Ben Nevis / WHW Challenger Race - 29th May 2021


Like most people my running calendar for 2021 was a bit muddled up!! The big focus for the year was going to be the re scheduled Cape Wrath which was due to take place in May 2021. This was then bumped to early August 2021, so I was looking for another race!! I liked the idea of the WHW Challenger format as it all seemed hassle free – 8am Saturday morning at Milngavie for the bus to Fort William and an 11am start, and all going to plan I could be back in the house Sunday afternoon!! 

Only problem was the WHW race was full so the only other options were the Ben Nevis / WHW race or the 180 mile race which started on the Friday. Being slightly sensible, I plumped for the Ben Nevis / WHW race along with Colin Anderson (Colin has the accolade of the only athlete to do the WHW and finish with a Ben Nevis summit in previous attempts!!).

I had effectively been training for Cape Wrath since I entered in 2019 and managed to continue well through covid in 2020/21 with long (26mile+) runs every Sat and also long days in the Galloway hills when we were allowed to travel.

I had also done some 30 – 40mile runs on the Southern Upland way so I was pretty confident I was in reasonable shape. I also intended to view it more as training, rather than a race, as the main target for 2021 was still Cape Wrath.

The usual taper worries on the run up to the event, I managed to get some nerve pain in my right hip, which although it never stopped me doing much, it was pretty uncomfortable and even with a trip to the physio I could not get it sorted out. Also at the start of the week I kept thinking I had a cold coming on – fortunately it came to nothing.

The Challenger race is very much set up to be self supported so Fridays joy was trying to work out what to put in each of the eight drop bags, along with the safety kit for Ben Nevis and the sleeping / survival bag we had to carry from Glencoe to Beinglas (effectively for the overnight section). Bags all packed with the full knowledge that whatever was in the last few bags I would probably not want to eat anyway! Although self supported you were allowed a support runner for the latter half of the race, so I had arranged for Susie and Raymond Hubbard to meet me at Rowardennan.

Raymond also very kindly offered to drop me off on the Sat morning saving me having to drive home after the event (never a very good or safe idea!!). It was great to be back at a race environment, everyone rushing about sorting kit etc and then finally getting on the bus. Gary Larman was sitting beside me and was also doing the Ben / WHW – so good to finally meet someone you only know from strava!! Michael Sykes from Girvan was also on the bus and doing his first WHW. The bus got in at 10.40am so mad dash to get the drop bags out, get the number, complete safety details etc and my first mistake of the day – I forgot to pack any food for going up and down the Ben!!

The race start was delayed to 11.10am, WHW runners on one side of the road, the poor souls doing the Ben first on the other side!! Eventually we split off from the WHW runners to head up the tourist path up the Ben. There were only a few of us, as some of the other runners had started at 9am so Colin, Gary and I plodded up the tourist trail. The heat was already starting to build and the tourists were out in force. We met two of the 9am starters coming down the Ben and worked out they were on a reasonably quick time. I had initially allowed 4hrs for the Ben then reduced this to 3.5hrs – the real unknown was how much it would affect the rest of the race!! We soon split up with Gary moving well, and Colin just behind. There was still a fair bit of snow at the top but nothing to cause a problem and the cloud was down so no great views for my first ever summit of Ben Nevis!! 

A busy Ben Nevis Summit!


Quick photo at the top, which I am glad I did as I realised my Garmin was not recording for some reason!! A quick hello to Colin and the other runners as I head back down. I have promised myself I would follow the zig zag tourist route as I thought it would be easier on the legs, but navigating all the tourists started to annoy me so the more direct route was taken. A few trips and stumbles on the steep ground brought on the dreaded cramps in the calf’s which was way too early in the day!! I tried to keep it steady on the descent but there is no easy way to descend 4,000ft on hard stony ground, so I knew my quads were going to suffer a bit!!

So finally back down at the football ground to discover my next mistake – I had put salt tablets in all my drop bags except the Ben one (thinking I would not need them that early in the race! But with the heat of the climb, and the cramps I felt I needed them. A bit of shuffling around and I got spare ones from my bag, ditched my Ben safety kit, re started my watch, which for some reason was not recording, grabbed some food and left to head back to the roundabout, again(!) to start the WHW properly!!

Ben Nevis done, now for the WHW - with Gary!
Grabbed a quick photo with Gary at the start (again!) and started off back down the road. I quickly realised that even jogging, my heart rate was through the roof and I said to Gary I was going to walk and get some food in and try and get settled down. At the start of the fire road I met up with Paul Carr and Lee Mitchell who started at 9am and I walked / jogged to the top with them – great to see their strategy for the day paid off and they got their finish!!

