A slap is never nice business and you always wonder what you did to deserve it. When you are slapped in the face continuously, by angry chunks of hale, you know exactly what you did to deserve it: you signed up for a race in Scotland.
We arrive to Kinlochleven in good time after a day and a half of driving up to Scotland. A couple of hours until the start of the Salomon Mamores VK race, which is the first day out of four races in the series, the organisers are finishing the final touches to the start and finish line and the queue for the registration has built up.
Ample opportunity to keep an eye out for some familiar faces and hot names in the Skyrunning circuits. This year the event is part of the Skyrunning World Championships and, judging by the participants, competition is going to be as steep as the mountain we’re about to run up.
At registration they check all racers meet the compulsory kit list criteria, and I’m warned that the summit has reports of –5°C. Leaving registration there is another shower of rain. It’s a sober reminder that we’re in Scotland.
Time flies with some warm up runs, very important warm up stretches and – let’s not forget – the last energy snacks and kit checks. All three of us, Des, Lenka and I, have our staggered start times close to each other, so we go to pick up our GPS trackers together and get in line for our individual start time. By this point we’re feeling the nerves, and I really feel the cold, so once on the way there is a sense of relief to actually be running.
After a short stretch on tarmac we hit the trail going up, a zigzagging path in the forest. The trail is wet and it’s with effort I try to keep my shoes dry for as long as possible, although I know they will be soaked sooner rather than later. There are a good deal of volunteers cheering on, and I even get someone recognising the Finnish flag on my bib number and get some unexpected encouragement in Finnish.
Soon the forest opens up to flatter terrain and I pick up the pace from a fast hike back to running. Part of the trail has turned into a stream with puddles in between. Safe to say my shoes are wet.
Then there is the second steeper section. Heather and grass covered and steep, it reminds me of the Redbull K3, but the cold wind and freezing rain make sure I can spot the stark difference between the two. Luckily there is no altitude to worry about here.
Only some runners have chosen to use hiking poles, but I’m happy to have mine, keeping my hands off the wet ground. Besides, holding the grip seems to keep them a little warmer. Once up on the first crest I regret immediately not putting on my waterproof jacket earlier. Fellow racers on their way down had shouted into the wind that the weather is bad up there, but I didn’t want to stop until absolutely necessary.
This meant taking several minutes to stop and to put on a waterproof jacket that resembled a propeller, flapping about in the gale force wind. Somehow, I get my gloves on my wet freezing hands, but neither of these are without effort. I know putting on the waterproof trousers would be a good idea, but I don’t want to waste more time than I already have, I need to keep moving.
As the hail is smacking me in the face and nearly knocking me over, I kept thinking to myself: “the sooner I get to the summit, the sooner I can turn around and get back down.” It’s what keeps me going as the cold and wet feeling seeps through my whole body and the rain cloud thickens. It becomes my mantra and I repeat it over and over again.
At some point I even shout into the wind asking a racer coming down if I have much further to go, as there is doubt running through my mind. Every time I get to the top of a small hill I hope it to be the summit, and every time I am disappointed. I curse the false summits. But I’m happy to see Lenka on her way down. I wave and she sees me, and her facial expression tells me she is as cold as I am. I shout out not to wait for me, because in this weather I’d return to find a clump of ice if she did wait.
Not long after I finally reach the summit. It’s with relief and delight I approach the finish line, fumbling around for my GPS tracker on my wrist, which is tucked under my shirt cuff. With fingers numb with pain this takes a good deal of time. I overhear one of the organisers saying she can’t feel her feet, and I do feel for them just standing there in this harsh weather.
I throw myself downhill, only stopping to give space for people on their way up to pass, and catch up with Lenka who, just like me, is cold and wants to get down. As we hurdle ourselves downhill as fast as our numb legs would carry us, I am driven by the deep desire of a warm shower followed by dry clothes. Lenka on her side was chasing the carrot cake she knew was waiting for her in the car. We meet Des on his way up, also soaked through, and we are happy to see him. We can’t stop for long though, or the cold will get to us.
As we get lower down the wind eases up, as there is more shelter from it. We’re still cold to the bone and, apart from Lenka taking a moment to cheer on a fellow Czech, we’re trying to keep a fast pace down. I see my opportunity to overtake in this single file track, so I take a little short cut to pass a fellow runner only to discover that the puddle I chose to run through is in fact knee deep.
Nothing to do but carry on running as I shout out behind me to Lenka: “This was a bad choice,” just in time for her to stop in her tracks and choose a better route. I’m laughing, happy to provide the few people around me with some comedy in this situation.
We’re delighted when we get back to Kinlochleven. Lenka only started feeling her toes again after we had made it all the way to the bottom. We’re happy to hand back our GPS trackers and receive our race times. Despite the difficult weather conditions, Lenka has got herself a great time again 1:06:29, and I’m pleased with 1:16:08. The fastest male was Rémi Bonnet with 00:39:23, and fastest female was Laura Orgué with 00:51:35.
As impressive as these performances are, to me the heroes of the day were the event organisers and volunteers on the course, as well as the photographers hurdled up in their waterproofs; somehow sitting there and surviving the weather. The only thing that kept me somewhat warm and moving was focusing on nothing but racing. We want to extend a thanks to the locals in Kinlochleven for being gracious host to a bunch of impressive nutters, and by that I mean trail running enthusiasts.