There’s no hiding it or denying it, I’m a fan of the Skyline Scotland weekend. The past two years have seen me run the Ring of Steall Skyrace, I’ve stood beside the Ice Factor watching the start of the Mamores VK and Glencoe Skyline, witnessed the finish of the Ben Nevis Ultra. I’d be lying if each time it comes round I don’t get FOMO – Fear of Missing Out.
However, last year I told myself enoughs enough, I need to run other races. Sure I want to see how fast I can truly go on the Ring of Steall course, but weather aside (it really can make the course have an entirely different character) it prevents me running other races in late summer. Since I’ve had a coach, running a series of races, almost back to back has been something to avoid. In my early days, I did it. I didn’t train, I suffered on the course, placed considerably further down the field and couldn’t walk for a week the morning after crossing the line. Now my actions are more judged, planned, thought out.But I never said I wouldn’t return with a camera. Indeed, Matt Ward, the master of ceremonies or MC, as I’m sure he’d like to be called for his street cred, did ask me when I crossed the line last year would I return as media this year. In all honesty, I had no plans at the time, but the call of the Scottish highlands was too much to resist and after sleeping in my car, on a dirt track just outside Shap, I arrived a little fatigued in Kinclochleven on Friday morning, just in the nick of time to hear Matt announce the start of the VK.
Slipping into my running kit, utilising the age old towel changing room in the middle of carpark, I obtained my Media pass (trust me, credentials cannot be overlooked) and started running the VK course, with marshalls cheering me on, despite not having a number pinned to me. I am sure some competitors cursed as I overtook them with a camera bag , if only I could explain I wouldn’t be running the entire way up. Not long after hitting some rocky single track that meandered up from the river, through the woodland, towards the open mountain, I bumped into Matt Green of Summit Fever Media. I knew he and Ellie were doing their thing this weekend, but I hadn’t a clue where they were.
I was stoked.
I hadn’t seen Matt since we went for a walk in the Lakes following the Pyllon XP2, so a catch up was in order, whilst we pushed on for the summit. Matt was to quickly learn that when I’ve been saying I’m not as fit as I was in 2018 and have lost my mountain legs, I wasn’t kidding. It was a struggle to keep up with him and soon he was off ahead on a mission.
3km covered, I drew my camera out and started to snap away. One thing you will notice immediately, is it mandatory to have you mouth wide open when attacking a VK. Hoovering air like a basking shark inhales plankton is paramount to keep your needle from red lining too often during the continuous accent. Terrain grew steeper, hands started to punch into the heather and grassy tussocks that covered the gradient, as those with aggressive shoe soles, tore into the flora, seeking positive purchase. Some opted for poles, others appeared to have their kitchen sink on their backs. Runners were fortunate to experience warm calm weather for possibly the first time on the course, with some elites falling foul to the weather last year, despite the mandatory kit requirements. For many, it would take them longer to descend than ascend. There’s no cable car waiting for you, just 1000 meters of descending on a mixture of rock, bog and trail. Stood on the summit, with Matt fascinating many enjoying the views, with his DJI Mavic piloting, the top ridge providing a rocky, steady footing and relief that the end really was in sight. On the descent the leaders appeared and had many stunned, at their ability to cover the same ground at speed, consistently, regardless of what lay beneath their feet.
Vic Wilkinson, after 2nd at the World Champs running of the Ring of Steall in 2018, put 5 minutes into second place, decimating the women’s field.Zak Hanna, a name to remember, ran to victory with Matt in the foreground capturing footage for the daily show.Camera now safely stowed away for the first time since extracting it a few hours earlier, it was a short run back to race HQ. Or would have been, had my legs not already started to feel the effects of the mountain. 2 more days of this?
The evening saw a round up of all the rounds of the Golden Trail Series to date, showing videos created from each race, including a short live interview with one of the elite runners from the applicable round. The stand out moment must be Sage Canaday, who, rather unfortunately, had one of his Youtube videos played where he plays multiple instruments, edited together. He’s a very talented guy.
I say unfortaute, as his channel (Vo2Max Productions) is one of the best things in the sport current, the amount of quality free advice for training, nutrition and gear he and Sandi Nypaver provide is unparrelled. Sausage and chips, a quick edit and the second night sleeping in the car, featuring a Night in the Roxbury on the laptop, it had been a full on day and the shape of things to come.
The Ring of Steall
It was an odd morning. Waking up at 6AM, knowing the race didn’t start till 10, getting kitted up when cars were convoying into the car park, while others chatted and checked over kit, I made my way to the media centre to meet Matt.
