I remember hiking up Ben Nevis once and saw a poster for this event. I remember thinking, “What special kind of idiot would want to run up a mountain after cycling 56miles?” So, a couple of years later when Club leader, Lee, suggested I join him and a couple others to do it, naturally, I said, “why not?” What’s the worst that can happen right?!
The race briefing was the evening before the event, about 3 or 4 miles away in a hotel, presumably the only place big enough in the small town of Fort William willing to entertain a couple hundred athletes. Myself and a fellow Club member, Claire, had been there for a couple of days already and managed to get a lay of the land, as it were. We’d already had an early dinner with another club member, Nick (who had travelled up that day), in The Ben Nevis Inn; a charming little restaurant right on the foot of the mountain. Lovely food, despite being a little rich for my usual pre-race dinner tastes. Pasta seemed a little too much to ask for in this town.
When we walked into the hotel we could already tell we were quite outnumbered; the ratio of men to women was more than a little unbalanced. Apparently not many women were ready to take on The Ben, and I briefly considered if I’d bitten off a little more than I could chew. Even more so when the race organiser began his meeting. See, I’m used to race briefings being more of a formality; a light-hearted no drafting, no littering, no entering transition without all your numbers in place etc. But, we were beginning to see that this was no ordinary event. And it must be taken seriously. After all, we were to be climbing the tallest mountain in the UK, in a country known for its unpredictable weather.
The weather report was mixed. Although there was no rain predicted, it would be cold and windy, especially at higher grounds. When I say windy, I mean 40mph winds, which meant that if the officials thought it unsafe, we would not be reaching the summit of Ben Nevis. But, we would be notified for sure in the morning. Cue grumbling from the crowd and Claire suggesting that if we don’t make it we’d be hiking it the day after. I humoured her and secretly prayed the wind held off.
The loch would be a mild, for this time of year, 12°c. Having swam in these temperatures before, I knew exactly how cold that was. Previously I was only able to swim approximately 800m before my fingers and toes had gone completely numb. I was about to swim double that. Luckily, I had come prepared with gloves and booties, which I hoped would save my extremities. But the real danger was once we came out of the water. We were advised it was important to warm up properly, get fully changed out of our wet trisuits and put on plenty of layers for the bike ride. Having planned on keeping my trisuit on and just adding layers when needed, I began to panic a little.
I spent the rest of the evening changing my mind about what to take, what to wear and freaking out about how cold the water was going to be. In the end, I packed everything and would make the decision as and when I needed to.
Morning of the event Claire and I had arranged a slightly earlier breakfast time with our hosts at the B&B we were staying in. A few Weetabix and some bananas and we were on our way. We were only a mile away from the event so we decided to cycle there, leaving as late as we dared, not wanting to be stood around in the cold for too long.
There didn’t seem to be any kind of formality in transition. Anyone was free to come and go as they pleased which was strange, having gotten used to strict rules back in The South, and yet refreshing. It was already very busy but we managed to pick out 2 spaces next to each other. Nick, who was staying in a campsite not too far away turned up shortly after, while were emptying the contents of our backpacks and placing them in organised chaos around the bikes.
After struggling into wetsuits, booties, swimming caps and finally gloves, feeling like a colony of penguins, we have a quick briefing where we are told we would make it to the summit after all. Then, it was soon time to waddle towards the water with a very laid-back start time of around 8:15am. Panic ensued among us as the thought of entering the water became very real. As I waded in, letting the cold water enter my wetsuit gradually, I finally started to relax. Yes, it was cold, but it wasn’t unbearable.
1.2 mile Swim – 41mins 19secs
To be honest, once we set off I wondered why we’d all been so worried. The sun was shining and water was beautiful; slightly salty, but not overpoweringly so, and super clear. At times, in shallower water, it was almost like snorkelling in the Med, (if you ignore the fact it was so cold). Of course, there was the usual carnage of flailing arms and kicks to the face, but I’ve come to accept that as part of the sport and just enjoy the fact I’ve not been left for dust and there was someone in front of me to draft off. The course was two out and back laps which was over before I knew it. As we emerged from the water like monsters from the deep it was a pleasant surprise to see the same bunch I’d entered with, except Claire, who was nowhere in sight.
T1 – 8mins 10secs
Had a little adrenaline fuelled canter into transition whilst shedding all the neoprene and began to dry myself off with a tiny gym towel. Decided it wasn’t as cold as the race organiser had made out and threw on some arm warmers, my cycling jersey filled with energy bars and set off out of transition. Stopped. Went back for gloves. And back out again. Still on sign of Claire.
56miles Bike – 2hrs 54secs
The first couple of miles out of transition wasn’t timed due to a few busy roundabouts and some roadworks. Then there was a couple of marshals waiting to flag us down and scan our bands to start our timing chips again.
