I love the idea of a race that starts in the sea or lake at the bottom of a mountain and visits the summit, I don’t know why but it inspires me, I always feel a real connection with the environment and excitement before and during the race that I often don’t feel at other times.
This race in its original form (Cross Triathlon, 90km MTB leg!) had caught my eye in 2012 but at the time I did not own a MTB or had ever ridden one but if I could borrow one or something maybe next year I would give it a go. It ran up and down Ben Nevis after all and sounded awesome. Much to my disappointment the race disappeared, to be resurrected in 2015 with a road bike instead.
This type of race seems to bring the best out in me and after a long season that started back in March, ups and downs but never really feeling I had hit a race right I was really looking forward to this one. Would I finally get to see the view from the top of the Ben?
I traveled up on Friday morning, checked out a bit of the bike course and had a swim in Loch Linnhe with Simon then headed up to stay with friends Marie and Donnie after registering and attending the briefing. I had a great night’s sleep and woke up at 4.45am for breakfast feeling refreshed.
I find the atmosphere at these races amazing – meeting friends, catching up and talking to other competitors, it’s always a relaxed, friendly feel. T1 was no different today, I got set up quickly and had time to say hello to friends and get warmed up. The loch can apparently get cold but at around 14 today this felt fine, once we got going.
I really enjoyed the swim, super easy to navigate out and back, two laps with plenty of kayaks to make sure you did not cross over into oncoming traffic. You also go little glimpses of the hills each time you turned to breath and it was shaping up to be a beautiful day. I came out after a trouble free swim in 10th position, fast through transition and out onto the bike.
After checking out the bike course and some very useful advice from last year’s winner Alistair Robinson, the game plan for the bike was a steady effort both out and back, keeping effort level as even as possible and ideally as low as possible without loosing touch. A good run would be possible if I kept to this, I often ride hard out of the swim to make up time lost but with such a long run I did not need too chase too hard. The road surface is superb, with a slight long climb out to the turn around point, then it’s slightly faster back in but with a very slight headwind usually. At the turn around I was in second behind last years second place Chris Watson, I knew my effort level had been perfect Upper Zone3 or Tempo so knew it was looking good for the run. On the way back it was great to get waves and encouragement from competitors on the way out still, smiling faces and amazing views always welcome on what can be a lonely effort on the bike leg of a race. I came in to T2 just in front of Chris, popped for a comfort break on the way out and started the run in second.
Now comes the interesting bit! I got off the bike feeling weirdly excited about the run, I wanted to try and run all the way up but was not sure if it would be possible. I also knew I would have a fast run down so was in with a chance of winning after a steady bike. On top I had a lurking fear that a super fast local hill runner might be just behind off the bike and storm past me on the way down. The summit had its usual top of cloud but a surprise awaited. Now this is a long, long climb, with steep sections of steps and loose scree, pacing it right from the start would be key. I got to the checkpoint after a steady run out ready to head on to the hill, Chris was now just over one minute in front. I settled into that uncomfortable but sustainable effort level just below threshold and tapped away, I hit my threshold but my legs kept going. I eventually caught Chris on the steepest of the stepped sections just below the half way point, Lochan, we had a chat, unusual perhaps in a race but it just felt right, top bloke and I carried on into the lead. I kept expecting my legs to give up or feel to heavy but they just kept going. I only walked when the path became to busy with walkers to allow running and dropped into a zone. Head down slightly, I was sucking in air through an open mouth but my legs just kept going. Near the top of the zig zags I noticed blue sky, then we popped out above the cloud, it felt and looked amazing. A friendly face from Cumbria, Paul Dobson (check out his website) was on the hill to support and get some pictures, seeing him just pushed me on, by now I knew my legs were with me so I pushed harder to the summit. A handful of blueberries the summit, 10 seconds to reset ready for the down. I hit the first half to the Lochan hard, more encouragement from fellow competitors and seeing my friend Marie powering up the hill as first lady spurred me on.
The second half of the descent required a little more care and by now I could feel muscles cramping from the efforts dodging rocks, walkers and picking your way down the mountain. On the last bit of trail, I felt smooth and controlled. Hitting the tarmac with about 3km to go was the first time I really felt the efforts of the last five plus hours racing hit home. I got a bit paranoid about being caught but reasoned I just had to maintain pace and it would be ok.
I crossed the line with a finishing time of 5hrs30.31, super happy to win the race but more pleased to have finally felt the hard training come together and pay off. It means a lot to me to have it all come together like this, on such an amazing mountain like Ben Nevis. As much as I love racing and getting a good result, the feeling on mind and body working so well together in such an amazing environment is my main motivation. I find life is as simple and amazing as it can be when you hit it right in the hills. So many things made this a special day that I wont ever forget. I hope everyone else found something special during your day, you were part of mine.
Special thanks to the race organisers and marshals for putting on this amazing event, it was lovely to be involved in the build up to the event as well so thank you for the opportunity. If you are interested in entering next year I cannot recommend the race enough.
Read more about Chris’s racing and training here: http://chrisstirling.blogspot.co.uk/