I left them at the top of the fire road and made slow progress to Kinlochleven – I was feeling absolutely drained and had no energy – at one point I started to really wonder if I was not well and the cold I felt at the start of the week was back. 

Heading south over Lairig Mor
It was so disheartening to be feeling this bad 20/25miles into the race when I had regularly being doing 30/40miles runs!! In hindsight, I think the harsh reality was that the Ben (and the heat) had taken much more out of me than I cared to admit!

I dropped down into Kinlochleven just as Gary was leaving the aid station – I grabbed my stuff and caught up with him just as he was meeting his pal, so I head on myself. My plan was to try and make sure I ate all my food between each aid station (rather than what I normally do which is carry it between aid stations). Gary caught up again and was keen to run together, however I just could not keep up, so I had to watch him disappear into the distance. As the day was not going to plan I reminded myself that I had planned to view the race as training, and the key was to look after myself, so I could get to the finish. I also reminded myself to just enjoy being out in the beautiful landscape – which is not hard when you head up to the top of the devil! 



Views from the top of the Devils Staircase

A quick pit stop at the Kings House and then up to the ski centre carpark. The sun was going down and the scenery was stunning. As I was arriving, Gary was just departing (again!), but I never had the heart to tell him he had missed the little path which cuts back onto to the WHW, and he was taking the long way round.

Looking north to Buachaille Etive Mor

Cottage at Glencoe Ski Centre


I had promised myself a seat, a coffee and my tuna sandwiches which I managed to force down and then it was a matter of packing the extra mandatory kit for the overnight section!  I was using the Inov2in1, to allow me to pack in the extra kit (great bag but it rubs my back for some reason, which means it is not my favourite!!). I had a reasonable run / jog across Rannoch moor, a quick chat to three back markers I caught up with on the WHW race who were in good spirits! 






Heading south over Rannoch Moor in the fading light


Past all the campers eating and drinking as the sun went down, resisting the very real temptation to go and join them, I then started the ascent of Jelly Baby hill. My “good” spell had been pretty short lived and I started feeling dizzy on the way up the hill, so tried to stuff a bit more food in!! Head torch on for the descent into Bridge of Orchy and across the road to the aid station. I had planned on a quick seat but there were none free so I grabbed my stuff and left!! I was still feeling pretty rough but met and chatted with another runner (sorry don’t know your name). I left him and then shortly after I then got the horrible feeling I have had once before (on the same section) when I feel as if I cannot hold myself upright. Only thing for it was to have a wee lie down trail side – it was still very warm so no issue apart from trying not to scare my fellow competitor who passed shortly after!!

I soon caught up with him again and Michael Sykes who had sadly gone the wrong way and had gone off route for 2hrs which must have been so frustrating!! I head off again, under the railway and start up the hill before I had the overwhelming urge to lie down again!! I don’t think I slept but I heard to clicking of the poles and the lights and assumed both runners had passed me again. I then saw another torch and had a mild panic thinking another runner had caught me up, so I was up and away – unknown to me at the time it was just Michael catching me up!! I had promised myself I would run the downhill into Tyndrum, but I was feeling so tired I struggled even with that. We were to head along the main road and then cut back down to the WHW route to save crossing the small river at night. I managed to miss the turn and ended up going through Pine Trees Caravan park! 

I was gradually picking up some of the back markers and I know how frustrating it is when someone is moving much better so I always tried to be cheery and ask if they were ok etc and then move on. The poor runner I passed just after Tyndrum was clearly going through a bad patch. But just after I did catch up with Joanne Murphy and Derek Fish who you could see were tired but moving well. The legends had just had a 45min sleep and were 130miles into there run and eventually finished 2nd equal in the 180mile race!!

Our chat was cut short as I suddenly decided I needed to be sick. A bit of phlegm and bile but nothing else – but joy of joys – I felt great!!

A quick pit stop at Auchtertyre and I was off again feeling great – why I have no idea!! I had been messaging Susie, with my departure time after each aid station so she could try and work out my times for meeting at Rowardennan and I knew I was slipping behind the schedule. I had a great section to Beinglas and it was certainly running more than walking and was still managing to eat. The moon came up and then gradually daylight started creeping in so eventually torch was switched off just before Beinglas.

