Winning the Glen Coe Skyline!
Updated: Oct 17, 2019
I first went to Kinlochleven for Skyline Scotland back in 2016. I was disappointed I hadn't qualified for the Skyline, but excited to race as hard as I could. That year I won the Mamores VK and the Ring of Steall in their inaugural year. I also fell in love with the weekend and knew I'd be back to race the the Skyline one day.
Ring of Steall 2016
Since then I've raced the Ring of Steall twice more and the Mamores VK once more. This year, when I became available at the last minute, I made the spur of the moment decision to finally run the Glen Coe Skyline. I'm so glad I did!
As I'd signed up to the race last minute I hadn't managed to find accommodation near Kinlochleven, which meant getting up at 5am to drive to the startline. Roaring down dark singletrack roads, peering out of the Land Rover's windscreen and eating my salty porridge was one of the most Scottish ways I could have started my day.
As I lined up at the start I had the usual pre-race nerves, but I was also excited. Excited to finally be running this route. Excited to explore ridges I'd never crossed before. Excited that I was feeling fit and ready to race hard.
The race started off quickly, but I felt comfortable so decided to stick with the front pack. In the crowd at the start I'd nearly tripped over Andrew Barrington, and we ended up running and chatting together for the first few kilometres. At the time I knew that I was running too quickly, but it's always nice to have company and so I took the risk. I was in a group of four off the front as we ascended the climb, and for one alarming moment I was even in the lead!
As we climbed higher and the view into Glen Coe opened out in front of us we caught the orange glow of sunrise through swirls of mist. Jagged tops peeked above the clouds, hinting at the harsh world we were about to enter.
At this point I was running with Greg Vollet who turned to me and told me I looked strong. I felt strong! All day I couldn't wipe the smile off my face, but here it was at its biggest. However, as we dropped down Devil's Staircase to the road crossing I let myself drop back. No need to damage the legs with an aggressive downhill.
After the road crossing I lost a few more places. Men who'd been cautious were now pushing up the hill to Curved Ridge, but I didn't want to exert myself too early on. I let them go and headed up at my own pace.
The cloud had come in thick and we couldn't see where we were going at all. The path got steeper and muddier before petering out into a rocky trod. The first wall of rock loomed out of the cloud, and I began scrambling.
I set a steady pace up, concentrating on working hard whilst thinking about where I was going. The marshals and route marking were great, and meant that little time was lost looking for where to go. I concentrated on my route choice, balancing direct lines with easier climbs. By the time I reached the top I'd taken a few places back, but I was soon to lose them on the descent.
The summit was in thick cloud, with visibility at about three metres. I was struggling to spot the flags, let alone descend technical terrain quickly. Men passed me making it look easy, but I was struggling and after my confidence took a hit I moved even slower. I was feeling low and demotivated, but had no choice but to press on.
The entirety of that first descent and most of the next climb were hard. The views were gone, and the long hours ahead seemed difficult. I felt tired from racing the week before, both mentally and physically, but knew it was worth pushing on as I was sure to pick up sooner or later. Besides, I was in the lead and I wanted to win.
As I neared the top of the next climb I began to feel strong again and having survived the second descent I was able to push hard up the valley. I soon realised that all the men who had pushed hard up to Curved Ridge or had passed me on the descent were in sight, and getting closer! As we made our way up the valley I began to reel them in, and passing a wildly whooping Martina at the foot of the next climb gave me the confidence boost I needed.
Up, up, up - taking more places and feeling strong. The smile was back and I was about to start on my favourite section of the race. The ground underfoot was rough but runnable, and I skipped over the rocks. The rain came in and jackets went on, but I was moving quick enough to stay warm and enjoyed the feeling of the wind and rain on my face. The rocks got slippery and concentration levels needed to be high - so high that I hadn't realised we'd started on the out and back and thought I must have gone the wrong way when Andrew came down the path towards me. After congratulating him on his lead we disappeared into the mist.
By the time I was midway down the descent to the aid station the lead I'd opened up on the climb was shorter. Descending isn't my strong point, however, I knew the path well from supporting here in previous years and managed to hold them off. The rocks were so slippery from the rain that I couldn’t move as quickly as I’d have liked, and I worried what the Aonach Eagach would be like underfoot. But worries were soon forgotten as spectators started to line the course.
The further we descended the more people there were, and the cheers and whoops as I ran into the aid station were unreal. I could hardly speak to Tom and Andy over the madness, but managed to get my gels and exchange a few jokes before heading up the final climb of the day.
Boosted by the crowd's energy I attacked with vigour (possibly a little too much as I ran out of energy soon after). I was keen to make the most of my ability to climb well. When I came into the aid station I'd been in 5th overall, and held this position at the start of the Aonach Eagach.
As I started along the ridge I began to feel concerned about how tired I was feeling. I took on more gels, but kept forgetting when I was next due to have one. The scrambling wasn’t difficult to begin with, but became more challenging the further I travelled and the more tired I became. My legs felt wobbly and I had to slow down significantly in order to stay safe. About halfway along I realised that some of this wobbliness was due to a snapped shoelace, and after a quick fix involving a mess of knots I felt better.
Shortly after this I was stood trying to assess a large rock with tired brain and legs when a group of three men came up behind me. “Perfect!” I thought as I stood aside to let them past, “I can just copy their route up”. Six nimble legs sprung past me and I eagerly followed.. or tried to follow. It took about fifteen seconds for me to accept that I couldn’t reach the holds they’d used and I’d have to find another way up!
As the Aonach Eagach came to an end I eagerly waited the easy descent to Kinlochleven. Unfortunately I’d underestimated the long ridge to the West Highland Way, which turned out to be a relentless, tussocky, nightmare. I don’t know how long this section took me, but I know it took longer than it should have.
The uneven ground was difficult on tired legs and a makeshift shoe, and the inability to see past numerous false summits made progress seem slow. As soon as I’d started running again I felt a muscle in my groin tweak and it became increasingly sore and stiff as I ran on. I paused a few times to catch my breath and desperately look behind me. Was that a rock or a runner? I knew if anyone appeared behind me now I wouldn’t stand a chance.
Suddenly the WHW was beneath my feet, and though running was still painful I was able to move quicker and hobble into the finish line. Coming round the corner into the home straight all pain was forgotten. I’d done it! I’d managed to hold onto my lead, survive a few low points, and have a fun day out! The feeling of accomplishment was enormous, though tiredness returned swiftly after I crossed the line.
From the route itself to the runners, volunteers, supporters and organisers everything about Glen Coe Skyline is expertly orchestrated. A huge thank you has to go out to everyone who makes the weekend possible, who headed out into the hills to support, and to the organisers for letting me enter at the last minute!