Imagine running in the same race every year for a decade.
Imagine, every time that race weekend comes around, you are fit enough, well enough and lucky enough, to not only be competitive, but to win – to win that race for 10 consecutive years.
Now imagine that race was Ben Nevis, the race to the summit of Britain’s highest mountain, the race whose winners are among the immortals of hill and fell running.
Some things do not need to be imagined. Finlay Wild has done it: 10 Ben Nevis victories in a row, 2010 through to 2019. Unbeaten, unbowed, unbelievable.
This year, Finlay led from gun to tape, finishing almost eight minutes ahead of his nearest rival, Lochaber AC clubmate John Yells, continuing a winning streak unprecedented in such a major Scottish hill running race.
The race starts on the playing fields of Claggan Park, on the outskirts of Fort William, and runners climb from virtually sea level to the 1,345-metre summit of Ben Nevis, before returning to the starting field. ‘The Ben’ is known for its unrelenting steepness – from Red Burn, the last mile-and-a-half to the top climbs at an average gradient of almost 30 per cent over bare rock and scree. The absence of any shelter and the altitude also means that runners are crudely exposed to the elements. William Kilgour, who witnessed the first recorded speed attempt on the Ben in 1895, noted that such feats were in ‘opposition to the laws of nature’.
But Finlay has made a career out of opposing the laws of nature. His first win, in 2010, saw him overcome a then 18-year-old Robbie Simpson and six-time winner Ian Holmes; in 2014, having been five minutes behind four-time champion Rob Jebb at the summit, Finlay overhauled him, winning by 14 seconds; in 2018, he ran a personal best – finishing two minutes shy of Kenny Stuart’s seemingly untouchable 1985 record, with the cream of English fell runners trailing in his wake.
Running from the front has become a hallmark of Finlay’s assaults on the Ben – and so it was this year. In warm conditions, Finlay led 500 runners up the tourist track and was first to the summit in exactly one hour. On the descent, Finlay had to negotiate ascending runners, as well as tourists enticed by clear skies, and suffered a small fall. ‘It didn’t cause any problems, but probably made me subconsciously take it just slightly more steadily,’ Finlay said. ‘On the descent l knew I had a big lead but wasn’t on for a personal best, so I just focused on getting the win rather than taking risks.’
Finlay’s motivation for the race is partly inspired by a family connection. His mother, father and grandfather have all competed in the race, and, living in Fort William, he has spent hours running and climbing on Ben Nevis and its surrounding mountains. For him, Ben Nevis is also the epitome of hill racing in Scotland. ‘It is a classic, old school race,’ Finlay explained. ‘It is simple but tough. There is no hype. It’s just 500 folk with shoes and bum bags, up and down Britain’s highest mountain.’
He continues: ‘Ten in a row feels weird. I never dreamt of winning even once when I pitched up to run my first Ben in 2006 aged 21. I was 13th. I lost my 20-year-old brother Alex to suicide that year and was dealing with a lot of raw emotion and sadness. I remember thinking a lot about him during the run – a misty, adventurous challenge – what he would have thought or said about it. Ten has crept up on me. I’ve been lucky not to be too injured or ill any of the years.
‘Ten is just a number. It’s a nice round number and maybe more memorable than nine, but it’s not really why I run or race. I don’t think anyone sets out to win a race a specific number of times; it’s just something that happens gradually if everything aligns right each year.’
Despite his record of victories, the course record remains elusive. However, it is unfair to compare times from the 1980s to now. In that decade, races had greater competitive depth and the track has been made slower in efforts to reduce path erosion. ‘I think having a closer race with, say, half a dozen folks under one hour and 30 minutes, like they had in the 1980s, would push us all on,’ Finlay said. ‘My mum pointed out that her time as second woman in 1981 would have put her 11th overall this year. That says something, although it’s hard to prove what exactly!
‘There’s not much point in debating the state of the track now compared to 30 years ago, and I of course don’t have direct experience of it, but based on what I have seen over ten years, what others have said and from photos and times, I think it’s probably slower now. It’s certainly a slightly slower course with the old grassy bank being banned and some new fences to get around, and surely busier tourist numbers.
‘Maybe the elusive record is one reason I will keep coming back to this race – I only need to find two minutes! That’s massive in 90 minutes of running, but I did a two-minute personal best on the Dolomites Skyrace uphill section this year when last year I ran well too, so maybe not totally impossible for me, and certainly potentially possible for some of the European runners – although hopefully the scree and rough descent would slow them down a bit!’
What is certain is one day Finlay will be beaten on the Ben – but that prospect does not frighten him. ‘The obvious certainty is that the winning streak will end sooner or later,’ he said. ‘That’s inevitable, but I don’t think the competitive fight will disappear just because I’ve reached ten.’
This article was first published in The Fellrunner. Photos by Harry Gilmore.