After I had posted on my blog last night, I met a group of 6 friends, all 26 years old, travelling through Scotland from Greece. Some were just students, while others actually lived in London. We stayed up 'till rather late, discussing politics, science, history, etc., and drinking Irn Bru mixed with vodka. Irn Bru (not a typo) is Scotland's national soft drink, and anyone who has had the misfortune of tasting it before will not be surprised to read that the vodka legitimately improved the taste.
The next morning I arose early to get ready for a two-hour drive to Strathyre - the site of my next crazy idea: racing in the Stuc a' Chroin 5000 fell run. Fell running is essentially a cross-country race that involves scrambling up an insanely steep mountain, and then turning around and falling down the way from when you just came, or if the back side is steeper, you fall down that. Basically, the steeper the descent, the better the race. I'm not sure, but I assume that is how the "fell" in fell running came to be. (Note: fell came from the Old Norse word "fjall", which means mountain.)
(The Ben Sheann hotel in Strathyre. This was not where I stayed, or where the race started. In fact it had nothing to do with the race at all. I did like how it looked though.)
After trotting up Ben Nevis without too much difficulty, and having completed quite quickly no less than five half-marathons, four of them up and down large mountains, I would say that I am in pretty good condition. Then it is not without noteworthiness that I say Scottish fell running is the hardest, most dangerous thing I have ever done. I have climbed mountains, swam with sharks, and numerous other activities that have no doubt turned a few hairs on my mother's head grey. However, fell running is the only activity in which I have ever competed that I would say a waiver form is absolutely necessary to sign before doing; the chances of death and/or injury not only possible, but likely.
The race starts in the town, and precedes up a hill with a gradual climb for 2.9 miles (roughly 5 km) via a walking/biking path. The course then changes to a steep single track path through a forest, before coming out into a clearing. From here I slogged my way through what seemed like miles of grossly uneven field on the side of a hill, interspersed with the occasional mud bog just for a change of pace.
My spirit began to lighten at this point as I approached the top of the hill, and I thought I was finished with the climbing portion of he race. As I stopped to take in some water, I looked out over the valley on the other side of the hill, and up the nearly sheer face of an absolutely massive mountain on the other side. "We don't have to go up that, do we?" I asked the water station attendant in jest. "Oh, yes," was her reply, "and then up along the ridge over there." I wasn't sure to which of the six peaks she had pointed though, since the mountain ridge seemed to stretch on forever.
Up until now the going had been tough, but not all together unreasonable, however at this point I started to realize why everyone else had brought shoes with cleats. Every other mountain race in which I have competed has descended on a packed road meant for logging or some other form of driving. Because of this fact, the path had always been steep but not unreasonably so. In fell running though, the course does not rely on roads. The route is determined simply by choosing the shortest path to the next steep hill; usually straight down!
I watched the other competitors literally jump down the hill, digging their cleats into the grassy hill side, and then jumping down yet further. However, with my running trainers on, I simply could not copy this method. For each step I took, I had to lower myself as slowly as possible onto some tuft of heather that stuck out from the hill side, and then catch all of my weight on that foot, before gingerly dropping down some few feet, to the next "landing zone." This was a slow method, and worse yet, it inflicted my poor knees with untold amounts of jarring force on each step. Also, my feet, already soaked from the mud bogs, would slide around in my shoes on each drop, and then slam into the edges of my shoes, putting great strain on the stabilizing muscles of my lower legs.
Eventually I reached the valley at the bottom of the hill, and was immediately faced with the most grueling climb I have ever encountered. At points along the climb, the grade become so severe that I (and everyone else) had to lean forward and use the heather to hold ourselves to the hill, lest we should stand up and topple backwards all the way down. A couple of times I did lose my balance, but thankfully the climber behind me pushed me back upright with his free hand and I didn't die. After at least half an hour of this quad killing "fun," we were mercifully allowed to scramble up and along a cliff face that would have meant broken bones at best, if anyone should have fallen.
At the top of the mountain, I was no longer shielded from the wind, and now had to ascend and descend over six peaks, on a course that was again obviously not chosen because it was safe (although it may have been the safest route). There were countless times when I had slipped going down a section of hill, only to be saved from a most painful, and embarrassing impaling on the sharp rocks below by the grace of God alone.
Eventually, after two and a half hours of nerve wrecking torture, I reached the half way point of the course, and turned back to do everything all over again. Thankfully, we were not forced to descend straight down this mountain, as I am certain that would have meant death or serious injury for at least a quarter of the competitors. Instead, we attempted to slice our way "around" the mountain, by using a six-inch wide foot path that was flat and even in no places ever.
While I watched the other competitors bound run along this path with no difficulties, my aforementioned footwear woes returned, and because my ankle/lower leg muscles were now excessively fatigued I could manage no more than a walk, lest my ankles should give out and I fall down... and down, and down....
At the bottom of the valley, we then had to climb back up the original hill I described painfully descending before. At the top I should have been happy, but even though this descent was less steep, and should not have caused me any problems, the terrain was uneven everywhere again, and because the course wrapped along the outside of the hill, it meant my ankle/lower leg muscles were again pushed beyond the point of total exhaustion, and a frustrating, undignified battle ensued between me and the mountain. With each walking stride I took, either the blisters on my feet screamed at me, or on every third step, my ankle would give out and I would invariably fall over in the mud. A couple of times I was lucky enough to fall over into a barbed wire fence.
When I finally reached the last water station (still 2.9 miles from the finish), I looked back and saw a man in his seventies coming out of the trees behind me. I may have been passed by a half dozen women in their forties and fifties, and at least a dozen men in their fifties and sixties over the course this race up to this point, but there was no way I was going to let a man in his seventies pass me, even if it meant I had to roll down the hill like a log or walk on my hands to prevent him from doing so.
And so, for the next five kilometres, the most ridiculous "contest" ensued, between a seventy-something man minding his own business, trotting along at the same pace at which he had started the race, and a twenty six year-old boy hobbling along in severe pain, trying to maintain his dignity in an completely undignified manner.
I did eventually win this contest for "not last," and actually came across the line, with a time of four hours and five minutes, and in front of at least six other runners. In fact, if one counts the eight or so athletes who were not able to finish the race (a surprisingly low number in my opinion), I did not do too poorly, and my name was at least a safe five inches away from the bottom of the results list. I did at least win a prize for being the runner who had travelled the furthest to attend the race. However, I wasn't certain until the end if I would win this prize, since some of the other runners played a trick on me and told me that someone had come all the way from New Zealand.
Along this "pretty difficult course", as I had heard it described by one of the race organizers, I encountered a couple of runners who muttered aloud to themselves, "never again!" At the time I was in agreement, but as the race organizers explained to me afterwards, "they always say that, and then they always come back the next year." And so, even though I was left battered and broken by the craziest race ever invented (I'm sure there are worse, but I haven't tried them yet), I am even now mentally modifiying my training plans, in the event that I should someday return to Scotland to risk life and limb again.
At this point I would like to make special mention of all the 45 some-odd volunteers who stood on top of the freezing cold mountain offering encouragement, water, and Jelly Babies, for five and a half hours until the race was over.
(My muddied leg after the race, and my shoe that used to be white.)