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Kopac's Corner

For Sport Alone: The Ben Nevis Race

by Bob Kopac

"The challenge of Ben Nevis is forever there for all to see." Eddie Campbell

So there we were, perched on a ledge on the side of a mountain in the pouring Scottish rain, asking ourselves, we call this a vacation??? Indeed, Lynne and I were on a three-week vacation when we arrived in Fort William, Scotland, and learned that the Ben Nevis Race was scheduled for the upcoming Saturday.

The first question is not who is Ben Nevis, but what is Ben Nevis, for Ben is Gaelic for mountain, and Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in Great Britain. You may have seen Ben Nevis already without realizing it, for Ben Nevis and the surrounding area can be seen in the first hour of the movie Braveheart. The rugged mountain behind Mel Gibson is the object of a yearly supreme athletic challenge, or athletic madness, based on one's perspective. Having the chance to observe the Ben Nevis Race on the first Saturday of September was a tempting opportunity, but one that would wreak havoc on our vacation schedule.

After debating for two hours, Lynne and I decided to rearrange our vacation schedule so we could attend the race. We called several bed-and-breakfasts, finally landing a place to stay. When we mentioned to our hostess Nicole Cameron that we were in town to observe the race, she made a phone call, handed the phone to me, and told me to say hello to George MacFarlane, the race secretary. I introduced myself to George, who suggested we meet at a pub in town the following day.

For a race secretary the day before a major race, George appeared to be very relaxed. He talked with us for an hour about the race, and we later met him at his house to examine the many race trophies that would be awarded the next day. The race in 1997 had added sentimentality, for it was being run as the Eddie Campbell Memorial Ben Nevis Race to honor running legend Eddie Campbell who died in 1996. Eddie Campbell was a three-time winner of the Ben Nevis Race and had run the Ben Nevis Race an incredible 44 consecutive times.

Although I was somewhat hesitant about raising a difficult issue, George immediately brought up the topic that had been reported in the previous day's newspapers. The race was embroiled in an unexpected controversy, for the race happened to be scheduled the same day as Princess Diana's funeral. Because of the upcoming funeral, the annual Braemar Highland Games had been canceled, and several national soccer games scheduled for that Saturday had been postponed. There was pressure to cancel the Ben Nevis Race.

The race committee met in emergency session and after a debate voted 8-1 to run the race as scheduled. The reasoning was that the runners had trained hard the entire year, it was a local race, and the race started at 2 PM after the completion of the funeral. Many stores and sites would remain closed until 2 PM that day, and starting the race at 2 PM was in line with the rest of Great Britain's observed hours of sympathy. However, the committee voted to cancel all ancillary events, such as shinty games, highland dancing, and bagpipe playing. Each runner would wear a black memorial ribbon, and race officials would place flowers and a memorial plaque on the peace cairn at the summit of the mountain. There also would be a minute of silence before the start of the race in memory of Princess Diana and Eddie Campbell.

Even with the multiple race observances to honor the memory of Princess Diana, not everyone was satisfied. The race chairperson, who cast the lone dissenting vote, sent a two-page fax to the local media decrying the decision to hold the race. In spite of the ensuing brouhaha in the newspapers, the race committee stayed with its original decision to hold the race as scheduled. Part of the reason was the tradition of the race itself.

In 1883 a weather observatory was built at the summit of Ben Nevis, leading to an increased interest in the Ben and a corresponding increase in the number of hikers eager to climb the mountain. In 1894 the opening of the West Highland Railway enabled travelers to reach Fort William easily. It was inevitable that the goal of adventurers would be not just to climb the mountain, but to be the fastest to the summit.

The first timed ascent of Ben Nevis was in September 1895 when William Swan, a local tobacconist, ran from the old post office to the top and back in 2 hours and 41 minutes. In 1897 Colonel Spencer Acklom raced from the new post office in a time of 2 hours and 55 minutes. The annual race continued until 1904, when the weather observatory was closed. There would not be another race until 1937. Thus the tombstone of Ewen MacKenzies, the 1903 race winner, is accurate, although somewhat disingenuous, when it states "Holder of Ben Nevis Race Record From 28th September, 1903 to 17th July, 1939." His record might not have been broken had it not been for 66-year-old Mrs. Thomas Smith, who in 1936 climbed the Ben and set the women's record for the ascent. The resulting publicity from her feat helped revive interest in the men's and women's records.

