The Salomon Glen Coe Skyline, in the majestic mountains of Glen Coe, was the most amazing event on the most brutal but beautiful course ever. I’m saying that now, but two weeks ago I was cursing the course. After 33.8 km and about 3000 m of ascent I’d missed the cut-off time. I was too slow. I was a duffer. My spirits were as damp as the weather. I had so badly wanted to be strong and finish. It was too hard and I’d failed. No way was I doing this again….
Why did I run this race? I love running in the mountains and I love scrambling. The sport of Skyrunning has fascinated me for the last few years. When I heard about the Glen Coe Skyline I knew I had to try and get an entry and make it my first ever real mountain running race. Glen Coe holds a special place in my heart. It’s close to where I was born and brought up in Dumbarton. Decades ago, when I was a Munro bagger I sought out its peaks in the snow and the rain; these adventures are etched in my memory. The first time I ever remember being aware of the awesomeness of a mountain landscape was in Glen Coe. I was a kid in the car on the A82 with my mum, dad and twin brother Graeme. A moment in time— gazing out the car window up towards the Glen Coe mountains and thinking “wow”— has stayed with me for forty years or more.
The Glen Coe Skyline—it drew me more than any other race I’ve done or read about.
And so, earlier this year the minute entries opened I was at my computer with my answers prepared for the vetting questions. It was the dead of night. These days I live in Canada so with the time difference I had set my alarm, I think for 2 am. I had the necessary climbing, scrambling and running experience, I filled out the entry, then waited. I got a spot. I was over the moon!
The Glen Coe Skyline is one of three races in the Extreme Skyrunner world series. The other two are Tromso and Trofeo Kima. To give you an idea of the nature of the Glen Coe course, I’ve copied and pasted part of the website description:
The course is designed to challenge the most experienced and competent mountain runners. The proposed race route traverses high and remote mountainous terrain. Once committed to many sections it is impossible to retreat. The entire race route is subject to rapidly changing and extremely severe weather. For this reason, competitors must be capable of ‘robust completion’ of the route in all but the most serious weather conditions. The route is very rough underfoot with long sections of rock and scree-covered terrain. There will be an enormous amount of ascent and descent. Experienced but slower competitors are very welcome at the race but please note that the cut-offs will be strictly enforced.
The stats: 55 km and 4700 m of elevation gain
Get the idea?
I wasn’t daunted by the terrain or the distance: I’ve scrambled and climbed for years and I’ve run a good number of ultras. What scared the living daylights out of me was “the enormous amount of ascent and descent”. As race day approached I knew I hadn’t managed to do enough training for the vertical and I knew I would be one of the slower runners chasing the cut-offs. I hoped I’d be able to pull it off with the training that I had been able to do.
So, back to the race! It started in Kinlochleven. On race morning I didn’t feel great. Nothing new! But, when I saw everybody milling about in the start area I felt really nervous and wanted to run away. All I could see were lean mean mountain-running machines: the athletes I hear about and admire when I listen to Talk Ultra podcast. There weren’t many women and even fewer veteran/masters women like me. I started wondering why I was there and my mind went into a downward spiral of doubts and worries. But negative thoughts will be the death of you and with a few deep breaths, I put aside those destructive thoughts. Breath!! I visualised images of happiness and joy. The mountain spirits would carry me round. It was going to be amazing to be part of this scary event. Yeah!
I stood at the back of the pack. I was carrying the mandatory gear, water and enough calories for eight hours of hard effort. There was no aid available until checkpoint 11. My pack felt heavy! Then, to the sound of bagpipes, we were off!
For the first 10 km or so we followed the West Highland Way out of Kinlochleven and up and down The Devil’s staircase to checkpoint 1 at Altnafeadh. I felt crappy! To be suffering from the off was not good!
We hopped over the A82 and from there we traversed across and up a hillside heading straight for Curved Ridge. Curved Ridge is a Grade III scramble and the most technical part of the course. I was one of the stragglers near the back. The front-runners had long since bounded up. The scramble was airy and it was exhilarating! I focused on every move and forgot about my tiredness. Mountain instructors were on the route pointing out the handholds. At the top of the scramble, there was an amazing view of Rannoch Moor, desolate and beautiful, stretching far into the distance. I looked back at it and was absolutely awe-struck.
