HILL RUNNING: EVENTS, ACHIEVEMENTS AND EXPERIENCES
(A RANDOM COLLECTION, INTENDED TO PROVIDE A FLAVOUR OF THIS CHALLENGING SPORT)
INDEX TO THE HILLS
Legend has it that King Malcolm III of Scotland, in the 11th century, summoned contestants to a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich (overlooking Braemar). Several Highland Games (e.g. Ballater and Braemar) hosted hill races. Nowadays the Scottish Hill Runners online calendar includes over a hundred challenging annual events.
At the beginning of September is the Ben Nevis Race. Britain’s highest mountain tempted athletes to run up and down it from the late 19th Century. William Swan was the first to break 3 hours in 1895. The first race (ascent only) was in 1903; and shortly afterwards Ewen MacKenzie won the first run (in a record 2 hours 10 minutes) from Fort William and back, via the summit. Races took place intermittently until 1951, when the modern era began. The Ben Nevis Race website has all the results right up to 2017. Lots of SVHC members tried it at least once. (The writer, aged 21, a couple of months after completing his first 26 miler, ran the Ben Race in 1969, hated the dangerous downhill and for the next 30 years stuck to safer marathon running!)
Famous Scottish Ben Nevis racers include: Jock Petrie, Duncan MacIntyre, Brian Kearney, Eddie Campbell, Jimmy Conn, Pat Moy, Allan MacRae, Bobby Shields, Brian Finlayson, Colin Donnelly, Mark Rigby, David Rodgers and Graeme Bartlett.
One pioneer Scottish Female runner stands out: Ros Coats from Renfrewshire. She was a mountaineer and a British International Orienteer. In 1978, she won the Ben Nevis Race and five other events. In 1979, Ben Nevis and eight more events – and consequently Ros became the inaugural Women’s Fell Runner of the Year. In 1980, she added seven more victories. In 1981, Ros regained the Fell Runner of the Year title, having won the Ben Race and an amazing fourteen other events!
PLEASE NOTE: The Ben Nevis Race website features full past results since 1951!
Other early Scottish Hill Races (for amateur athletes) had their origins as follows: Goatfell (on the Isle of Arran) from 1953-1961, and then from 1974; Cairngorm Hill Race from 1957-1962 and then from 1971; North Berwick Law Hill Race from 1958; Knockfarrel from 1960; Creag Dubh from 1964. Mamore Hill Race, Achmony and Eildon all began in the early 1960s. The Bens of Jura course was raced between 1973 and 1975, then revived from 1983.
Below is an article from “Athletics Weekly”, 26th February 1972.
Jimmy Jardine (Penicuik AC and later Lochaber AC) was a prominent Scottish hill racer in the mid-1970s. In August 1974 he won the ‘Doon the Ben’ Race in a time of 23 minutes 30 seconds. Bobby Shields finished second and Eddie Campbell third. Jimmy also wrote many reports and poems about Scottish Hill Running. From that marvellous book compiled by Jimmy: “Up the Ben wi’ Eddie”, here is a humorous, dramatic example, inspired by two friends’ vision – of apparitions in Victorian dress – at the top of misty Ben Nevis. (It is followed by another poem (this time by Richard Gorman) describing the arduous ‘joys’ of experiencing the Ben Race!”
It was raining in Fort William. Figures hurried along the High Street past the hotel. Inside, in his usual corner, with slumped shoulders, sat the once-proud victor of a long-forgotten race. The centenary hype of one hundred years of Ben Nevis running was passing him by until, later that night, it was all to change ….
Part One: The Challenge
Downstairs in the Grand, with a pint in his hand,
An Englishman looked over, choking,
“What, him in the shirt – that little squirt?
You’ve really got to be joking.”
He pushed through the crowd and shouted out loud,
“Last of the great record men!
I’ll bet you, old sonny, any amount of money,
I could beat you down The Ben.
I’ve won the Nevis Race at a new record pace.
No one can run like I do.
I’ve won every event from here down to Kent,
Now I want your record too.”
Staring into my drink, I started to think,
“Why couldn’t I answer the clown?
If I swallowed my fear like I swallowed my beer:”
But no, I could only look down.
“Can’t run, can’t jive – now can’t even drive….”
I heard him continue to jeer.
“I’m not surprised he was breathalysed –
He can’t even hold his beer.
Looks as old as the hills and rattles with pills,
With a face like an old worn-out shoe.
Imagine him on a date! If he found a mate,
I doubt if he’d know what to do.”
A different voice spoke – a local-sounding bloke,
“Ah now, I think there was something.
For I’ve heard that he keeps a wee box where he sleeps,
And in it, some say, is a ring.”
“A RING!” he stlll raged, “So our friend was engaged.
