Eroded and overcrowded it may be, but I’ve grown fond of Ben Nevis. It was the first Munro I climbed, as a brief walking interlude while cycling between John O’ Groats and Lands End on a snowy May day in 2003. I climbed it with my girlfriend, now fiancée, two years later, with swirling mist obscuring any view from the summit. Then in 2006, after a three-month, 5,000-mile journey around the UK, Ben Nevis (the highest point of old Inverness-shire) was the last of the 92 county tops I climbed.
Returning again last year, I scaled the Ben via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. Ascent number five came on Saturday, as a competitor in the famous summit-and-back hill race. That is why I can scarcely walk today, let alone run: my feet are blistered and legs are tender to the touch.
I reached the 1,344-metre summit of the UK’s highest mountain in a shade under one hour and 19 minutes. An ascent of the Ben is a relentlessly steep slog, regardless of the route taken. But the very nature of hill running – choosing the shortest available course – makes the runners’ way the most brutal. It takes shortcuts where gently-sloping zigzags ease the passage for walkers during the early stages of the pony track from Achintee.
Then, rather than continuing on the well-made path above Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, runners follow a rough trod of grass and rock to regain the tourist route, close to where it is crossed by Red Burn. And then comes the really hard bit, for the runners’ route now literally goes straight up, ignoring the switchbacks on the west side of the Ben, rising for some 700 vertical metres to the summit plateau. It is best not to look too far ahead, for a seemingly endless slope of scree rears peerlessly above.
Various moments stick in my mind: being passed by a tiny, tanned Italian woman, a discarded packet of chicken wings, the presence of BBC Scotland cameras filming for the Adventure Show (the more in pain I look, I thought, the more likely I will be on TV) and, inevitably, the increasing discomfort of ascent.
I had gained the rocky plateau when the leading runners swept past, already on the descent. First there was the Lochaber runner Finlay Wild, the eventual winner, then close together came Deeside’s Robbie Simpson and Ian Holmes, of Bingley, who would finish second and third respectively. People pay good money to see the finest athletes in their fields compete, and here were hill running’s cream right in front of me, tearing downhill with grace and steel. I hope they realise how inspiring such a sight is to their fellow, slower, runners.
The view at the top of the Ben was clear, the first time it has been so in my five visits, but there was no time to saviour the vista. I joined Wild, Simpson, Holmes and the rest in the descent.
The first few minutes were chaotic. Dozens were descending, but hundreds were still ascending, with the respective athletes dodging around one another. Collisions were inevitable. Never had I concentrated so hard in a hill race, for while I was overtaking runners and oblivious walkers, I was simultaneously being passed by those who summited behind me but were superior descenders. And all the time my eyes were scanning the ground ahead to prevent the fall that could end my race.
The scree slope passed quickly, but worse was immediately below: the grassy bank – what all Ben runners fear. It is so infamous the words deserve to be capped up, as a proper noun would be: Grassy Bank. The viciously-sloping bank extends from the 700-metre contour to about 450 metres. It is the reason my legs hurt so much today. Every step was a mini-torture, as my quads tightened and throbbed. The faster you run, the quicker it is over, but the more it hurts.
Now it was just about survival, getting off the hill in one piece. Back on the tourist track, I tried to accelerate, but my legs were not willing. Passing the Ben Nevis Inn, I was back on the sweltering road to New Town Park. Even the slightest rise was agony, for my body was spent, my legs drained. I crossed the finish line two hours and two minutes after starting, taking 43 minutes for the descent.
As weary as I was, I got off lightly. The photographs below shows what the Ben race can do to a man. The relentless pounding on mountain ripped the skin off both of Stevie’s heels and a large blood blister had formed on a big toe. He entered New Town Park wobbling like a drunk, then collapsed over the finish line. Five hours later he would be back at work.
Results are here on the Ben Nevis Race website.
And some outstanding photos here.