Matt made a pretty accurate guestimation for what time we need to head up the trail. In my naivety of only ever running the course, we had way too much time to reach the Devil’s ridge. It become abruptly apparent that my legs, following the VK and having avoided serious training or mountains for the best part of 6 months, weren’t going to allow me to gracefully glide up the hill. I was going to have to earn it. I’ve shot races such as UTMB in the past, where the climbs are greater, with altitude thrown in to the mix, but the effort required was dwarfed by that of the Ring of Steall. You don’t have perfectly groomed hard packed trails, this isn’t the Alps. It’s the highlands of Scotland. My second observation, I couldn’t remember the course. I’ve run it twice, 11 hours combined, but it’s always been in cloud and under the fog of race conditions. I hadn’t exactly paid attention to every twist and turn, I’d plotted a route that suited each occasion based on conditions, how I felt and where other runners were. So, on my third time on the ridge, I learnt it is both a lot longer than I recalled and theres a fair bit more climbing involved throughout. My brain had edited the ridge to the extent you climbed up, ran over some narrowish areas then hammered it down into Glen Nevis.
The sun was in the sky, the wind was wicked. It was relentless, consistently and persistently trying to prize anything that wasn’t under the tightest grip away from you. Many a cap would go airborne and disappear into a neighbouring valley over the 3 hours spent on the ridge. Layers on and meeting up with Jimmy Hyland, it was time to pick a spot and get comfortable. We had time to kill but also, once the main pack arrived, moving around was limited, given the small space.
A few walkers passed by…. I hope they knew what they had let themselves in for and shortly after, the lead runners came into view.Hugging the rock we were crouched beside, the eyes of the elites were fixed firmly on the trail ahead. There was no let up, they raced as hard on the technical sections, as they would the flat trails. Keep out there way and do your best to capture them.The main field came into view on the saddle, across the horseshoe and the goals were very different. Some raced for time, others to complete it, a percentage, to survive. If you’re running and I’m shooting, I’ll always try to cheer you on or have some (and I never normally use this word) banter. I know what you’re going though, I race too, and having encouragement and something to take your mind off the discomfort can really help. Please though, don’t use my camera bag as a hand hold as someone choose to do, saying thank you as they did. I appreciate your manners, but it was a shock getting pulled backwards unexpectedly… especially when there are consequences to loosing your footing.He wasn’t the only runner to have a phone or Gopro in his hand, running along the course.Hold on to your hat!!As the last of the runners made their way through and the sweepers picked up the red flags, marking the course, myself and Jimmy made our way to the saddle and onto the final climb of the race. It was at this point we learnt of Remi Bonnet having to pull out through injury and the question of has the lead runner already made the descent. We were soon to find out.
On reaching the saddle splitter, the marshall point where the course breaks away from the initial climb and final descent, on asking, the leader and soon to be winner, Nadir Maguet, flew past us and onto the home straight. Well, he had 5-6km to go. Marc Lauenstein would take 2nd, with Max King in 3rd.
Cameras out and a rush to the climb, a steady stream of the top 10 appeared, breathing hard, with runners, filming of the Golden Trail Series able to hold for only a minute before their unrelenting pace was too much. Johny Cook introduced himself, such is the life of the media team, that most of us follow each others online exploits, but rarely get to meet. It was great to put a face to a name.The final descent was a mixture of trail, bog and streams. Cut up from the many 700+ who made the ascent, the mud became a greater hinderance for those on weary legs. Remember, it was a dry year. I don’t want to talk about 2017 again, when I walked the vast majority of the descent before hitting the fireroad, loosing my sense of humour in the process…..
Judith Wyder would go on to break the women’s course record, with Holly Page taking 2nd and Fanny Borgstrom 3rd.On reaching the fire road, my Pyllon team mate, Debbie-Martin Consani, came into sight. I’d been slowly making my way down the descent, shooting runners and speaking to those spectating. On seeing Debbie, I must have had an adrenaline dump, as I took off after her.Debbie asked if we could get to the finish in 13 minutes, I hadn’t a clue. I also didn’t know why 13 was important. But we pushed on, I remained behind her, yelling encouragement and doing my best not drop my camera. 30 seconds before reaching the road, people on the side of trail shouted “you’re under 6” and it all clicked. Debbie was pushing for a sub 6 hour race, two weeks after a 100 mile track race!
