Written by Jason Millward - http://www.traillife.co.uk
The Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra™ journey includes remote runnable tracks, technical single track, airy trackless ridges and some connecting remote mountain roads. Truly, this course is for the boldest all-round ultra-runners.
After an injury-free year, I somehow managed to pull my hamstring on Tuesday before the race on an easy run around Swinsty and Fewston reservoir with Victoria. A few days of frantic stretching and rolling seemed to cure the problem. This would turn out to be just temporary though.
We decided to stay in Fort Augustus the night before rather than having to get up at stupid o’clock for the bus from Kinlochleven to the start. After tea at The Lock Inn, which is highly recommended if you are ever in the area, we went back to the room where I sorted my stuff out for the day ahead and tried to get an early night.
Just before 6am we lined up in the dark on the edge of Loch Ness ready to face whatever the Scottish Highlands could throw at us. I had no real plans for the race other than to just go at my own pace and see what happened. In the back of my mind I was looking to finish top 5 but with such a strong field I knew this would be tough. Still, you can but try.
FORT AUGUSTUS – BRAE ROY
As expected Donnie Campbell shot off at the front and set the pace early on. I set off at a comfortable pace and settled into a good rhythm without pushing myself too hard. If it meant I could stay with the leaders then great, if not then I would just let them go and run my own race.
After a mile or so the route took a left turn and started the long climb up to Corrieyairack Pass. Someone had decided to wild camp right in the middle of the path so they must have got a bit of a rude awakening when 150 runners thundered past.
As the dawn started breaking the Scottish Highlands were revealed to us and the views were pretty spectacular, especially looking back over to Loch Ness and Fort Augustus. I was starting to relax and enjoy the running and was looking forward to the day ahead.
I checked the pace on my watch, it was quick but my breathing was good and I wasn’t gasping for air or pushing hard so just go with I thought.
On the last section of the climb up to the pass, eventual 2nd place finisher Casper Kaars Sijpesteijn and I fell into pace with each other and reached the pass together. One of three big climbs of the day in the bag. I was really enjoying myself at this stage and just loving being somewhere I had never been before.
The next section down to the first checkpoint at Melgrave was so much fun and really quick. There seemed to be endless long flowing switchbacks followed by a really nice fast straight. I was loving this section, it was so much fun all the way down to the first checkpoint.
From Melgrave there was a short section of decent path and then we were plunged into the first of the two bog sections.
The very wet summer had made the bogs extra boggy and it wasn’t long before I took my first waist deep plunge into Scotlands finest bog. I pulled myself out and set off squelching through the Scottish countryside. The course was certainly varied so far and living up to expectations of it being a tough race over varied terrain.
A few more waist deep bogs and river crossings and were back on a good track and off towards the first support point at Brae Roy. Donnie had long since disappeared but I could see Mike Jones up ahead pulling away slightly but not by much. Maybe I was running a bit quick!
BRAE ROY – NEVIS RANGE
I came into Brae Roy in 5th place I think, a quick stop to refill my bottles and I was off again. I was pleased with how I was running. Donnie, Mike and a few others had disappeared off into the distance by now but I resisted the temptation to try and chase after them. It was still a long way to go and I didn’t want to run out of steam before the finish.
At Brae Roy the course doubles back on itself and you could see the other runners on the opposite side of the bank before we turned away from the river and started the climb up to Tom Mor pass. I made the decision to have a walking break to take on some food and just readjust a few things with my kit.
Casper caught and passed me at this point so once I sorted my stuff out I got moving again and spent the next few miles skipping through the bogs with Casper.
At one point we lost sight of the course markers and decided that it must cross the deep, fast flowing river in front of us only to cross the river and look back to see the markers heading up a banking on the other side of the river to a bridge crossing the river we had just waded through. Great!
Casper started to pull away after this and then I went over funny in one of the boggy sections and tweaked my hamstring. Bloody hell did it hurt. I was hoping I would be able to run it off otherwise it wasn’t going to be much fun for the next 50 miles.