The steep face of the scramble gave way to flatter, rocky ground and then checkpoint 2 on the summit of Stob Dearg. I still wasn’t feeling great and felt a bit woozy. I checked in by beeper and asked the marshal “what way?” It must’ve been a silly question! She asked me if I was OK? Had I fallen? Crumbs, I must have looked bad! I was fine I said, just slow, and I went on my merry way from there, over the rocky vastness of Buachaille Etive Mor. It was spectacular. The clouds had gently rolled in and I was seeing the last of the sun but the visibility was still good. I looked all around for other runners. I saw only one person far behind and one person far in front. Peace and solitude. Quietness, I’m always searching for that rare thing. Here it was and I was storing it up and relishing it.
After this high ground, we dropped down to checkpoint 4 in Lairig Gartain and hopped on boulders to cross the River Coupall. That led to a good path and a steady trundle up the valley, then the next steep ascent, this one grassy. Up and up and up we went heading towards a pass, Mam Buidhe on Buachaille Etive Beag. It was here that I met another runner, Scott from Manchester. It was great to have his company. Up and over the pass we went, then we had a quick, steep descent on a rocky trail to checkpoint 5 in Lairig Eilde.
This next valley section was just about runnable. There weren’t too many places you could run on this course! The clouds had been thickening and half-way up the valley the rain appeared and stayed for the day. Stopping to put on my jacket I could see the next tough, steep climb ahead of me disappearing into the clouds. I trundled on up the valley and reached the climb. Here goes…
I hiked up the steep grass into the mist and a miracle happened: I started to feel better. Those mischievous mountain spirits were finally giving me some help! I caught up to and passed some runners. On the upper, steepest section I was with Scott and an Irish guy and we breathed a sigh of relief when we topped out. But, instead of picking up speed after the near vertical grassy slope we had to stop to look for the route. Ahead we could see only rocks and mist. Nothing else! The little red flags we had been following all day had become invisible.
Time passed slowly and the next couple of hours saw us crossing rocky ground peering into the wet mist looking for flags. The flags would appear out of nowhere if you stared hard enough. Thankfully we didn’t get lost and finally we found the summit of Stob Coire Sgreamhach and checkpoint 7.
The stretch to the next summit didn’t look far on the map but it was! It was also rocky, wet and foggy. I lost track of time but it took me forever get over the difficult ground and reach the next marshals with their blue jackets and encouragement on the summit of Bidean nam Bian (checkpoints 8 and 10). I’d last been there maybe 20 years ago. Today it was unrecognisable in the Scotch mist. I said a quick hello and got checked in with my beep.
Throughout these long misty sections of high summits, I had been chasing my dream of reaching the finish line in Kinlochleven. It had been tantalising me in my mind’s eye. In a foggy vision, I saw myself cross the line, drop to my knees and kiss the ground. If only! Reaching Bidean, I knew time had run out and it would be impossible to get to checkpoint 11 by the cutoff at 3pm. My daft vision disappeared with a puff into the cloud and rain.
With a heavy heart, I did the next section, an out-and-back to Stob Coire Lochan (checkpoint 9). As I was going out to that summit over a rocky, gravelly, down then up trail I was thankful to see and say hello to a few runners coming back on it. I consoled myself. There were people not too far ahead of me. I wasn’t miles and miles behind everyone. I reached the marshal at checkpoint 9 on the summit and another beep. The race blurb described this out-and-back ridge as “another stunning mountain spur into Glen Coe”. Today there was a grand view of mist.
Heading back to Bidean and checkpoint 10, I saw a girl who I had played leapfrog with earlier in the day. She was on her way out to checkpoint 9 and looked strong and determined. While going past each other she asked me if I thought we would make the cut-off. I said I didn’t think so. She was truly devastated. Geez, I should have kept my mouth shut so she could enjoy it all for a wee while longer. (We met up again on the merry bus-ride for the DNF’ers from checkpoint 11 to Kinlochleven).