Back on tarmac, crowds lay in sight and Debbie told me to crack on ahead. I held off running down the finish chute, to avoid spoiling a couple of runners finish photos, before sprinting, spinning round just in time to capture Debbie.Immediately fumbling for my media pass, I wanted to make sure everyone knew I wasn’t gate crashing. Sharing a finish with a friend is something I rarely do and this stands out as the highlight of my day. Being able to help someone achieve their goal was a huge bonus.
Dinner was what ever was left in the Co-Op, I just needed calories and sleep.
The mythical skyline, the extreme race, the one you need to be vetted for. Running simply isn’t enough, rock climbing credentials are part of the arsenal of skills you must posses. For many the Ring of Steall is a technical challenge, the Skyline utters the fabled words “hold my beer” and cranks things up to 11.
My alarm went off early, I struggled to respond to it. I was in a state of peace, I was happy where I was, which for those who know me, is rarely in bed. 0610, I really need to shift if I stand a chance of making it. Back into running kit, heated seats on and going against the traffic making its way from Glencoe to the start line, I drove from Kinlochleven to the foot of the Devil’s staircase. As I arrived, Christian, from No Limits Photography ran across the road and onto the course. I stretched my quads, they were almost useless, heavy sacks of muscle fibres, unresponsive to electrical signals to contract.
We’re doing this.
Kitted up, I ran onto the course, carrying speed where I could. Had it not been for the flags, I really had no idea where I was going. I drive past the legendary mountain annually, on my way to the Downhill World Cup in Fort William, but I never stop. The cloud base was low, you could barely see a mountain in front of you. The trail was hard going, the low trail alone was that bit harder than the Ring’s. Starting the ascent, rock was slippery, the route required concentration and problem solving. Not knowing where it lead and with a cloud base remaining low, I decided not to climb too high (300 meters according to my watch), to stand a greater chance of getting the valley below in my shots.
And then the waiting game began.
For two days you could see competitors advancing on you, today, false alarms rang out from photographer and safety team members below.
But in time, they arrived.Katie Kaars Sjpesteijn had won the Ben Nevis Ultra on the Friday, placing 3rd overall. I was astonished to see Katie climbing beside me on the Skyline! She would later admit her cheerfulness was for show and it was a real test of body and mind. Best hat award.Assiting with an injured runner (the mountain safety team did an exceptional job and I’ll be writing a separate feature on the topic of first aid soon), I made my way back to HQ for midday and breakfast. I opted to stay around base, my legs were not going to handle climbing on the main ridge and I wanted to see and hear more about the new trail races which were being held for the first time.
All in all it was an action packed 3 days. A week on, I think I’ve fully recovered. This year allowed me privileged access, to see more of the inner workings of Skyline Scotland and therefore, Ourea Events, the organisers. Working with their media team, it soon became apparent everything was thought and planned as much as possible, in the way each marshall location, flag, timing chip and tracker are assigned and monitored. I now have a greater appreciation for the sheer scale of the backstage support and infrastructure in place and why, well, things work the way they do and where the money goes from your entry fee.
The media team, working with the marketing liaison Tom, organise themselves for maximum coverage and to increase the odds of getting the golden footage and shots those participating and those watching from home expect. The media room is like a library, quiet, everyone focused on their own individual and combined tasks. The same can be said of the mountain safety teams, rescue teams, marshalls and volunteers. All have their job, all know their job, attention to detail is held at the same standard from Race Director to general volunteer. And everyone works hard, I suffered as much from taking photos as I did from running the race, however, the days for the media team never really end. It’s a week later and I am putting this together. Press releases and race reports were getting sent out within hours of the respective race finishes by Fiona Outdoors, containing assets gathered and edited by the team.
Despite all the challenges the terrain and weather provides, you the consumer is able to experience the event again within hours of crossing the line, having a shower and sipping a pint. It shouldn’t be forgotten how much goes into making that happen, nor the work by the entire event staff, which contributes to create an event you want to return to.
Thank you to Helen from Ourea Events for providing me the accreditation, Coffee Rescue Scotland for the complimentary Beetroot and chocolate latte (don’t knock it before you try it), the media team for being a group of legends and everyone I met over the weekend.
Will I run in 2020 or return on the media team? That’s still to be decided.
What I do know is, the love for the Highlands grows stronger.
P.S. For those wondering, it was Scampi and chips to celebrate my 4th night of #carcamperlife
Disclaimer – I was not paid, nor were expenses covered by Skyline Scotland, Ourea Events or any 3rd parties connected to the event for my time. All views above are my own and have been no way steered by the above mentioned companies.