted and hugged each other for the previous day’s support of talking to each other throughout and pushing each other on.
We enjoyed a big breakfast back at the caravan, with me feeling hungover, as though I’d been out on the town the night before. I guess this was extreme post-race dehydration, despite much rehydrating the night before. We left our accommodation and headed for checkpoint 11 of the Glen Coe Skyline, in the pass of Glen Coe.
This was a spectator point of the race, and we had arrived just narrowly missing the top four runners: Tom Owens, Jonathan Albon, Marc Lauenstein, and my brother-in-law’s good friend, Finlay Wild. We were also standing next to the BBC crew filming for The Adventure Show.
To watch these runners come through was so inspiring. We were again surrounded by many runners who had done the Ring of Steall, speaking several different languages, who had come from all over. But this time I didn’t feel intimidated; I started to feel at home, like this was where I wanted to be. Pat later said that although the mountain running community is a small one, it’s great to belong to a group of kind, laidback and like-minded people.
Writing this post has allowed me once again to revisit this weekend. It was one that neither of us wanted to end, and one that I’ve since admitted I could easily do again, and again, and again. Race included. In meeting and talking to other runners, I found out that we all had our mental struggles up on those mountains, we had felt inadequate and intimidated at the race start, and we all fought demons of self-doubt. For some reason, I thought I was the only one, but I’ve since realised that I’ve never done a race before that has tested me in every possible way. I’ve never had to struggled physically and emotionally. I’ve crossed over into another running realm with this race, and yes the thought of eventual ultramarathons has crossed my mind. Because if I can do the Ring of Steall Skyrace, what else can I do?