At the resumption of the race in 1937, the streets were lined with spectators as three runners attempted to break the course record. George MacFarlane Sr. presented the Challenge Trophy to the winner accompanied by the cheers of the enthusiastic crowd. The popularity of this race guaranteed that the race would be held on an annual basis. The race was discontinued, however, in 1940 because of World War II. To provide a morale booster for the war-weary nation, the race was resumed from 1942 through 1944. After that, the race would not be run again until 1951, when Provost George MacFarlane Sr. organized a race committee and resurrected the race. The event has been held each year, except for one, since then.

The Ben Nevis Race course now starts at Claggan Park. The course consists of a one-mile flat road to the base of the mountain, then continues up to the summit of the mountain, then back down the mountain, then a return on the one-mile flat road to the finish line. When I asked George the distance of the race, he replied that the course covered approximately 10 miles. Why "approximately"? Because the runners can create any route they want up and down the mountain.

Although there is a footpath that traverses back and forth up the mountain, the best runners find alternative ways up and down the mountain--the shortest path between two points is often a straight line, if a runner's legs can handle the terrain. Sometimes a runner will leap or slide down sections of the mountain to cover as much distance as rapidly as possible on the descent. Often the first runner to reach the top of the mountain falters on the punishing downhill, or else finds that legs rebel on the last flat mile to the finish line. The variations of the course guarantee that the best-trained runner usually wins the race.

The Ben Nevis Race is a category "A" medium-length fell race. A medium-length race is six miles and over but under twelve miles. According to the Fell Runners Association rules, a category "A" fell race is a race that

  1. should average not less than 250 feet climb per mile,
  2. should not have more than 20% of the race distance on a road,
  3. should be at least one mile in length.

The mountain is not to be taken lightly. Although it is only 4,406 feet tall, rather small when compared to the Rocky Mountains or the Alps, the Ben Nevis can be deadly. In 1957 the race suffered its first and only fatality when runner John Rix died of hypothermia. He had lost a shoe in the Red Burn, a stream on the mountain. Because he had not stayed on the mountain footpath, the rescue parties had to search nine hours before finding him at 2 AM. Mr. Rix was still alive when discovered, but died while being carried by stretcher down the mountain.

After the tragedy, the race committee decided to discourage recreational runners who might be unprepared for the rugged conditions by implementing qualifying standards. Runners must prove they have completed three hill races. The race committee implemented time limits:

  1. runners who do not reach the halfway point on the ascent in one hour are turned back,
  2. runners who do not reach the mountain summit in two hours are turned back,
  3. runners must complete the course within 3 hours and 15 minutes.

The race committee limits the size of the race to 500 pre-registered runners, the maximum number of participants that the race support personnel can handle safely. Each competitor must carry rain gear, hat, gloves, and a whistle; otherwise, he or she is immediately disqualified. A runner requiring assistance blows the whistle to help rescuers locate him or her. The equipment is necessary because the weather on the mountain can change rapidly and drastically.

In 1980, race officials canceled the race at the last minute due to atrocious weather--high winds and no visibility. In addition, safety support personnel could not reach their positions on the course. However, several runners decided to run the mountain anyway without support. Although no runners were injured, the unauthorized run was potentially dangerous. In 1988 the weather at the start of the race was acceptable but deteriorated rapidly after the race had started. Heavy fog descended on the mountain, obscuring the runners and the path. Although there were no fatalities that day, the potential for disaster was there. The suddenness of fog on the mountain creates unique race-day worries for the race officials on keeping track of the runners on the mountain..

To help monitor the whereabouts of the runners, each runner carries a numbered disk that he or she hands to the race officials at the summit of the mountain. The runner then receives a token that he or she returns to officials at the finish line. Finish-line volunteers take the token from each runner and report to a tent, where a volunteer removes a red card representing the runner from a rack. The vigilance of the support personnel remains high until the rack contains no red cards, signaling that there are no runners left on the course. This helps the officials keep track of any missing runners and helps prevent any runner from cheating by turning around without reaching the mountain top. If any red cards remain in the rack, race personnel search the mountain. Sometimes "lost" runners show up in local pubs, having forgotten to inform race officials that they did not complete the course.

Envisioning a constant triage due to the weather conditions and the treacherous footing, I asked George how many injuries there were in a typical race. He replied that there were almost none, that a twisted ankle or similar type of injury is very rare. To handle potential medical problems, members of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team maintain positions on the side of the mountain and at the summit. The Royal Air Force (RAF) is on standby, available in case of any emergency. Members of the Territorial Army Hospital of Glasgow position themselves at the bottom of the mountain, and Red Cross personnel provide support at the finish line. Also, there is a 70-100 person race support structure. The Inverness Scottish Athletic Federation provides timekeeping.

