It’s time to take on the course again. This could well be the first race I’ve run for a second time. I ran the Ring of Steall in 2017 and despite loving the mountains, I struggled. My legs weren’t mountain fit and I soon realised, mentally, I wasn’t willing to let my legs go free on the long descents. I didn’t trust my reactions.
Mentally, I wasn’t ready.
Fast forward 12 months. 12 more months of running, a week in Chamonix, Bob Graham Recce, runs in the Lakes, Scottish and Welsh mountains. I had progressed. However, I’d only raced once in 2018. 5 months since my last race, 2 DNS (Did not start) and my frustration aired, I was sat at home, on race week, struggling to gain the motivation for the 450 mile drive north. Don’t get me wrong, I love a long drive, the time to think, the simple act of moving from A to B efficiently. In many ways, like running.
2018 would be a pivotal year for the Salomon Ring of Steall. The final stop of the Golden Trails Series and the SkyRunning World Championships. This was enough to get me to fill up my car, which would also be my accommodation, and crack on with the drive. I know I would regret missing out on such a huge moment in UK Skyrunning’s history.
Budgeting out the window, M&S salads, what ever I wanted to fill me up with energy and nutrients. It’s 8+ hours of driving. Might as well make it enjoyable. Jocko Podcast, Downtime and Looking Sideways killing the monotony of motorways.
After registration and saying hello to some familiar faces, I was sat in my car watching Team America on my laptop, chilling. What’s the point in stressing out? Dinner was quick, the rain started, darkness drew in. There are advantages to being 5ft 7” and I dropped the rear seats in my estate and set up camp for the night. To anyone wondering how I slept, better than in my own bed… go figure.
Bagels, bananas, peanut butter & coffee. Clouds had lifted, rain had dispersed. 3 or so hours to kill until the gun. The main car park was pretty quiet, not many had opted for camper vans or clamping (car + glamping). As racers made their way in, I took my time to double check my kit, hydrate and enjoy a light rolling/mobility session.
The start pen opened at 0945. I planned to get in early. Fail. The pen opened earlier, to my discovery whilst stood in a portaloo line. ****, I hastened my preparations and got over to the start, politely advancing forward. I should have forced it further.
At the front (via the elite entrance) Kilian Jornet, Stian, Sage Cannaday, Remi Bonnet and a host of rapid elites stood ready to tear up the trail, out for Gold, Silver and Bronze. Deep down, I knew this wasn’t my day to steal their limelight….
Matt Ward got the energy up, before Shane (Race Director) kicked off proceedings.
The initial 3 step surge and bang, we we’re walking again. I knew the trail closed off as soon as the road ended. Despite a Red Bull article saying don’t worry about getting ahead of people before this section, I knew deep down that its a bottle neck and the vast majority that far back aren’t going to run it. Legging it down pavements, I was part spectator, part competitor, meandering around anything in my path. As I hit the trail, I took to the bushes surrounding the trail, cutting new lines, waiting, then springing past. I knew I needed to get as far forward as possible. Trust me, I’d make the same mistake before. I’d made the same mistake again.
I pushed on, keeping things sensible, aware of the next hour or so of climbing ahead. Managing to catch up with Martin, we shared a laugh, before we exited the West Highland Way, for a single track onto the mountain. The trail diminished in size, pace dropped and I let Martin know, this was as good as it would get until we reached the valley floor in Glen Nevis. With the dry summer, the trail was drier than in 2017, but it was by no means dry. Mud was everywhere, the ground was loose in places and small groups broke away into the bracken and heather, when a runner ahead blocked the trail at a slower pace. Running at your own pace was key. I’d opted for inov-8‘s X-Talon 230, after running in Mudclaws in 2017. They provided greater flexibility, a more agile running feel and would suit the road section better then their pure mud favoring sibling. Those who had more trail orientated footwear commented that they wished they had gone more aggressive.
I went for a merino blend baselayer, after running in t-shirt the year before. I ended up running 75% off the race in a waterproof, due to the winds on top and the weather once again threatened to be less than pleasant. It wicked well and I pulled the sleeves down on climbs, ridges, pulling/rolling them up for descents or when things got warmer. I wouldn’t need my waterproof this time out.