So it was back up to the summit of Bidean and checkpoint 10; to another wonderful marshal and another beep. He pointed and said straight down there to checkpoint 11. Ha ha! This descent was something else. First, there was more expansive, rocky ground and playing the game of trying to spot little red flags while trying not to get lost in the nothingness. Then, finally, there was an obvious trail. Yeah! But it was no ordinary trail! I’ve run a lot of descents in my time. This was one of the trickiest ever: long, steep and treacherous! The zillions of rocky steps were wet and very slippery. A fall would take you on a nasty tumble for sure. Slowly, my tired legs took me down.
After that final downhill adventure, I was at the A82 and checkpoint 11—the end of my race. It was almost 4pm and fifty-seven minutes over the cut-off. I was sad and happy at the same time. It had been an amazing mountain journey. Over the next hour, a few more runners arrived from the misty descent and joined in the damp party under the awning; where the marshals were so caring, making sure we didn’t get too cold and giving us tea, crisps and bananas while we waited for the bus.
We found out that the Jonathan Albon had won the race in six and a half hours. Six and a half hours! That is unbelievable; so amazing; so inspiring. Jasmin Paris was the first female in just over eight hours. Amazing and inspiring too.
While waiting I looked upwards into the clouds and the next section of the race, the section that wasn’t to be—the Aonach Eagach, that legendary mountain ridge. The rain was still coming down, the clouds were thick and I thought to myself it must be treacherous for the runners, way up there hidden in the damp mountain greyness.
And so, the warm bus took us back to Kinlochleven. The bus of shame! I’d got cold waiting and I was glad to have all the mandatory gear. Better to have to use it on a bus than lost in a white-out on a mountain top! I wrapped myself in my emergency bivvy bag and was as warm as toast. Everybody on the bus chatted as we headed to Kinlochleven and the race finish. I handed in my spotter and beeper, ate some wonderfully delicious hot food and headed back to the campsite and my little tent and dry clothes. I made use of the extra time afforded by not finishing by snuggling up in my sleeping bag with a cup of tea listening to the birds chirping around Loch Leven. Relaxation and post-race celebrations Mandy-style!
My tale’s not quite finished. The next day when I was driving down the A82 to Dumbarton I made my usual stop in Tyndrum at the Green Welly Stop. Sitting with my cuppa and scone, iPad perched on the table, a fellow Glen Coe Skyliner sat down beside me. He had noticed I was looking for the results on the race webpage and asked me how I had got on. His name was Paul. We chatted about the race, about that slippery descent to checkpoint 11; about the Aonach Eagach. He was one of the runners on the Aonach Eagach around the time I was gazing at it, hidden in cloud and rain. He said the footing was treacherous; also, he’d caught up to a Polish runner who was struggling and was very cold, maybe hypothermic. Paul said he helped the cold runner, making him put on his extra clothes, and staying with him. They both made it to the finish line in under thirteen hours. The final cut off was fourteen hours. So inspiring, Paul. Well done!
The scrambling and the mountains, my memories and my roots—these are what brought me to this race. In the end, it didn’t go right but it was epic. This was my second enormous challenge of the year. The finish line eluded me in both but I had two truly unforgettable experiences, met amazing people, saw beautiful places and learned a hell of a lot. I’m happily planning on returning to them both next year, using what I’ve learned, getting better and finishing! How amazing that would be. That’s assuming I can get in!
What I learned in this race:
I’m sure nobody else did what I’m about to describe and this is a tip to my self: Don’t start with 2 l of water in your race pack! Talk about “carrying coals to Newcastle”. Knowing the one and only aid station was going to be about 8 hours into my race I automatically filled up my 2 l bladder. That’s what I would normally do. You see, most of my ultras have been done in Canada and USA on very different terrain. So, I carried all that water, but as you can guess, there was tonnes of water on the route—in crystal clear mountain streams—probably the same stuff you find in bottles on the shelves in Tesco. Duh!
I felt out of sorts before I started. I’d been busy with stuff. Of course, we run better when relaxed, with no stress, and this race clearly showed me that. Other than being tired and slow, I didn’t struggle. I think I gained 15 places between checkpoint 1 and checkpoint 10.
But to make things go better next time the biggest thing I need to do is more uphill training. The ascents were what I found most difficult. I wasn’t fit enough and maybe that’s the only reason I felt tired. Maybe it was nothing to do with being busy. We all like to look for excuses!
Next time I would download the GPS file. I think the most time-efficient way of staying out of trouble in a whiteout is to follow a GPS line on your device.