I asked about water stations and received an unexpected response. The Ben Nevis race has unusual water stations--there is a stream half-way up the mountain that contains water pure enough for runners to drink, and there is a spring at the summit. The race officials also provide a lemon-barley water mix at the summit.

Unlike American races, where runners demand ever more expensive race packet handouts, the Ben Nevis Race packet contains the basics. For an entry fee of seven pounds (approximately 12 U.S. dollars), each entrant receives a race number, four safety pins and a meal ticket. And, at the end of the race, each finisher receives a certificate with his or her name and time. A runner completing 21 Ben Nevis races receives a commemorative metal plaque; three runners were attempting their 21st Ben Nevis race in the 1997 race. All athletes for this year's race would receive an Eddie Campbell commemorative medal honoring the race legend.

Although the race is famous throughout Great Britain, it manages to keep the feeling of a small-town race. This year's race entrants included six father/son pairs, one father/daughter pair, and four brothers. A favorite topic of townspeople's debates was the qualifications of local favorites such as John Brooks and David Rodgers and how they compared with the competition from runners from other running clubs. The best outside competition comes from running clubs from the Lake District of England because these members train on the many hills in this area of northern England.

The race is restricted to amateur runners. The winners do not receive cash prizes but receive goods bought from local merchants. For example, among the prizes for winning men runners were a rucksack and a Swiss Army knife. The first lady runner would receive an amethyst necklace. The first lady veteran runner would receive a porcelain vase.

Ben Race literature refers to a runner of the feminine gender as a lady runner instead of as a female runner. The Ben Nevis Race has progressed with the times when it comes to distaff runners. The race used to feature a Miss Ben Nevis, but that position disappeared years ago. Similar to famous American races, women were forbidden to run the Ben Nevis race for many years. In 1955 16-year-old Kathleen Connochie decided to secretly train for the race and showed up on race day prepared to run. However, the Scottish Amateur Athletic Association decreed that she not be allowed to run. To circumvent the Association's edict, the Ben Nevis Race officials decided to let Kathleen use the race facilities, and how could they stop her if she decided to start on the course two minutes behind the male runners? Her finishing time of 03:02:00 was a definitive highlight in the history of the race. However, it wasn't until 1978 that women were officially allowed to run the Ben Nevis Race. This year there were 42 women tered for the race.

As I interviewed George at his house, pre-race-day gremlins interrupted our conversation. The company providing the finish-line tents drove 80 miles to deliver the tents only to discover that it had forgotten to bring the main tent. However, since there would not be a beer tent this year because of Princess Diana's funeral, George requisitioned the beer tent as the main tent. An editor for a British running magazine called at the last minute to ask if he could run in the race, but George was firm in not bending the pre-registration rule. The Ben Nevis Whiskey distillery did call to say they would provide whiskey miniature bottles for all runners. At the end of the interview, I mentioned to George that we would be at the finish line on race day. George convinced me that was not the best place to observe the race, and that the best vantage point would be on the side of the mountain.

On race day as we watched the funeral of Princess Diana on television, I looked out the window and saw that thick fog had descended almost to sea level. This was the worst possible condition for the Ben Nevis race. I wondered if the officials would cancel the race or whether there would be safety problems during the race. However, by the end of the funeral the fog had lifted so that the mountain was visible. The rain continued to descend relentlessly, and support personnel on the mountain reported low visibility and freezing temperatures at the summit of Ben Nevis.

As we hiked for 60 minutes up the mountain in the pouring rain to our vantage point, we realized why George had recommended that we ascend the mountain. We now understood first-hand how difficult the race course would be for the runners. On our way up the Bridle Path of burnt-red granite rocks, we marveled at how anyone could walk the trail, let alone run the trail in the conditions. Often the path traversed water streams and the tops of water falls. Hikers coming down the mountain warned us that there were blustery conditions at the top of the mountain. The rain overwhelmed our protective gear as we hiked up the Ben to the first aluminum foot bridge and our soggy position.

While waiting on the mountain, we talked with passing hikers and learned that Ben Nevis is part of a unique 24-hour munro-bagging challenge. "Munro" is a term for a mountain that is over 3000 feet in elevation, and "munro-bagging" is the sport of ascending as many mountains as possible. The purpose of the 24-hour munro-bagging challenge is to run up and down the three tallest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales--all within 24 hours! The quest usually starts at the base of Ben Nevis, early in the morning. The runner runs up and down Ben Nevis, then jumps into a car and races to Scafell Pike in the Lake District of England, then races to Mount Snowden in Wales. To run all three mountains within 24 hours, the driver needs to plan carefully to avoid traffic delays and rush-hour traffic. Speed limits are necessarily broken. To borrow a quotation from a Harley Davidson T-shirt, "If you have to ask why, you don't understand."

