Ring of Steall Skyrace 2019
Flower of Scotland. It’s unlikely I’ll ever hear it again without emotion welling up inside. It’s Saturday and we’re strung out along the northern slope of Stob Coire a’ Chàirn. Only moments before I’d lost my footing on what should be an easy scramble around An Garbhanach. For a second I’m suspended between this life and the next, or at least it felt that way. I stare down at a 1500ft drop and my tired and cramping legs grapple to find their hold.
A minute later and I’m back to normal but my nerves have frayed. That felt too close. It’s then, starting to attack the summit climb, that the silent concentration of runners meets with the stirring sound of the pipes. We push on, intensely focussed on the next step. Power hiking up, grabbing onto rocks to support or propel.
As I summit I thrust a fist into the air and yell my appreciation to the piper, stopping for a moment to applaud. That climb nearly killed me. Literally. But I sure did enjoy the music.
Running the Devil’s Ridge into the wind
By this point I was almost five hours in to the Ring of Steall Skyrace. It’s the final race in the Salomon Golden Trail World Series and it’s got a reputation as the most technical. The name alone causes a sharp intake of breath and that’s before you stand at the start and look up at the Mamores towering above.
This was the big one for me. The one race I planned my season around. I pushed hard at the Chevy knowing I needed hills in my legs. My first fear on injuring my ankle was that I would miss this race. And every faltering length in the pool when I couldn’t run was with this moment in mind.
It didn’t disappoint. You start off with an unrelenting climb, gaining a thousand metres of elevation as you push up Sgurr an Iubhair. From there you’re launched along the Devil’s Ridge. I scan the skyline, drinking in the beauty of it all, fix my eyes on the next few metres of ground, and off we go. It looks pretty scary on video but during the race I was so focussed on those next footsteps I didn’t notice the drop.
The ridge takes you to Sgurr a’Mhaim, the first Munro of the race. It’s 1099 metres high and the views would be incredible if you stopped to look. Instead it’s straight down the scree slope, half running and half surfing the dislodged stones.
Crossing the river by Steall falls
With the scree negotiated and a couple of kilometres of more descent we hit Glen Nevis and the support station. After a pause to fuel there’s five undulating kilometres through the forest to the river crossing at the Falls of Steall. An Gearanach looms ahead and it’s a tough and steep climb. By the time we summit my legs are feeling the strain.
The traverse of An Garbhanach comes next and that’s when I had my moment of coming unstuck, followed by the emotional high of hitting the summit to the sound of the pipes.
There’s only one more ascent after that, Am Bodach, another technical rocky climb. As I summit I break into a broad smile and thrust my arms skyward. It’s all down hill from here.
More water on the West Highland way descent
The top of the descent brought with it the brief and fleeting hope of a burst of speed but it soon became obvious my legs had gone. I make my way as quickly as possible over rocks and through bogs up to my shins. It’s a testament to the S-Lab Speed shoes that they cope with everything the mountain throws at them.
With time ticking on I hit the road to Kinlochleven. I’d expected some kind of late surge but it’s all I can do to limp onwards. A runner overtakes and tells me I can still do this. Sometimes that’s all you need. I pick up into a jog and approach the bridge. Hearing the crowd cheer and the sound of cowbells I start to run again.
As I round the final corner the finish line clock turns 6:29:52. Not today. Hell, no. From somewhere deep inside I summon a sprint, spurred on by the crowd. I make it and moments later I’m bent double next to a barrier trying to breathe again.
Sprinting through the finish line
The Ring of Steall surprised me, it was more brutal than expected. It’s a phenomenal physical challenge and the nature of the terrain is a real test. Several times I spoke to international runners who were stunned at the fact our mountains don’t have paths or tracks over the top of them.
All in all, I’m pleased with my performance, but there’s unfinished business there for a future date. Skyline Scotland, I will be back.
Many thanks to No Limits Photography for the race photos