I soon warmed up and secured my gloves in my back pocket. The ride was quiet for the most part. Once out of the main town, there were very few cars, and us athletes were spread quite far apart. But, the sun was still shining and the scenery was absolutely stunning; I almost crashed a couple of times because I was admiring the view instead of looking at the road. The road out was mainly a gradual incline through Spean Bridge and following the West of Loch Laggan. There were no particularly steep sections; it was long but not too painful. As I neared the turnaround point I spotted Nick a few miles ahead of me heading back towards Fort William.
Check in at the turn point, but refuse the fuel set out as I still had some left in my jersey for the way back and plenty of fluid. Was told not to take any pictures while I was cycling. Wondered if he was telling everyone or just the young females who might take any opportunity for an Instapic. I had been so glad to reach the halfway point, mainly for the promise of some negative elevation on the way back. But, it never seemed to come. When it did, it was only a short relief before another incline. My legs were tiring and I was glad to reach the next check point which stopped the timer again to get back to transition. I was ready to get off this bike.
T2 – 4mins 48secs
Shorter transition this time. Changed my sweaty jersey for a clean t shirt, secured my waterproof and leggings to my hydration pack and tied a long-sleeved top around my waist. Someone asked me how I was feeling and I answered, “Like I don’t want to climb a mountain.” My legs were already in bits. In hindsight, I should have spent more time stretching them out a little.
13miles ‘Run’ – 4hrs 48mins
As I set out from transition I already knew I was in trouble. I was struggling to run the 2 miles to the base without stopping to walk for a breather. By the time I reached the Inn I knew there was no way I could ‘run’ any part of that mountain and had resolved myself to the fact that I would be walking up. Quick stop to pick up some provisions at the fuel station; granola bars, bananas, oranges, jelly babies, there was quite the spread. And, off we go.
I did overtake many hikers, out for a leisurely stroll. I envied them. I fake smiled at them as they congratulated me on a good job. I wondered if they knew the extent of what we were putting ourselves through. I was in pain, but all I could do was keep putting one foot in front of the other. After about an hour, I was joined for a little while by a guy called Chris who chatted with me and took my mind off the pain. But when he stopped to talk to his partner, I decided to carry on, scared that if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to get back up. I paused briefly for a picture and to admire the incredible view, even if I could only half appreciate it.
From there the journey up only got worse. The path got steeper. My legs screamed louder. The weather got colder and windier, almost stopping me in my tracks. As I reached the thick of the cloud, visibility was low and loneliness set in. I wanted someone to stop me and say it was too dangerous to reach the summit. But no one did, so I carried on. Every part of my body was telling me to stop, but I wasn’t willing to give up; I’d gotten this far. My battle became as much of a mental one as it was physical. My walk became more of a shuffle and I saw more and more people pass me on their way back down, including Nick, reassuring me I was nearly there.
Finally, I reached the top. Greeted by the cheeriest marshals I’ve ever seen, despite have being stood on the top of a mountain for hours, and a plate of pork pies. Bit of an anti-climax as the realisation hit that I had to get back down. I was too cold and too tired to really enjoy it anyway. Quick scan to check in and off we go again.
It was nice to use different muscles. I felt happier just to not be walking uphill and as I picked up speed my body began to thaw out too. Just a quick stop to greet Claire. Then I made my legs move faster and faster until it could almost pass as a jog. I almost began to enjoy myself leaping from boulder to boulder, finding the best route down, although there was still a dull ache in my legs.
It was certainly a lot quicker going down and I soon reached the Inn again at the base, only to be reminded I had another 2 miles to go. They seemed to think it was a good thing. I wasn’t so sure. Still battling between wanting to get these last miles done and being too exhausted to move, I managed a mixture of walking and jogging until I finally reached the finish line.
Official finish time 8hrs 06mins.
Finish line was sparse, or maybe I was too tired to notice. Was presented with my medal and weirdly, a certificate which I wasn’t sure what to make of. Grabbed another granola bar and collapsed in a heap next to my bike while I waited for Claire to finish. Nick appeared having already been back to the campsite for a shower, looking as if he’d just had a leisurely ride round the park.
After looking at race results online notice I was down as ‘male’. Had I been in the right category I would have come 1st in mine. Feel a little cheated but just glad to have finished.
So… did I enjoy it? The swim and the bike, yes. The run, no! Am I glad I did it? Yes, of course, what an amazing achievement. Would I do it again? Not a chance! No one needs to go through that more than once. Would I recommend it? If you want something that will seriously challenge you then definitely, go for it. It was an amazing setting; a beautiful part of the world, and plenty to do either side of race day.