Glen Coe Skyline was set to be by 5th and last skyrace of the season. It’s been quite a year competing in what is the most extreme form of competitive mountain running but all good things have to come to an end and I had quite possibly saved the best race till last.
The Glen Coe Skyline race is as 52km with 4800m of vertical ascent. During the race you really do forget civilisation exists, with practically 100% of the course up in the mountains. The course also features two sections that take the sport as close to its limits as possible in regards to exposure and safety. Both Curved ridge and the Aonach Eagach ridge lie on the absolute limit of what is possible in a mountain race without ropes, harnesses and helmets.
This would be my second time competing on this course and the requirement for me to perform was just as high as before. Some calculations revealed that to win the 2017 skyrunning Extreme World Series I would have to place second or higher…a tough ask when you consider the field of athletes assembled. One in particular was likely to make coming first unlikely even if he was a bit tired after the UTMB two weeks previous. It’s hard to describe Kilian Jornet as an athlete, so I will stick with stating that he is pretty special and his attendance meant coming second was maybe my only option for winning the extreme series title.
Second in itself would prove to be difficult with a particularly deep field including; Alexis Sévennec, Bhim Bahadur Gurung, Max King, André Jonsson, Cody Lind and Hector Haines.
In the days before the race I spent some time pondering how it may all play out. Would the start be quicker than usual? Would Kilian blast away? and if he did would I try to hang on or race my own race? Would Bhim, who likes to shadow his competition, stick behind me or Kilian? As the race grew closer I decided to just take each kilometer as it came and stick to how I thought I could get around the course quickest, that and have fun, which is incredibly important for my performance.
Race day came and waking up at 4am wasn’t pleasant, neither was the cold shower I used to make sure I was truly awake but I made it to the start on time for 7am and was ready to do battle.
The sun was just rising and it looked to be a fantastic day. The gun fired and we were off, Kilian and I were both stuck at the back of the field but steadily began weaving our way forward on either side of the track. Once up alongside some friends I relaxed and enjoyed what felt like an enormously slow start.
Taking this first gradual 500m climb steady and enjoying the feeling of running having rested for a few days a smile started to spread across my face. Who cared how the race went, this was going to be an epic adventure.
For the first 12km to the first test of vertigo we were heading straight into the sun. Never imagining for a second a cap or sunglasses would be required in Scotland I tried to match Max Kings movements in front of me, hiding in his shadow which blocked out the glare.
Soon we turned away from the sun to start the first scramble and it almost immediately started to cloud over. It would now be cloudy and nearly a perfect running temperature for the rest of the race.
Once we got into the climb proper it was clear two athletes could comfortably go uphill far faster than the others. One was Kilian and the other was Alexis Sévennec. They blasted up this climb so fast that I thought to myself, ‘well that’s it, it was nice to run with him for a bit but I don’t think I’ll be catching up´.
Summiting I was in third/fourth with Bhim and started running. I was surprised that after 10 minutes on these higher more undulating mountain paths I was catching up. Making contact just before the descent I was almost confused. We weren’t running the flats or the descents nearly as quick as I was expecting. No worries though, this just meant that maybe I would be playing a bit of cat and mouse by trying not to blast up the climbs but catch-up on the descents. Kilian struck up a conversation about obstacle racing and I enjoyed the rest of the descent nattering away.
The following climbs and descents went as expected but each climb resulted in me being slightly less behind than before, making it easier to catch-up once we were up.
The race progressed and I was starting to wonder how it would play out. Killian looked amazingly strong, relaxed and in control and I figured I would therefore have to beat Alexis, so my race was with him but he also looked strong.
Coming into the only aid station at 35km I was surprised to see Bhim had caught up. I figured we had dropped him for good but now he was in the mix too.
The next climb would sort things out. This is where the race begins as we go straight up 800m to an exceptionally crazy ridge. Some more running would follow before finally heading down to the finish.
Kilian ploughed on ahead leaving me and Alexis together. We talked a bit and took turns setting the pace, widening the gap on Bhim. It was 200m before the top that somehow I opened a few meters on my new running partner. This gap grew a bit more and a bit more until I figured I had to try and take advantage of it. So reaching the ridge in second it was now all or nothing to hold my position to the end.
Starting along the ridge I was pushing a bit to make the gap bigger and surprisingly enough saw that I was closing on Kilian, I was now maybe only 30 seconds behind him! Could I make contact? Could I try and give him a good race to the finish?
The answer was no. I took a tumble on a flatter section and ended up looking over a 50m drop. This scared the shit out of me making me a little more cautious. Kilian also caught wind that I wasn’t so far back and put a little more effort in widening the gap between us to as much as 5 minutes over the ridge.
My race wasn’t with him now though. I wanted the title and needed second place. So looking back over my shoulder more often than I should I kept running, now hoping the finish would come soon.
My legs felt good but a lack of water on the ridge had left me dehydrated which in turn was causing a stitch. Finally nearing the descent someone offered me some ‘juice’ holding out a Lucozade bottle. 100% of me wanted to drink it all but I said it wasn’t allowed to take help outside of the only aid station and continued running.
The kilometres ticked painfully down as my stitch got worse, I needed to drink!
Finally on the home straight I forgot about everything and enjoyed some amazing crowds through to the finish. Congratulating Kilian I quickly found a bottle of water and was led to pee in a cup.
Kilian had won the race easily and I am sure that if I had pushed him he would have simply run faster. I think when it comes to mountain running he is two brackets above me but the Glen Coe course suited me so much it meant I could at least keep up for a while. Unlike beating other athletes, with Kilian it is a battle of mind and body. You would have to push the physical racing to phenomenal limits but also believe it is possible, slaying a legend would take a special day of racing.
Even with second place I had the feeling that I had won. It was job done. Second here when coupled with my first place in Tromsø had earned me the title of the Extreme Skyrunning World Series winner again.
I have also now completed my fifth and final race required for a true position in the overall skyrunning classification. I now sit in a strong first position with just two races left for other athletes to score points. If I win this too I will be truly amazed how far I have come with 3 years of skyrunning experience.
Winning a skyrace let alone a World Series was something I never thought would be possible, now I have won two world series in a row and have the possibility of the overall title too. Hardly believable. When I started running I used to sit at my desk in London thinking ‘I am on a journey’ I reckon I still am but I am continually amazed at where this journey is taking me.
With skyracing finished for the year my attention now turns to obstacle racing. Three weeks of intense racing will now commence seeing me in the USA for the Spartan World championships, Sweden for the Toughest final and Canada for the OCR World Championships. I must also now decide whether I will once again travel to Las Vegas for 24 hours of Worlds Toughest Mudder in November, before finally ending my season. No matter how these races go this has been some year so far!
Trainers – VJ Sport Irock 2
Clothes – GORE FUSION SPLIT SHORTS, GORE ONE GORE-TEX® ACTIVE RUN JACKET, DEVOLD BREEZE MARINO WOOL LONG SLEEVE TOP
Pack – SCOTT TRAIL RC TR’ 4 PACK
Nutrition – 1 x Clif gel, 1 x Clif Shot Blocks 4 x High5 gels, 3 x SIS gels, 1 caffeine bullet, 500ml tail wind sports drink, water
Watch – Garmin Fenix 3