The Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace is a 29km mountain race in the Scottish Highlands, that takes in around 2,800m of elevation, over two of the highest peaks in the Ben Nevis range. That’s what it is on paper. In reality, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced.
I started feeling good. The first climb, up the Devil’s Ridge to the first peak, felt controlled. It was cold and raining, but I got up there in good time and close enough to the front of the pack to feel happy. The climb up to 1000m had been almost easy, but I had no idea what I was about to face.
I always knew that the descents would be problematic for me. But I didn’t realise how bad they really would be. A few meters into the first incredibly steep and rocky descent, and I found out. I felt my right achilles, the bad one, “pop”, and the pain started. Not long after, the left one followed suit. I had to take baby steps, and couldn’t risk running, as I knew I had to nurse them through this race. It felt like half the field of runners came past me as I gingerly picked my way down the mountain side.
Finally I got to the bottom, thoroughly humbled and now closer to the rear of the pack than the front. But I could run, I had managed somehow to stop the damage from getting too bad. I filled my water bottles at the (only) aid station, stuffed a Tribe bar down my neck, and started attempting to make up some time. The next section was partly on the road, and then though the very beautiful scenery of Glen Nevis. A deep river crossing followed, which gave my aching achilles some relief in the cold water. The second climb beckoned.
At this point the weather had cleared and the it was no longer raining. I knew we had a long, hard climb to come and I ate a 33 shake gel and one of my home made energy balls. Up, up, up we went, I just kept pushing on. People were stopping around me but I managed to keep it going up to the top of An Gearanach, where the sun had come out. The view was unforgettable. Uncompromising and beautiful, a full circuit of mountains surrounded us, streaked by waterfalls, glistening in the autumn light.
The push up the next two peaks was unrelentingly brutal. We dropped down, only to have to climb back up, scrambling this time, hands and feet on slippery rock. Silence as everyone suffered together. Finally reaching the top of An Bodach, the last peak. There was no time to celebrate for me, as I knew the next hour or so would be extremely difficult on my painful tendons. 7km of muddy, slippery, treacherous descent, until finally hitting the West Highland Way, and back into Kinlochleven.
Screaming in frustration as my legs screamed with pain, I picked my way down, apologising to people for holding them up as I truly couldn’t go any faster. I don’t quite know how I made it down, it seemed never to end, just got muddier, slippier, steeper, crueler. Finally, somehow, my feet found the hard ground of the path, and I could run again. Past bemused hikers, and into town, through the flags and over the finish line. 7 hours and 15 minutes of incredible running, climbing, suffering, cursing, exultation.
I could be disappointed as I didn’t have the race I wanted. I was far slower than I should have been, and on paper, I underperformed. But, I pushed through a lot of pain, frustration and suffering, and had an experience I will never ever forget. It was brutal, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but worth every step.
The following day I climbed up to watch the leaders come through the 30k point of the Glencoe Skyline, and had the honour of watching Killian Jornet in action. It was an amazing weekend, I met some great people and am inspired to do more, climb higher, run faster, and somehow, somehow, manage to run downhill without crippling myself! I’m giving myself time to recover as this race has taking a lot out of me, even four days later I’m still tired, hungry and sore. But excited for the future and looking forward to running again as soon as I feel ready to do so.