I took a few moments to check myself out and carried on. Every time I lifted my leg I got a shooting pain through my hamstring and into my glutes. Not brilliant when you still have miles of Scottish bogs to negotiate.
Nothing else for it, you’re just going to have to try and forget about it until you get to Kinlochleven I thought. I hoped it might just ease off. My pace notes did say in big bold letters at the top ‘Ignore Pain’ and although this wasn’t the type of pain I was expecting to be ignoring it was pain nonetheless so I tried to ignore it as best I could and pushed on.
A few more miles of painful bog trotting and the checkpoint at Inverlair came into view down below. After a slippery descent through bracken, I was over the A86 and dibbing in at the checkpoint and off towards the Nevis Range where I would meet Victoria and my Dad who were supporting me and get a resupply of food and water.
The next section was difficult for me, just miles of forest fire road and farmers tracks. Sections like this are a big weak point for me and it’s something I need to work on in the offseason with Jayson Cavill. I get bored, my mind wanders and I forget that I’m in a race and don’t push on as hard as I should. Still, it was the same for everyone so I tried to stay focused and keep going.
My leg was really hurting now, especially on the uphills where I was struggling to push off with any sort of power. Thoughts turned to what lay ahead and I couldn’t help but think Ben Nevis wasn’t going to be a barrel of laughs for me today. I kept looking over my shoulder expecting people to start passing me but they didn’t so my pace must have been ok to that point.
I’m not usually one for painkillers at any time but I would have given anything for a packet of aspirin. I got my phone out and tried calling Victoria hoping she might be able to pick some up and get them to me at the Nevis Range range checkpoint. No answer so I sent her a text hoping she would get it in time.
I finished the last of my water in my bottles and was starting to get dehydrated. No problem I thought, there’s plenty of water about I’ll just fill up at the next stream. Problem was that the next stream was in a sheep field and I didn’t fancy a lump of sheep shit in my bottle so I carried on, thinking I would be able to fill up soon.
Each time I came across a stream I convinced myself it was too close to a house or livestock or it had been flowing for too long down the mountainside so could be contaminated. Maybe (definitely) I was being too cautious and should have just filled up, the dehydration was certainly slowing my pace but I just didn’t have the confidence in the water supplies not to give me something far worse. Probably shows my naivety more than anything. The water would probably have been the freshest and purest I could ever have drunk.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity I came round a corner in the woods to see the Nevis Range gondola rising up from the forest below. I gingerly tiptoed down the side of the Fort William Mountain Bike World Cup track and rolled up to the aid station where Victoria had quite a spread laid up for me.
“Did you get my message?”
“Yes, but we didn’t have time to pick any up so we’ll have to get you them for the next checkpoint” came the reply.
Not the answer I was hoping for but I didn’t exactly give them much time to sort anything.
“You’re doing great, 5th place at the moment and not too far behind 4th”
I was surprised that I was still within 15 – 20 mins of 4th place at this point. Maybe I wasn’t as slow on the last section as I thought. The problem was the next section was the climb up Ben Nevis and along the CMD Arete and I was struggling climbing on forest tracks so it wasn’t looking good for this section.
NEVIS RANGE – GLEN NEVIS
I had recced the course from this point onwards so knew what was coming. A couple of miles of forest tracks lead to the start of the climb up to the CMD Arete and the summit of Ben Nevis. I should have run this section but I decided to try and give my leg a rest and walked the majority of it. I had also drunk far too much water at the aid station and it was now sloshing around my stomach. Rookie mistake, I took a salt tablet hoping it would solve the problem.
I reached the deer fence and headed out onto the single track path towards the left fork that would take us back into another bog and up to the bit everyone was looking forward to The CMD Arete.
Starting the climb and I could see the 4th place runner a few hundred metres above me and maybe 15mins in front. I can have him I thought to myself, this is where I should be strong and make up time. I’m usually pretty good on the long drawn out climbs. I just get my head down and get on with it. Nothing else to do really but suffer it out as quickly as possible.
About 50 metres further up the climb that today just wasn’t going to be my day. I just couldn’t push with my left leg and I was getting shooting pains in my hamstring and into my glutes everytime it hit the floor or got pulled by the bogs. I might as well have hopped up to the summit of Ben Nevis for all the use my leg was.
