Just over two weeks ago, almost exactly one year after swearing I’d never run one of these races again, I once again found myself in the start area of the Salomon Glen Coe Skyline. The previous years race over the 50km mountainous course (including 4500m of ascent and an equivalent amount of leg punishing descent) had wrecked my knees, leaving me unable to run at all for a full month after the race.
For those that don’t know, Skyrunning is pitched as ‘a fusion between alpinism and mountain running’. It’s basically fell running (a sport many would consider the reserve of lunatics anyway) but with everything amped up a few notches. The distances are longer and the terrain is more serious. Instead of *just* running over hills, you’re clambering up rocky mountain ridges with bucket-loads of exposure. There’s no real room for error on this ground, a slip or fall easily resulting in serious injury or worse. Moving at speed only compounds the risks and it’s because of this that entries to the race are strictly vetted, with competitors having to demonstrate that they have extensive scrambling or rock climbing experience in order to even make it as far as the start line.
When I first saw the route before the first year’s race, I didn’t think twice before registering. A huge tour around majestic Glencoe, encompassing the highest summits in the area and two of the UK’s finest scrambling routes, Curved Ridge and the Aonach Eagach. Billed as the toughest mountain race in the UK, it looked utterly ridiculous and I had to have a go.
As a part-time hill runner (at best) and fully aware of my limitations, my aim for the first year was simply to complete the race and not fall behind any of the strict cutoff times enforced at each of the checkpoints. I managed this relatively comfortably in the end, but it hurt, a lot. I usually take part in these races not to compete at the front of the pack, but instead for the experience; the buzz of running in a beautiful place; and for the feeling of achievement at the end. Because of this, it’s usually the case that once I’ve completed a race once, I’ve got little desire to go back and do the same race again. For me, repeating a race is never usually as gratifying an experience as the first time. It loses both the uniqueness that made it exciting the first time and the question-mark in your head as to whether you’ve got what it takes to reach the finish.
Not long after completing the Glencoe Skyline, I realised that for this particular race I was prepared to make an exception. Although there had been low points and it had hurt, there had been innumerable highs as well. The feeling of moving fast over the type of ground the race covered is an amazing one. It requires total concentration. Whilst moving at breakneck speed you’re always anticipating a few paces ahead where your next strides are are going to land safely, always toeing a fine line between pushing your speed and just about keeping control. It triggers a sustained rush of adrenaline like no other.
As they always do, memories of the lows from the race quickly faded and I was left with a falsified recollection of how much fun this brutal race had been. By the time entries opened for the second year, I was ready to sign my knees away again.
In the weeks building up to this years race I seriously considered pulling out. Although my hill fitness was good off the back of regular participation in the midweek Scottish ‘Bog and Burn’ race series (highly recommended) I’d got very little long-distance training under my belt. To add to this I felt like I was carrying a couple of niggling groin and knee injuries, which although manageable over shorter runs, I knew would threaten to blow up over a full day race. I made the compromised decision to start the race, promising myself that if my injuries started to feel comfortable, I’d withdraw from the race before doing myself further damage.
I felt relaxed and clear-headed as I gathered in the start area with the other competitors, bagpipes playing in the background. This was an entire world away from how I’d felt the previous year, where the pressure I’d piled on myself had left me a nervous wreck. This year there was none of that pressure, I had nothing to prove to myself this time round. I knew I could just go out and enjoy the course, taking it at my own speed and retiring if I started to feel uncomfortable.
The race got underway, and soon we were running into the sun on the gentle climb out of Kinlochleven, making steady progress towards the the Devils Staircase and the descent into Glencoe itself. The start of the course had been changed this year, making it longer and adding more height gain. This was in order to space the runners out before the first technical section up Curved Ridge and avoid the bottlenecks and queues that had been encountered the first year. The course changes worked well and it was nice to be able to break into a bit of a rhythm and move quickly on the ridge.
A few hours had passed in the race and the first couple of big ascents went by. I was feeling comfortable and knew I was moving faster than last year. Somewhat surprisingly, I felt like I was actually enjoying myself, taking in the atmosphere of the event as helicopters swooped dramatically overhead filming the race for the BBC. Taking part in the shorter hill races earlier in the summer had clearly boosted my strength and I was able to run uphill sections that I had walked the previous year, recover quicker at the top of big climbs and take the hair-raising descents at a faster speed. It was all positive at this early stage, the question was, how long would this last.
An hour later, on a gentle climb away from Glen Coe up towards the Bidean nam Bian massif, I felt a tightening in one of my hamstrings. It was unmistakable as cramp. With more than half the race still to cover, cramp at this stage was not good news. I stopped to stretch it out before trying to keep moving, managing only a few more paces before pulling up again. I repeated this several times to no improvement. During this time at least 10 other racers must have passed me, every single one of them taking the time to ask if I was okay and if I needed help at all. This illustrates something else that really makes the Glen Coe Skyline a brilliant race - the sense of spirit and camaraderie amongst the racers, and feeling that you’re all in it together. The eventual winner, Jonathan Albon, wrote a blog post soon after the race, describing how him and one of the other race leaders, Tom Owens, had banded together to help each other out when they encountered a minor navigational difficulty on the course. Primarily everyone was out there to complete the race themselves, but everyone was also out there to help each other do the same.
After forcing down a couple of litres of water and 20 odd minutes of stretching, the cramp finally began to clear and I was able to start moving again. Fortunately this was the last major drama I encountered during the race and neither was there any sign of the niggling injuries I’d been concerned about in the build-up. The next few hours went by in a blur of cowbells and cheering support at the checkpoints, even a wet and slippery Aonach Eagach (a usually treacherous proposition) failed to dent my enjoyment levels. With the last technical section out of the way, I was able to completely relax and enjoy the final 10km or so over rolling hills, chatting away in the company of other runners who were similarly relieved to be on the homeward stretch. After 55km and 4800m of vertical ascent and descent, I crossed the finish line back in Kinlochleven in 10h29m, a 45 minute improvement on last years time. More importantly though, this time round the highs had been even greater than the lows. It’s likely I’ll be looking out for some new and different challenges next year, but the Glencoe Skyline is a race I’m confident I’ll want to come back to in years to come.
A vast amount of respect and admiration must go to Shane Ohly and the organisers for having the ambition to bring such an incredible race to the UK, and for pulling it off quite so superbly. After the success of the first year, this years race attracted a world class field of athletes from around the world (perhaps the strongest field a mountain race in the UK has ever assembled!) and I’m sure the race will go from strength to strength in the future. Whether I'll be back next year to witness it, we'll have to see..