There is something very magical about running through the night and seeing the new day arrive! Into Beinglas and again a quick stop where I stupidly managed to leave one of my bottles (which I have now been reunited with – thank you!!). I usually enjoy the lochside but with the Ben and 70miles in the legs it was a tough slog and seemed to go on for ever. So much so that another lie down was required – unfortunately it never lasted long as the midgies were out in force!!


Dario's post - still cool before the sun came up!

Stunning bluebells along the loch shore!


Rowardennan was beckoning with a change of t shirt, dropping the overnight kit and a change of bag to my favourite salomon bag along with a bit of company from Susie for the rest of the route back to Milngavie, so progress along the high road was relatively steady. I did save one runner who was convinced he needed to take the right turn onto the low road to head back up the lochside – I did wonder how long it would have taken him before he realised!!

After a bit of a faffy kit change at Rowardennan making sure I had all the mandatory kit in my new bag, we quickly departed. We made pretty steady progress down the lochside, walking the hills and running the flats and downs. The cloud was still down so it was thankfully a bit cool, but a disappointment for Susie as she had never been down the lochside before so no views!! Grabbed a bit more food from Raymond at Balmaha and then Conic hill! 

A rather tired ascent of Conic Hill!


The very slow trudge!

The mist was clearing!!

The best sleeping spot - but no time to sleep!!


I was at the depressing ultra tired stage off “there is no point changing from a walk to run as there is a hill in 100m!!”. Conic hill was tough – I felt like I was taking 5 steps and then having to pause and so on. I was struggling to keep up with the tourists!! The sun was coming out and it was starting to get very warm again. I sent Susie to get some photos while I had my 4th (and final!) lie down of the race! The sun was out and I could quite easily have fallen asleep! The hill was busy with tourists and I half expected someone to rush over and make sure I was ok!!

Slightly refreshed we finished the ascent and made steady progress down the other side. With tired legs dodging the tourists was slightly harder than the Ben the previous day. Progress down to Dryman was pretty slow with more walks than runs. Grabbed a big tumbler of coca cola and headed off again. The very nice gentleman at Gartness Bridge honesty box gave my an ice cream on the house – what a star!!

The best ice cream!!


Met Raymond again at Beech Tree Inn, and he kindly offered to go in and get another ice cream – he arrived some time later with two coffee cups stuffed with ice cream (they never sold ice lollies!!). Great result for me, as I felt it justified my walking until I ate it all!! I really struggle with long easy sections at the end of races – I always feel as if I cannot run and need to keep walking whereas if there is a big hill or harder terrain I would move better – I’m still trying to work out why but it meant to for pretty slow, but steady progress up to Mugdock park. The route through the park is much longer than you remember when you do it at the start of the race, but eventually we got to the town centre, cutting off before the tunnel and along to the community centre!!

 

I managed to run into the finish where I was told I was second overall,  which I was delighted with – all day I knew Gary was ahead off me and I was also pretty sure the two we met coming off the Ben would be ahead so I had resigned myself to fourth place.


I was even more delighted to hear the next day that I was actually 1st place once the different start times were taken into account!! 

So grinding it out, particularly in the early stages of the race was worth it after all!!


Top support team Susie and Raymond Hubbard!

Lovely glass and 1st place trophy!
 

Final time was 28hrs and 9mins in hindsight 3hrs and 12mins for up and down the Ben was possibly a bit quick with a WHW to follow!

Total miles 107.7miles and 17,000ft elevation


I know not a great time compared to some but delighted to keep going even when I was feeling so rough at the start!! I did find it really tough and I think the addition of the Ben at the start adds a new dimension to the route!

The route but sadly missing the Ben due to Garmin malfunction!!


 Another big glass of tango (or similar) and then a slow and painful change at the car. Just as we were about to depart I felt sick again – same as the day before, phlegm and bile only – nothing else – where had the tango gone??

Like the day before I again felt much better.

It’s not something which has happened before and both times I was not feeling unwell – we will see if it happens again. If it gets me feeling and moving better what is not to like!!

Tired but happy to be completed!!


 

Thoughts on the event!?

Positives 

The format made it easy and hassle free to fit into a weekend. Organisation was great and I am sure it is even better when they provide food etc at aid stations (this was cut due to covid!)

The addition of the Ben certainly adds a new dimension to completing the WHW!

I like doing the route north to south and not totally sure I would go up the Ben after completing WHW if I had to do it south to north - big respect to Colin Anderson for doing that!!

Negatives 

None - it is well organised. Cut offs are generous and set up to encourage all entrants to get a finish.

Well done to Jim and team for putting this event on!! 

Full details for 2022 on http://whwracechallenge.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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