The climb up to the Arete is really steep. It’s pretty boggy for the first half and it then gives way to a harder packed track which made going a bit easier but it’ rocky. Not ideal conditions for someone with a bum leg.
I looked back and could see another runner closing on me as I slowly made my way up through the bogs but I couldn’t do anything about it. My mind wanted to fight for the position but my body just wasn’t playing. My pace was soul destroying and as I climbed into clag I lost my first position of the day. Just keep going as best you can I kept telling myself. The temperature started to drop so I stopped and put my jacket and gloves. No point in getting hypothermia as well!
The temperature started to drop so I stopped and put on my jacket and gloves. No point in getting hypothermia as well!
Eventually, I came to the summit of Carn Morg Dearg, 1220m above sea level, and saw the checkpoint. As I approached a hand holding a dibber was thrust out of a tent and I dibbed in. The marshals throughout the event were great but those that spent the day and most of the night at the summit of the UK’s highest mountain deserve extra special respect. Without them these races just couldn’t go ahead so to spend so much time exposed to the elements is incredible.
In my recce just a few weeks earlier I had breezed up this climb without too much effort. Today was another story, I had to fight for every step and every metre of height gained. It wasn’t how I planned this section but as with all races plans and expectations, they can and will change so you just have to adapt and deal with the bad times and get on with it.
The Arete wasn’t much fun either. I was struggling to lift my leg to get over the rocks and boulders on the ridge and I fell a few times as a result. On the bright side, I didn’t trip and plummet off the side towards an almost certain death so I take that as a positive.
I did, however, fall and crack my right knee again. It’s becoming a common occurrence in races that I have to finish with my right knee covered in blood and hurting and boy did it hurt for a few minutes. I’m fairly certain I let out a scream as it smashed against the rock.
I went to see a physio after the race about my hamstring and his first comment upon seeing my scabby knee again was ‘You really don’t like that knee, do you? It’s only just healed from the last time you smashed it up’. Think out of fairness I’m going to have to start falling on my left knee in future or better yet stop falling over. That’s another thing to work on over the winter with Jayson. I’ve been doing some running and ladder drills in the last month or so and they are certainly helping but as with everything there’s room for more improvement.
Mia Rai and Andy McConnell came past me towards the end of the Arete which I wasn’t too happy about but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Just the rock scramble to go and I would be at the summit and then it was all downhill to the next checkpoint and a with any luck a handful of aspirin.
The rock scramble proved to be the sting in the tail of the climb and I just struggled. I couldn’t lift my leg to get up and over the rocks. It’s bloody steep and I just struggled to get up it at a good pace. On the plus side, the sun had made an appearance and it was turning into a lovely evening with great views. There were certainly worse places to be in the world and this took my mind off things for a while.
As I reached the summit of Ben Nevis and dibbed in one of the marshalls asked me how I was feeling, “Broken” I grunted back “Not really though are?” came the reply. I think I muttered something like “Not physically but mentally I am” and with that, I trotted off towards the long and rocky descent off Ben Nevis. Another thing to work on over the winter is my mental toughness. I can keep myself going forward but I need to be able to pull myself out of the dark times more effectively and get myself moving again.
Going down was just as painful as going up and I was making slow progress gingerly picking my way between the walkers and the rocks. It’s not the most technical descent but it is long and you have to concentrate not to make a mistake and tumble. My leg was making my progress much slower than I was hoping for and I was passed by a couple more people before the end. Still just look at those views, it was a beautiful evening to be on Ben Nevis.
Just as I was getting into the checkpoint I heard a shout “Come on Jason move your arse” It was Victoria and she wasn’t very happy about me losing all those places since I last saw her. I’ve always told her to be tough on me in these races and tough she is. I got some stern words whilst I sorted myself out ready for the final push to Kinlochleven. She told me afterwards that a couple had told her off for being too harsh on me which made me laugh. I’ve told her she should take up motivational speaking. She has no-nonsense, you wanted to do this so get your arse moving style which is exactly what you need.