The biggest difference on course was the atmosphere. It was more akin to a European race. Spectators shouting “Allez, Allez”, nationalities from all around the world taking selfies with runners in the back ground and media everywhere. It was my first taste of a big race from the runners perspective. Dougie, Matt and Ellie from Summit Fever Media (Check out my Underdog review) and Andy Jackson were all on course, capturing the day. All full of energy and encouragement.Reaching the ridge, I had far more zing in my step than previously and I don’t really remember the scrambling. It all went quicker then before and there was less of a pile up of people. But I remembered the descent. The descent became famous after Salomon’s video in 2017, with elite runners cartwheeling down the 1000 meter descent, following the endless switch backs, which grow deeper the further into it, and more importantly, the more smashed tour quads are.
Despite clearly being told to follow the course and not run straight down, a female competitor ran as the crow flies, which to me and another runner, was a complete piss take. Thankfully, it bought her only a mere few meters of advantage, and if anything, hit her quads harder.
Again, the descent felt better then before. I allowed myself to flow more freely, let me body work with the terrain rather then fight it. Still, on reaching the bottom fields, my legs were jellyfied. My quads were not at all happy. A strong run into the CP appeared the biggest challenge of the day so far.
On entering the CP, I was amazed. Gone were the hoards waiting for a single water drum… it was huge. Red Bull tables, water and juice and a full 5 meters of sandwiches, cake and fruit. Even better, Rachel was there, full of energy, asking how I was and updating me that Vic Wilkinson was in the top 3 women and on fire! I wish I’d picked up more. A refill of one flask, a swig of juice and a piece of flapjack. Hardly getting my monies worth.
The trail was now flatter, wider, quieter. Runners stretched out. The first mountain splitting everyone up. My legs felt weak and questioning my decisions began to creep into my mind. Had I gone too fast, too hard? Crossing the river, I was ecstatic to reach the road. I knew I could claw back sometime and my legs would relax. (Miles and miles of road running have their advantages in mountain races – occasionally).
Life began to fill my calves and quads once more, especially as more runners came into sight, clearly in a worse state. Each individual formed a new objective, a new finish line. It kept my find engaged, as the chorus line for Life in the Fast lane played in my head, stuck on permanent repeat. Back on trail, things got sloppy before reaching the river crossing (this time knee deep in the river) and the final challenge of the day. The second climb. Oh the second climb, what a bastard is and was.Man the climb sucked. Seriously, I wondered where my energy had gone. I was fueling on Mountain Fuel’s Jellies and a few flapjacks, which worked awesome out in the Alps, but the degree of up was draining. No climb I had conquered in the Alps could prepare me for this climb. My aim was simple – Don’t stop.
It was about this time, I glanced at my watch for the first time. I was an hour up from the same place from 2017. A full hour!! I was shocked. My goal had been to finish 30 minutes quicker, which I felt was ambitious, but this was outrageous. An urgency coursed through my body. Don’t loose time!
I couldn’t run faster, ok, hike/walk faster, but I could be efficient. Why didn’t I bring poles?
False summits came and went, my motivation and enthusiasm mirrored. The scrambling sections came and I had forgotten how technical they were. I’d practiced on technical trails, but not technical terrain. Rock hopping, scrambling and 3 points of contact hadn’t been in my repertoire since….. last year’s race. I know I was loosing time. Suck it up!
A few times I began to think about what I would be posting online come the end of the race. Each time, my feet would begin to clip rocks. “Process, Process” was the answer. Repeating this mantra, something I had seen Tom Evans talking about online came unconsciously and it kept me present.
All I could think about was make it to the final descent, wait for the West Highland Way and road. Then, you can open up the legs.
Weather deteriorated, precipitation set in, winds howled. Gloves were on hands, it was close to needing a waterproof to fend off nature, but another 5 minutes, another 5 minutes.
Before the off I’d applied Premax’s Weather Protection cream to my face and Premax Anti Friction Balm to the tender areas. I’ve been using the Balm on every run since February and it’s become an essential part of my running kit.
This year I had USWE‘s new Pace 12 pack on, this would be my first outing in the full production model. Being able to store gloves, hat and nutrition in the front pockets, where I struggled in 2017, made a huge difference. No bounce and the front adjuster allowed me to loosen it off on climbs, leaving my rib cage greater room to expand.
The final descent and go. The course was not as muddy, 2017 was like the Somme and I was able to run the entire distance, at greater speed, under control. The lower trail and road arrived, and I wasn’t sure how fast I could go. I saved myself for the road and went for it. No one to catch, no one chasing. Finish strong.
Crowds were greater and seemed surprised at my closing mile, in the low 7s. I was able to wave, but working hard, unable to say thanks. Rounding the corner, into the finish line, I was watching the clock.
& StopDibber in. Race over. I knew it was close. You’ll have to watch the vlog below to find out the result.
Now the question is simple………….. Do I return in 2019?