As we got out of the car by the Glen Nevis youth hostel I looked up towards the summit of Ben Nevis and was struck by how big it looked. I have been into this glen many times before, and have climbed “The Ben” by many different routes, but today it looked….. really big! Perhaps it was a trick of the light, or perhaps it had something to do with what I had planned in the next 24 hours that would finish with having to run down all 1344 meters of it’s rocky trails.
This description, taken from www.ramsaysround.co.uk gives a brilliant flavour to the creation of this classic Scottish mountain running challenge:
“Just before noon on Sunday 9th July 1978, Charlie Ramsay from Edinburgh, Scotland, and a member of Lochaber Athletic Club in Fort William, was seen running down the lower slopes of Ben Nevis, his mind seemingly possessed by a desperate degree of urgency as he crossed over the footbridge and onwards for a further 25 metres past the youth hostel, to his finishing line.
There, his family and friends met him; as he checked his watch and fell to his knees with a mixture of exhaustion and elation.
For the previous 23 hours and 58 minutes, Charlie had climbed a total of 23 Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet/ 914.4 metres) of which Ben Nevis was the last. With just 2 minutes to spare he had achieved his dream of circuiting all the Lochaber mountains in a single day. Behind him he left a trail of exhausted bodies, his support team and even his teammate, Bobby Shields, who had to retire after 16 tops, so sustained was the pace.
Charlie had set a record, which was to last for nine years, and had created Scotland’s Classic Mountain Marathon, a distance of 56 miles/90.123 km and 28,500 feet/8686.8 metres of climbing.“
About a decade ago I set out on a forlorn and naive attempt at the round. A couple of years after completing a Bob Graham round with considerable support from friends, I thought I would have a go at a “Ramsay”. Within minutes I was crawling over fallen trees and cursing the recently cleared forest section. I sweated my way onto the first summit, already 10 minutes behind my schedule. By Stob Ban I was another 5 minutes down. The enormity of the task ahead and the idea of dealing with it solo was totally overwhelming and I instantly gave up, sat in the sunshine for a bit before walking down the hill, tail firmly between my legs.
Since then I have done a huge amount more running, have completed Rigby’s round solo and am fitter than I have ever been. I was therefore reasonably confident of a successful outcome this time round, although I knew this would be a good step harder than the Rigby or Bob Graham rounds.
I teamed up with local mountain ninja, Ally Beaven who I knew would be much stronger than me as he is building up to the Tor de Geants later this year (fingers crossed). As we both like to think that the style of these outings matter we agreed to go reasonably minimal in our support and preparation for the attempt. Running as a pair we wouldn’t recruit any other supporters to carry our kit, we would navigate solely with map and compass and we didn’t make any recce trips to the route, although we had both done all of the hills and most sections of the route before anyway. Our one concession to the purest style was to take advantage of the one easy access point at Loch Treig to drop a bag with food and some fresh clothes for the final third of the route.
We set off at a suitably nonspecific time of 2.07pm. The first section through the Mamores went smoothly enough, but certainly wasn’t a relaxing experience. I knew that the pace at this stage wasn’t hugely important, so long as we kept somewhere between ‘moving well’ and ‘not getting carried away’ a couple of minutes here or there wouldn’t make a huge difference. Despite that I couldn’t stop myself looking at my watch every five minutes and torturing myself with constant mental arithmetic. We were 1/8th of the way through the climbing…. our average speed was 1.2km/h faster than we needed to maintain to hit the 24 hour mark which meant we were 800 meters ahead of our virtual benchmark…… If we maintain this pace we would finish in 19 hours…. My mind kept going round in circles conjuring meaningless numbers, and yet time seemed to be passing very slowly.
On the climb up to Na Gruagaichean the cloud that had been slowly descending, came down to blanket the summits. It was 7pm and it was early. The forecast had said that cloud would only come in for a few hours overnight, but it would now be with us for the remainder of our round.
Somewhere on the climb up Sgurr Eilde Mor my mind released me from the tension and torment of clock watching and calculating. There is always an amazing moment on very long runs where this happens and you just let go of all the worries and paranoia about niggles, tiredness and what-if’s and you accept that so far it is all going well, beyond that is pretty much out of your control and you can just focus on getting on with the immediate task ahead of you. When I hit this point I really start enjoying myself, from here to the end it was pretty much type 1 fun all the way!
