And that’s nothing to do with the first Old Firm game of the season with Gerrard in charge or reference to Sir Billy Connolly either. No, no, last Saturday was the stage for the final race of the 2018 British Fell Running Championships.
The location, Fort William, the race, the most famous of them all, Ben Nevis. The jewel in the crown, the pièce de résistance, the winning lottery ticket. Some might argue that you would have more chance of hitting the illustrious jackpot than gaining an entry for this prestigious annual showstopper. The race itself, a brutal 9 mile, 4,411 ft ascent and descent to the top of the UK’s highest peak and back, is probably an easier task, in comparison. Let’s leave it at that.
All the big dogs, well with the exception of Tom Owens and Jethro Lennox, had made the journey to the Highlands. Oh and maybe Killan Jornet, albeit he’d have had no chance getting in not having a UK club vest. The Ben, which needs no more introduction than that, always draws the best runners but with this year’s race being a British championship counter and the first since the 1980’s, the calibre on show was second to none.
Unlike the past few years, the weather on the morning of the race was miserable, the drive up through Glen Coe with the rain lashing down on the car certainly wasn’t lifting anyone’s mood or spirits. Luckily enough we didn’t have to camp out overnight.
No bookie in the country would take bets against local mountain goat, Finlay Wild, who was chasing a 9th title, being turned over for the win. But there was certainly no lack of talent on show willing to take him on. Despite the strict entry limit of 600, only 488 hardy souls pitched up on the day.
After being marched into the holding pen at the start by the local pipe band, you are then required to red card yourself (a bit unusual on a sporting pitch) to allow you to race. Fell running legend and sporting retail specialist to the fell running community, Pete Bland had been given the honour of firing the starting pistol.
The sprint round the playing field probably had a few people trampled on; it’s amazing how hard people want to run in the first 200m of the Ben race! Off up the road and the field began to string out. With a mile done, you are then onto the main tourist path up the mountain. Which means you have the added challenge of dodging walkers, straying dogs and walking poles, not to mention the hundreds of runners. The newly stepped path was slick following the morning downpour which was ok on the way up, a health hazard on the way down with tired legs. Once above the red burn, the half way point, it’s hands and knees stuff up a never ending steep bank before taking on loose rocks and scree on the higher sections. Again a delight to descend on, well for those who have a penchant for Russian roulette! The wet and, in places, treacherous underfoot conditions, low hanging clag and ascending runners made for some hare raising moments coming down. The mile back along the road and lap of honour round the playing field was a shock to many, probably enough to make a few weep. It’s all part of the fun, right.
As expected, Finlay had a significant lead at the summit and didn’t lose any ground coming down on probably the best line off the mountain to win in a spectacular time of 1:27:35. This was the fastest time recorded since 1992 (2 minutes outside the 1984 record held by Kenny Stuart) and a PB for Finlay. There is no stopping this man on the Ben.
2nd home was Sam Tosh of Rossendale Harriers, which was enough to secure him the title of 2018 British champion. Our rising superstar from Shettleston Harriers, Ross Gollan was 3rd coming off the summit (he was when he passed me anyway) but was caught by a random fast Frenchman, Brice Delsoullier of Pudsey and Bramley who only appears to turn up for the Ben (finishing 3rd) and 8 time English champion, Simon Bailey of Mercia. That said, Ross finished 5thoverall in his first Ben in a time of 1:34:14 which was a formidable performance, 4th fastest ever run at the Ben by a Shettleston Harrier behind Tom Owens, Dermot McGonigle and Malcolm Patterson (albeit the old legends weren’t in the club colours)! He had a who’s who of former race winners and decorated British champions in his back pocket – Jebb, Holmes, Findlay-Robinson and Bell et al. Ross’s run landed him the MU23 British championship title and also a high ranking place overall in the senior men’s tables (TBC).
Ross on the descent, courtesy of Holmfirth Harriers. Congratulations to Ross on a truly great season and doing the club proud.
We also had further top representation from the club with Robert Simpson finishing 17th in a sterling time of 1:39:22. Robert would also have finished strongly in the championship if not for some controversy in the English counter race.
Next home was Kenny Richmond, 39th (7th MV40) who helped Ross and Robert to secure 4thteam overall. Good to see Matt Sullivan back in the fold 68th keeping John Connaghan at bay who also ran a strong race in 69th, followed by myself (98th). Doing a back of the fag packet calculation, it looks like Kenny, John and myself had done enough in the championships to secure 2ndMV40 team behind Calder Valley TBC. Rob Jebb was 1st MV40 (securing the British title) followed home by Karl Gray of Calder Valley and Al Anthony of Ochil – both having great seasons and securing 2ndand 3rd places respectively in the championships.
We also had Ben virgins, Steve Winter 134th just a meagre 8 seconds outside the famous 2 hour window, Ross Cruickshanks 180th having a great run in his first go and Walter Henderson, super MV50 206th – Walter using the race as a warm up for the Ben Bevis ultra in a few weeks!
In the ladies race, there was also some headline news with Victoria Wilkinson of Bingley Harriers making a rare trip north. Also a first run at the Ben, Vic was coming into the race in top form and her run was strong enough to trounce some of the male talent delivering a new course record in a time of 1:43:01. An outstanding run to topple Pauline Haworth’s record of 1:43:25 set in 1984!
Next home was Jasmin Paris of Carnethy, also having a formidable season, landing her the British championship crown on the way. Hugely deserved for a true ambassador to the hill running scene in the UK. Third home in the ladies was Kelli Roberts of Helm Hill Runners.
Despite all of its bizarre traditions, the organisation for the race is second to none and ensured a great time was had by all. The prize giving (I hear) is legendary.
It was touching to be reminded, twice, in the field after the race by the late, great, Kathleen Connochie, the first lady to complete the race back in 1955, to make sure and get to the tent for some tea and buns. Obviously, the refuelling choice of champions!
Race results can be found here: Ben Nevis results
Photos courtesy of Holmforth Harriers and SportPicturesCymru can be found here and here:
For those who fancy trying their luck at the 2019 Ben, here is a short video from the 1951 race. Fortunately it’s now started by a pistol rather than a shotgun …
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