We met two members of the mountain rescue squad who were hiking to their support position at the Red Burn. Although it was pouring rain, both volunteers were upbeat and excited about the race. One member stated that he loved the race, and he often debated over whether to work the race or run the race. He had been providing race-day coverage for the past 12 years, except for one year when he ran the race.

We met a runner on the mountain who, because of tonsillitis, was going to video-tape his running club friends who were race participants. He said that whenever he was injured, he read the book "The Ben Race" cover-to-cover for inspiration. He said he did not understand why certain people complained that there is nothing to do in Fort William, for there always is the Ben to run.

Hikers continued to ascend and descend the mountain on the narrow path. We were surprised that the trail had not been closed for the race, and we envisioned runners being impeded by the hikers on the trail. Indeed, there were several hikers on the trail around our position when we spotted the lead runner.

Although it had taken us 60 minutes to reach our vantage point on the mountain, the lead runner reached our location less than 20 minutes after the start of the race. A third of the way up the mountain, John Brooks had a large lead of several hundred yards. It seemed inconceivable to us that anyone could catch him that day. Eventually the next runner came into view, then more and more until there was a constant stream of runners on the mountain.

We were impressed by the wide range in the age of the competitors. In particular, there were several hardy ones who appeared to be in their 60's. We were positioned on a steep section of the mountain, and many runners ran hunched over, struggling up the Ben. Several developed cramps in their legs and resorted to rubbing their thighs as they ran.

As the runners went past us, they appeared different from those in American races. I suddenly realized that most of them were wearing plain singlets. There were no sports brands emblazoned across their singlets or shorts, and the runners did not wear race-logo T-shirts. The participants reminded me of the runners in the movie Chariots of Fire, competitors running for sport alone and not caught up in the marketing hype of modern American running. Some of them did wear T-shirts imprinted with the phrase "In memory of Eddie Campbell."

We waited for the last runner to proceed past our position before we started back down the mountain. Lynne and I slipped on the slick rocks several times during the descent although we were wearing rugged hiking shoes.

At one of the trail switch-backs we stopped and talked to a female marathon runner observing the race. She voiced her admiration for the runners and speculated on how different hill running would be from marathoning. She was so inspired by the runners that she decided right there that she would begin training for hill racing. After talking with her for a few minutes, we proceeded down the rest of the slippery mountain.

At the base of the mountain we got into our car and drove a mile to the finish line, found a place to park, and were surprised when we had to sprint to the finish line to see the first-place runner crossing the finish line.

We were more surprised that the first runner across the finish line was not John Brooks. The variability of the terrain of the Ben proved to be John Brook's undoing. For the second year in a row he finished second, this time 16 seconds behind the winner Gavin Bland, a 25-year-old sheep herder from the Lake District of northern England. Gavin Bland, who had won the 1992 Ben Nevis race in 01:27:02, finished with a time of 01:27:45, two minutes over the course record of 01:25:34. He told The Oban Times:

"It never gets any easier--everything moves under your feet. It was very misty and freezing on the summit so I am very pleased with my time but the record can be beaten."

The first-place lady runner was Angela Brand-Barker from the Lake District of northern England, who finished 71st overall in the race with a time of 01:56:27; her finishing time was 13 minutes over the ladies course record of 01:43:25. The second-place lady finisher was Fort William's Julie-Kaye Anderson with a time of 02:02:15. Harry Belenkinsop and Richard Gorman successfully completed their 21st Ben Nevis race. There were 369 mud-splattered finishers out of 381 total starters.

The safety support personnel came to the aid of an injured Yorkshire, England running-club member who suffered cramps and hypothermia while descending the mountain. Members of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team carried him by stretcher down the mountainside to Loch Meall an t-Suidhe, a lake on the side of the mountain. From there, an RAF helicopter airlifted the runner to a nearby hospital.

Having run and worked many foot races in America, we were impressed by the organization and quality of the race safety support structure; the attention to all details was outstanding. After hiking up part of Ben Nevis and gaining a first-hand understanding of the treacherous conditions, we also came away impressed with the athletic abilities of the participants of all ages who undertake this challenge.

The dedication of the race to Eddie Campbell lent a special poignancy to the 1997 race. The large number of participants and the multiple tributes to the memory of Princess Diana justified the race committee's difficult decision to hold the race. As for us, we will most remember the friendliness of George MacFarlane and Nicole Cameron, who helped us to understand the passion of the Scottish people for the Ben and the Ben Nevis Race.