What on earth to d’you suppose?
What sort of old cow would wear his ring now,
Unless perhaps going through her nose!”
The table and chair went up in the air,
As I leapt up and glared in his face.
“Tomorrow at ten, at the top of The Ben,
I’ll give you your downhill race.”
Part Two – The Race
He was drawing away at a terrible speed,
Nothing I could do would shorten his lead.
His shape became vaguer, then faded from view.
His steps became softer, then disappeared too.
Off the summit plateau, the wind lost its force,
My feet soon thawed out on their zigzagging course.
My hands and my body began to get warm,
And on the smooth scree banks, I clicked into form.
Familiar Squat Cairns would loom up like friends,
Their yellow dye markings would show me the bends.
Part Three – The Decision
John MacInnes, the Inspector, always finishes a lecture,
With something that I was to learn:
At this time of year, huge holes will appear,
Just under the snow on Red Burn.
If a man were to slip, he could rip off his hip,
But that man was now so far below,
To have any chance at all, I must risk the fall.
So I swung off the track – to the snow.
Part Four – The Vision
Sound and horizon now all seemed to go,
As I hurtled down over that thin crust of snow.
Twenty to thirty miles an hour I’d be reaching,
Trying to shut out any thoughts of a breaching.
“JIMMY!” Like a needle a voice pierced my brain;
I slowed down and stopped when I heard it again.
A blue-shimmering form was waving to me,
But against the bright white-out, I just couldn’t see.
The vision now faded, but I knew who she was,
And when I looked down, I soon saw the cause –
A jagged hole had opened to the Red Burn below,
And her warning had saved me from death in the snow!
Back to full speed, I was soon at halfway,
And out from the clouds to a beautiful day.
Look away down Loch Eil to the Cuillins of Skye,
But it wasn’t the view that was catching my eye …
It was the sight of the Englishman at “Broken Bridge” –
He was walking! He was walking down the ridge.
I passed him at the deer fence, but he didn’t see me –
He flaked out on the road when he reached Achintee.
Part Five – The Finish
With each step my hate had begun to abate,
Even with Fort William in view.
Inside I’d a glow, and just seemed to know
That she’d have forgiven him too.
I swung round again and went up The Ben,
Helping him up to his feet.
Back down at the Grand, he lifted his hand,
Toasting the result – a dead heat.
The Last Laugh
By Richard Gorman of Westerlands CCC
(The author ran his 21st Ben Nevis race in 1997 and therefore earned a treasured Connochie Plaque.)
They come to Fort William to run up the Ben,
Those wild mountain women and mad mountain men.
Bum bag to the rear and best Walsh to the fore,
To do it just once and THEN NEVER NO MORE!
Carry full body cover in hail, rain or shine
And if you don’t have it you don’t cross the line.
Then once round the park at a suicide pace –
Till the dips in the road take the smile off your face.
Past Achintee and up over the stile,
All the bellows are working hard in single file.
Scramble up between levels of path where you must –
By the wee metal bridge, all the bellows are bust.
The clouds have all parted, it’s sunny and clear;
Was T-shirt and Lifa a clever idea?
Forget about running – you’re starting to toil;
If it gets any hotter, you’ll feel your blood boil.
Plod on round the shoulder, the burn just below;
Should someone get past you then just let him go.
And enjoy a smug smile knowing that he
Will be totally knackered when he hits the scree.
The dyke, wade the burn, the mud field’s a slog;
The climb by the lochan’s a vertical bog
That drags on your Walshes and doubles their weight –
But they’ll soon be washed clean, by the Red Burn in spate.
Slip and slide up the gravel without any grip
And you’ve scarcely enough of your sweat left to drip;
With your hands on your knees and your tongue at your feet,
Do you put your cagoule on – or suffer the sleet?
Three thousand feet gone and a thousand to go –
But the boulders and stones look much nicer in snow;
And now when you no longer could outrun a snail,
You can not get a breath in that damned force ten gale.
The summit at last! As the hail starts to sting
You nearly strangle yourself with that wee bit of string
That the marshal requires before he can say
You did make it up there – on at least the right day.
And now the climb’s over, descending’s a breeze –
If you can only ignore the gross pain in your knees,
If your stitch goes away and your ankles don’t twist
When the blind man you followed gets lost in the mist.
Made it clear of the scree – and you still have some skin;
There’s a drunk up ahead and you’re pulling him in;
But you quickly discover just why his brain’s numb,
As you slide down THE GREEN WALL and lose half your bum.
The mud chute, THE RED BURN, a short climb and you’re out.
“HERE COMES A RUNNER!” the spectators shout.
So you step to the side to let him come through –
Then hide your surprise when you find they mean you.
