I have taken part in quite a few local fell races over the last few years, but this sky running thing is new to me. When a friend told me they had signed up for the Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace, for some unknown reason I decided that it would be a good idea to sign up too.
I hadn’t taken part in an event of this scale before so was a little unsure of what to expect. I wasn’t even totally sure what a “Skyrace” was.
(Definition: Sky running, which consists of uncompromising mountain running, such as scrambling along mountain ridges with steep ascents, traverses and descents on technical and challenging terrain).
Kinlochleven was the location for “The 2018 Skyline Scotland”. It was to be a long weekend of mountain running events over four days.
- The Vertical Kilometre on the Thursday.
- Ben Nevis Ultra Marathon on the Friday.
- The Ring of Steall Skyrace on the Saturday (my race).
- Glen Coe Skyline on the Sunday.
My friend and I drove up to Kinlochleven on the Friday night. Arriving late, we managed a short night’s sleep before heading to the registration point first thing for our kit check. The whole of Kinlochleven was buzzing with runners and supporters for the full weekend of sky running events. We made our way to the registration office where they thoroughly inspected our gear, gave us our GPS tracker, map and checkpoint dibbers. Now all there was to do is to get ready to race.
The weather had been very 'Scottish' over the last few days resulting in several people on the VK being evacuated by Mountain Rescue, while the Ben Nevis Ultra had taken the bad weather route. We had the best day of the weekend, so I was relieved to hear that my race was doing the full route.
After a very welcome bacon sandwich cooked by a friend in their campervan, we made our way to the starting pen. We all gathered together expectantly, waiting for the 10am start.
This race was the busiest of the whole weekend with over 800 people taking part. The atmosphere was fantastic, and everyone was raring to go. The race is part of the 2018 Skyrunning World Championships. The front of the pack held some of the world’s best mountain runners, including the legend that is Kilian Jornet.
10am arrived and the Bagpiper piped up, a fitting send off into the hills. All the way up to the first checkpoint there were crowds of people ringing cowbells and the encouraging shouts of “Allez Allez!” carried through the mist, which felt very like genuine European sky running. Once at the first checkpoint on the ridge between Am Bodach and Sgurr an lubhair we headed north along the Devil's Ridge - a knife edge ridge that offers quite a bit of exposure at some points.
As I approached the first Munro top, Sgurr a’ Mhaim, the clouds cleared to reveal some spectacular views. Looking down we saw exactly how far we had to drop back down to the valley bottom in Glen Nevis. The descent is 1000m in 1 mile which is pretty brutal on the knees, but the reward is a selection of cakes and sandwiches at the feed station.
After a refuel, we continued about 3 miles along Glen Nevis to the river crossing before heading back up the next Munro. I have walked this section several times over the years, but I didn’t realise the race route didn’t follow the usual glen path. It cruelly took you up into the trees just to add some extra ascent. This was the psychological crux for me as I was already feeling a bit tired. Knowing that I was only just about halfway around the route with more than 50% of the climbing still ahead.
The river crossing at An Steall was good milestone to reach, a chance to fill up my water bottle and soak my feet before heading up the gruelling zigzag path that took us up to the second Munro, An Gearanach, and on to the next ridge line. Towards the top the clouds closed in and it started to rain so waterproofs were pulled out of bags.
Following the summit is another sharp ridge with some easy scrambling. This eventually lead to the third Munro, Stob Corie a’ Chairn. By this point I felt I had broken the back of the race as we were well along the second ridge, but there was still quite a bit of up and down to come. As the clouds rolled back in I couldn’t see what was ahead of me. It became tricky to work out where the last section of climbing was.
Eventually I made my way around to the last summit. The final climb up was very steep and by then everyone around me, including myself, was looking a bit broken. Once on the summit of the fourth and last Munro, Am Bodach, it was downhill all the way back to the first checkpoint and then back down the way we came to Kinlochleven; now considerably muddier due to the earlier rain and volume of traffic.
After slipping my way down I ended up back in the streets of the town heading for the finishing line. The route was lined with cheering supporters holding their hands out for high fives as I passed them which was a great feeling. Eventually I crossed the line after 6 hours and 25 minutes of running/walking. Delighted to have finished, I was presented with my medal and got the obligatory finishing board photo.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first sky running race and would recommend it to anyone looking for a mountain race in the Scottish hills. My thanks to Salomon for my entry in the race - they did a brilliant job with the organisation and everyone taking part and working at the event was really friendly and welcoming. It’s hard to believe the Kilian did the same route I did in under half the time, 3h 4m. Let’s see if I can better my time next year, maybe…
My training for and review of my race
My usual running includes what I consider a fair bit of ascent and descent as I enjoy heading up the hills. However this didn’t really prepare me for a sky running event with over 2,500m (8,200 ft) of ascent. I regularly run up my local hill, Win Hill in the Peak District, giving me exactly 1000ft of ascent and I often link this with the surrounding hills, so I can get up to 3000ft of ascent on a longer run.
During the Skyrace the amount of ascent was (just about) ok for me, really it is was the time out running/moving that I found harder. I don’t usually run for longer than 2 hours so I should have done more longer distance runs in preparation.
Also I need to get better at eating while I’m out for longer too; I took far too much food with me and barely touched it. Four pork pies and cheese sandwich, was all extra weight that I didn’t need. However, I did eat my shot bloks and Mini-Babybel and made use of the feed station. In hindsight I should have carried a bit less or made a better effort to eat it. Especially as I started to feel a bit weird ¾ of the way around.
My running poles really helped me as well; for a route with lots of climbing I really recommend them. I tend not to use them on my shorter Peak district runs but whenever I run in Scotland they always come out. They really give you something to bear down on during big climbs and help to save the knees on the way down. The Leki Micro RCM were brilliant; light and compact and easily stowable. This was important as race rules required they be packed away during sharp ridge sections. It is worth practising with your running poles before heading off on a race. They can take some getting used to, you don’t want to be tripping over them on the descents or stabbing your fellow competitors.