GLEN NEVIS – KINLOCHLEVEN
I shoved a couple of aspirins down my throat and we walked out together towards the West Highland Way and the final 10 miles so she could give me a good a pep talk which basically amounted to “Just f**king run will you”.
There’s a fire road climb out of Glen Nevis onto the WHW and I walked this section hoping that by the time I reached the top the aspirins would have kicked in and I could run relatively pain-free to the finish. A few more runners came past on this section.
Nearing the top of the climb in the distance I saw a group of about 6 black kittens playing together. Bit weird them being out here but as I got closer it turned out to be an old car bumper that someone had left. Great, hallucinating as well I thought to myself.
At the top of the climb the aspirin had finally kicked in and for the first time in what seemed like forever I started running again at a reasonable pace.
The trail is quite undulating until the penultimate checkpoint at Lundavra with a few short sharp climbs but quite good fun. I was starting to enjoy myself again and pleased I was starting to make a little bit of forward progress.
Whatever you do don’t lose any more places I kept telling myself. I had no idea what place I was in but I knew I must have been out of the top 10 by now.
It wasn’t long after dibbing in at Lundavra that it started to get dark and I had to get my headtorch out. Thankfully I decided to pack my Petzl Nao rather than my Tikka which I originally planned to carry to save a few grams of weight confident that I would be finishing in daylight. A wise move it turned out.
After Lundavra the West Highland Way turns into a wider track although it is covered in loose rocks making foot placing important. It wasn’t long before, in my tired state, I stumbled a few times after misplacing my foot and the pain in my hamstring started to return. 5 minutes later and it was as though it never left and my progress slowed considerably.
Come on keep going I kept telling myself, you can’t have more than 4 – 5 miles to go. I had a look round and could see a headtorch about 5 minutes behind. I passed an old derelict farmhouse which I recognised from the recce and knew I was getting close to the finish and it was pretty much all downhill from there. I looked around again, the headtorch was definitely getting closer. Keep going I said to myself as I hobbled off into the darkness.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the course markers pointed us down the single track that would spit me out back in Kinlochleven and the finish line.
Halfway down I saw lights dancing around and bright red lines, almost like lazer beams, coming out from the trees in front of me. What the f**k is that I thought, I was either hallucinating again or was about to be abducted by aliens. As I got closer it turned out to be just a marshal taping up some of the course with reflective tape. Panic over, there would be no probing for me that night!
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity I came out of the woods onto the road just outside Kinlochleven, just another minute of running and I would be done.
Finally, I crossed the finish line in 12th place after 15hours 39minutes and 59seconds (full results here). Not the result I was hoping for but I’m very proud to have finished on what proved to be an incredibly tough course that beat a lot of better runners than me. The main thing is that I finished and I will now qualify for the Skyrunner series overall after finishing the required 3 out of 4 races required.
The course was incredibly tough and without a doubt, it was a great all round test of running ability. From fast runnable tracks to long sections of bogs and big long, steep climbs it definitely had it all. The more I look back and reflect the more I like the course. It was perhaps the toughest single day ultra course in the UK and really separated the men and women from the boys and girls.
I would be interested to hear what others thought about it now they have had time to mull things over.
Next year I’ll hopefully return to Scotland and take on the main event of the weekend The Glencoe Skyline.
Victoria for just being amazing and meeting me at the checkpoints and giving me the tough talk that I need when things got low.
My coach Jayson Cavill for getting me fit enough to tackle these events and for all the help and advice.
The marshalls who spent their day out in the Highlands of Scotlands. The race couldn’t have happened without you.
Shane Ohly and his team for putting the event on in the first place and providing an incredibly testing course.
- Scott Kinabalu RC shoes
- Scott Trail RC TR 4 Race Vest
- Injinji toe socks
- The North Face Flight Series Vent Shorts
- The North Face Flight Series T-shirt
- The North Face Flight Series Cap
- Jack Wolfskin Exolight Jacket
- The North Face Storm Stow Trousers
- The North Face Harpster Base Layer
- Petzl Nao Headtorch