The shoulder, the steel bridge, the track to the stile;
You’re flying by now heading for the last mile.
Till you hit the road with an agonized groan,
To discover your legs have ideas of their own.
With your right twitching left, and your left folding right,
You’ll be doing well if you finish tonight;
And the mob that you beat on the hill to get clear
Have all gone charging past like they’re smelling free beer.
But just dig deep once more, then into the park,
Sprint round and you’ll finish before it gets dark,
Fall over the line as your legs start to buckle –
And listen real hard: can’t you near EDDIE chuckle ….?
(Richard Gorman’s son Manny wrote in 2020: “I was gutted the Ben Race got cancelled this year, but given what was happening with Covid, not surprising. Not to be outdone, along with a few friends, we went and did the route on the day, always the first Saturday in September, and met many others doing the same thing! The number of walkers on the hill that day was shocking – I’ve never seen anything like it, and it surely would have caused serious problems if the race had gone ahead.”)
Brian McAusland wrote: “When I lived in Killearn, DUMGOYNE was part of a favourite walk and the race was always a good event to watch! The hill is only 1402 feet high but the position on the edge of the Campsies makes it look a bit higher.”
The following account of the race is by Manuel ‘Manny’ Gorman, Richard’s son. Manny is also a member of Westerlands Cross Country Club – which organises many hill and off-road fixtures. He is an extremely experienced hill runner and nominates the following events as his choice of Six Classic Scottish Hill Races: Two Breweries Race, Isle of Jura Fell Race, Glamaig Hill Race, Carnethy 5 Hill Race, Ben Nevis Race and Arrochar Alps Hill Race (plus Dumgoyne while it still existed).
He adds: “The waters are muddied by personal taste and experiences, and even Highland Games races such as my own local Newtonmore Games, hosting the famous Creag Dhubh Hill Race is an absolute belter – so much so it has been a Scottish Championships race multiple times, and last year for the first time (and hopefully the last!) a British Championships Counter!!
It’s hard to argue that the likes of Chapelgill Hill Race, Scottish Island Peaks Race and Ben Lomond Hill Race are not also top-notch classics.”
“DUMGOYNE HILL RACE – Record up & down 22 minutes and 8 seconds, Jack Maitland, 1988
If you like your running fast, technical and brutal, then this was the one. The slavering, colourful melee up and down this famous prominent 1,400ft volcanic plug at the south end of the Campsie Hills was held in trust by the best small-to-medium sized running club in the west-end of Glasgow, the mighty Westerlands CCC. Sadly, the event only lasted ten years before the landowner withdrew permission. However, in that short time the race carved out a notch in the hard history of Scottish hill running, never to be forgotten and to be remembered by those who ran it with reverence, and a cold sweat trickling down the back of the neck.
A shotgun start at the bottom of the narrow farm track would send off an apprehensive pack immediately into a stupid-fast uphill lunge, and within 200m muscles and lungs would be suffering from painful oxygen debt. The track winds its way up through a beautiful broadleaf wood before the runners would burst into the open field and cross the Water Board track which serves the Loch Katrine pipeline. The pack would have already splintered well apart as the hopefuls and the chancers separated into reality.
As a variation on a theme, the tenth and final running of the race was given distinction as a British counter in the Fell Runners Championship and, with such a huge field of runners, there was necessity to add an additional small loop in order to allow the pack to split up more substantially before getting onto the hill proper. This entailed the break-out from the woods first being directed back down the grassy field to the bottom, before turning to regain all the precious lost height!
The destination was the same. The runners would find themselves climbing, leaping or falling over the twin fences at the slippy wee burn crossing, then turning to face a virtual cliff of grass and rock. With lungs already burning, any further hope of a running ascent could be abandoned by all but the best of the elite as the gradient steepened. Head down, hands pushing hard on knees or thighs, trying desperately to find sustainable rhythm, each step forward and up more painful than the last. Reaching the bottom of the rocky scree, a yell from above to warn of a dislodged rock bouncing downhill, and perhaps sussing out your peers, wondering if any uphill overtaking would be advantageous or simply make you blow-up completely? Conveniently you convince yourself that you will get them on the descent instead!
Now above the scree and near the top of the steepest grass, in a notch between the crags, the first leading runners come literally flying down towards you with almost total abandon for their personal safety. Arms flailing for balance, rocks kicking up, grunting, slavers flying in all directions, eyes wide but supremely focussed downwards. But not for you, not yet; still the infinite climb goes on before a series of small ledges gives hope of the end. You try to run again but only manage go at the same speed as the guy in front who’s still walking. A shout from above – the top!!