The poor visibility of the low cloud wasn’t causing us any massive issues, if anything I was enjoying the extra challenge of navigating quickly in tricky conditions, but it was definitely slowing us down a bit. Although it was dark, the extra limitation on the visibility meant that we couldn’t as easily find, and kept losing the small paths up to the summit on Ben na Lap and between Chno Dearg and Stob Choire Sgriodain. On this last section we had to pause briefly every few minutes to keep tabs on our position, whereas if it were clear we would have had an idea of the summit to aim for in the first light of the morning. Better still we could have delegated all navigation to an arrow on a gps, never mind, we had (for no particularly strong reason) committed to this style, we just need to get on with it!
The long rough descent towards Loch Treig and the crucial ‘hole in the fence’ was the last real fiddly bit of navigation. We hit it almost perfectly, with a good line down through rocky ground to the forest edge. One quick mis-fire and we were through the fence and out for a short run along the train line (don’t tell the transport police! Although there aren’t too many trains at 3am). Pleased with our navigating prowess we jogged along the line joking about missing the next path and ending up in Fersit. Well along comes pride and slaps us in the face as we totally miss the massive navigation feature of the concrete dam on our left and add an extra 500 meters to our day!
At the dam we efficiently stuff our faces and fill up on caffeine as we re-stock our packs and change into dry socks and tops (pretty much a waste of time as they’d be wet again in 10 minutes, but a good morale boost all the same!).
Now just over 14 hours in and with two thirds of the distance covered, we should be comfortably on target for the 24 hour finish. But there was still a nagging inconsistency with my numbers, all day we had been almost bang on the schedule that I’d scribbled onto my map 10 years before. I now don’t know where I got that schedule but it looks like would get us round in exactly 24 hours. Over the next few hours this fact became more pressing, over Stob Ban (second one) and into the Grey Corries we were still only just hitting the schedule, if this kept up it was going to be extremely tight. The pressure was really on so we pushed on, running hard where possible and sweating away on the climbs. It felt like a race all of a sudden and given how long it has been since I have run in a race, I was loving it!
We hit the top of Aonach Beag exactly on the 20.5 hours demanded by the mystery schedule, made the short steep descent to the bealach and started up towards Aonach Mor. hang on! We now have an hour and 5 minutes to do the next kilometre to the summit! Cue enormous relief as the mistake becomes clear, this is a 23 hour schedule and somehow when I wrote it onto the map all those years ago, I must have messed up the last few times!
The pressure off, we could now relax a bit and enjoy the last couple of summits. I had never done the climb up to Carn Mor Dearg before, but it felt like a long way, although to be honest so did the CMD arete up to the summit of Ben Nevis, after racing away so quickly from us, time had now slowed to a crawl!
After seeing nobody at all in the last 18 hours the circus of the Ben Nevis tourist path felt like a different world. Sorry to the couple on the summit, we weren’t going to stand by and wait while you had your picture taken, we were still on the clock! A quick tap of the trig point and we were off.
During the Ben Nevis race, Finlay Wild gets from the summit to Claggan Park in 25 minutes. If he were to give us a head start that day and let us get to the Red Burn crossing before leaving the summit he would still have beaten us to the glen. This fact is truly astonishing because I would have to say that we were still moving really well. My ankles were a bit tender, so on the short-cuts between zig-zags I was taking it easy, but on the well engineered crazy paving of the lower half I honestly don’t think I’d have been much quicker if I was fresh. We were giving it beans, whooping all the way home enjoying the startled looks from the bedraggled summit baggers.
The time that it took us is not important; if it is I start making judgements on our navigation decisions, comparing our run to others and making allowances for our style choices, the kit we carried and the weather we had. Our time gets our name on a list on a website, but why does that matter to me?
We had a great day out in every sense. It was certainly a huge challenge and managing the physical and mental element of that is something I find hugely rewarding. I was very pleased with how my body had held up and being able to push hard over the last 5 hours felt amazing. It is a good indicator of fitness after a year of hard training, but also a result of fuelling much better than I have on previous big runs.
Thanks to Ally for the company and to Charlie Ramsay for the vision to put together such a perfect challenge.