The view from the summit of this wee hill is brilliant – the Blane Valley, Loch Lomond, the Munros to the north, and of course Glasgow laid out to the south. But there is absolutely no hope of seeing it in the race as you simply stare for your next foothold or at the runner in front, looking for any weakness. Turn at the summit marshal, the pain eases, ahhh, different muscles, beautiful relief….for about 5 seconds. Suddenly the reversed route requires your complete attention. Speed is quickly up to maximum on the grassy summit ridge, trying to trim the corners and bends off the path ascent route, dodging ascending runners with their heads still down. The grassy notch above the scree at high speed is not for the faint-hearted. The up-hillers are hogging the path so you are forced out onto the tussocky stuff whilst maybe fighting off some cheeky bugger trying to pass you. Crossing the traverse path you find your quads are smoking, and knees crumbling but you’re trying desperately not to hold back with the stepped erosion luring you in and forcing you into an unnatural rhythm.
The scree arrives. With a tricky entry point it’s only a short fast run for the brave, but fast could gain you a place, or lose you several if you fall on your arse and shred it to raw bleeding beef. You take the gamble and leap into the loose stones only a single step behind the guy in front, and pass him at high speed knowing the horrendously rocky exit is approaching too fast! You re-adjust and hear the guy behind cursing his inferior descending skills and sending a shower of stones rattling painfully around your ankles! You leap out of the rocks and stride off again on the grass, but now, nearly back at the twin fences, you start to think about holding your place and perhaps reeling in another victim? Avoiding any high-speed slithers in the final boggy grass, the fences and burn are crossed and everything you have left, which isn’t much, is thrown into blasting back across the field and plunging back into the dense woods. Here local knowledge applies. To know the corner-cuts through the trees is to know you will gain places over anyone new to the race. Recklessly descending with branches whipping your faces and eyes peering for a million deadly tree roots you survive, unsure if you have gained anything, certainly not composure. The final section of track is meant to be fast, but you’re hurting all over and yet you know what is still come – the sting.
At the final corner a marshal suddenly points you off the track and headlong towards a fence…instant decision – stop and climb or hope you have momentum enough to hurdle it??! There’s heavy breathing close behind, hurdle it – aaaargh! Woosh, amazingly you’re safely over and into a wall of trees and bushes when suddenly you plummet downwards, feet gripping nothing on an impossibly steep banking, far too fast to be safe, “MIND THE WALL!” a voice cries…Christ! A three-foot drop instantly exits you from the bushes and into the grounds of heaven, the Glengoyne Distillery!! A loud crashing noise from the jungle behind warns you, don’t stop, a fifty-yard sprint along the footpath to the line and then you can collapse in a heap of pain, snot and slavers on the grassy verge, and it’s all over!
With bodies fast piling up at the finish line like a scene from Armageddon, a wonderful hallucinogenic aroma wafts across your salt-encrusted dripping face. You recover enough to stand again and instinctively follow the smell to the barbecue stand where free burgers and 12 year old Glengoyne malt whisky are handed to you, although you need to wait for your adrenaline to calm down before you can safely consume it. Runners are still gasping across the line and you are now on your third dram. The noise of races being relived, the sun beating down, the stream supplying the distillery gurgling past, the smells, the craic.
Although the hill is still well used by runners for short training trots, or perhaps going further afield to Earls Seat or Slackdhu, nothing can ever come close to the unique experience that was the Dumgoyne Hill Race.”
Hill races come at all distances to suit all abilities and interests. Dumgoyne was one of the shorter. Carnethy is one that has been a favourite for some time, Stuc a Chroin at Strathyre is a hard race going up over the ridge, down into Glen Ample and up Stuc via Ben Each. while the Arrochar Alps is a real test – Ben Vorlich. Ben Narnain, Ben Ime are all in the one race. Another tough race is the Lairig Ghru . Bobby Shields once told me that they run it the hard way – it’s uphill all the way from Braemar to Coylumbridge. That’s assuming that there’s an easy way to run the Lairig! Then there is the hill race with tar and cobbles through the centre of Edinburgh – the Seven Hills of Edinburgh has been in existence for longer than the London Marathon. Click on the name for an account of the race.
Carnethy, 1985, photo by Graham MacIndoe
Graham’s full Carnethy Gallery can be seen at http://www.anentscottishrunning.com/grahams-carnethy-gallery/ It has pictures of Kenny Stuart, Robin Morris and Willie Russell among others.
The joys of hill running as shown by an experienced hill man. There is a story about a runner in South Africa waking up in his tent and hearing a voice outside saying to his companion, “Would you just look at that hill!” He immediately knew that the chap was a Scotsman: to a Scot every mountain is a hill. The hill was one of the Drakensbergs which range from 6,562 feet to 11, 424 feet. The Scots love hill running, with the highest mountain in the British Isles, Ben Nevis, located just outside Fort William
Follow the link above!