As I was applying factor 100 sunscreen to my face in transition on the morning of Saturday 17 September, my friend turned to me and said “Just how ginger are you? It’s 6.30 am, it’s still dark, you are in the Highlands of Scotland, and you are about to get into a loch for a swim.” Ok, so it was ridiculous, but I was very nervous. I was about to embark on probably the hardest (most certainly the highest) half ironman distance triathlon in the British Isles—the Ben Nevis Braveheart Triathlon—and so applying sunscreen in the dark at stupid o’clock in the morning was just another coping mechanism.
The race takes in a 1.2 mile sea loch swim in Loch Linnhe, a 56 mile bike section along the Great Glen, and a 13.1 mile “run” up the highest mountain in Britain: Ben Nevis. I had reason to be nervous.
It was to be my first half iron distance triathlon, having only previously completed two sprint triathlons and the Half Big Ben Nevis Triathlon, at which I hadn’t exactly excelled myself four years previously—who knew competitive mountain biking was so hard?
I was, however, much more prepared than before any of those previous races, and having done various ocean swims, long bike rides, and running events of an assortment of distances over different terrains over the last however many years, I wasn’t overly concerned. Barring a mechanical malfunction on the bike (which, oddly, is the thing that was worrying me the most), I knew I could finish, it was just a matter of how long it would take me and how painful it would be.
Registration was on the Friday evening in Fort William and introduced a new and exciting element to the event, it was to be filmed for Scotland’s Adventure Show, whose host, Dougie Vipond, also drummer with Deacon Blue (showing my age here), was taking part. Basically they were collaring everybody as they registered and interviewing them (giving me flashbacks to my inaugural ocean swim in New Zealand when my pal S was the human interest element of the Sky TV coverage and we all got roped in). Please god, let this interview never see the light of day.
Registered and with all my gear in the car, only a sleepless night lay between me and my endurance triathlon destiny.
Transition at the Old Fort opened at an ungodly hour (about 5.30 am); it was very dark but the weather was good—a teensy bit chilly, but dry. Bike racking was a free for all, but the area was small enough that there were no bad spots. At about 6.45 am a solitary female piper announced it was time to shuffle down the carpet to the loch. I got chatting to a lady who said she had raised over £100,000 for children’s charities, she also dropped into the conversation that she’d done Kona the previous year (every long distance triathlete knows that’s an incredible achievement). If she was aiming for intimidation, she really didn’t need to, I was apprehensive enough already.
We would start in deep water, having acclimatised for five or ten minutes first. The organisers call themselves No Fuss and basically after a brief countdown someone shouted “Go” and we were off, covering two laps of an out-and-back course. The initial scrum wasn’t too bad, but all the same I found a space over to the right to avoid wayward or punchy swimmers.
It was a fair bit colder than Southsea, and we were allowed to wear hats, gloves and booties. I was grateful, without the gloves I doubt I would have been able to dress myself in transition post-swim, and I couldn’t feel my feet until 40 miles into the bike, so god knows what they would have been like without the booties. The water was pretty fresh (compared with the Solent) and visibility a little too good for my liking, I never want to know what’s in there with me. My pal and fellow Idiot D was also taking part and was wearing a very bright orange neoprene hat thing under his shocking pink swimming hat, but so was some bloke who was swimming next to me. Had D been doing some secret training? I was expecting him to be 10 or 15 minutes slower out of the water, this was most alarming. I’m not massively competitive, but I liked the idea of at least beating someone.
I exited the water after 39 minutes, relatively pleased with my efforts. It turned out the bloke in the orange neoprene hat wasn’t D after all, 30 minutes of worrying that I was slower than usual (or he was much better than in training) had been fairly pointless.
I wasn’t exactly speedy in transition. At the briefing they suggested that people tended to survive the event if they looked after themselves between the swim and the bike. I was happy to take heed and put some dry gear at least on my top half and my feet. This meant I had to wrestle my way out of my tri top (please note my tri kit is in three parts, so I still had the matching bra top on and wasn’t breaking any decency rules), not an easy task having spent the best part of 40 minutes in a cold Scottish loch. A photographer from The Adventure Show chose this very moment to come and take my picture, at least I hope that’s where he was from! It’s not easy trying to clench your barely existing stomach muscles whilst extracting yourself from an Orca tri top.
Onto the bike. My feet were cold and I had a strange niggling pain in my right upper thigh, not sure what was going on there. We had two miles to get safely out of Fort William before dibbing back into the timing mechanism; there were too many roundabouts and roadworks in town to risk people racing this section—safety first. I had been worried about the bike, the pictures on the race website suggest a fairly constant climb to halfway. However, some long rides around the South Downs and the Isle of Wight (surprisingly lumpy), plus 66 miles in Tenby at the Long Course Weekend on a wet and windy day meant I was actually well prepared. It was a lovely ride. It was only with 10 miles to go that I actually started to feel it; perhaps I should have given it more oomph, but I knew I had a mountain to come. We were timed back out again two miles from transition, which I entered half an hour quicker than I’d told my supporters I would (ride time: 3 hours 10 minutes). I drank more fluids, ate a Cliff Bar, dumped some kit and was ready to hit the final stage: a run up the Ben.
The weather was glorious, and having applied sunscreen to my face in the dark before swimming, I would come to regret failing to put some on my legs before exiting transition, when the sun was actually shining. The first two miles take you on an undulating road up to the start of the Ben Nevis track. The undulations put paid to my already shuffling run and as I stopped to walk my supporters (having missed me in transition) suddenly appeared behind me in the road. It was great to see them, even if they did mock me about strolling. I only started running again when I saw a man with a camera filming me coming up the road.
There’s no other way of describing the trawl up Ben Nevis, it was just really hard. The start is very rocky, and I had to stop myself breathing heavily when I actually don’t think it was reflecting the effort I was putting in. I tried to relax. I came across a fellow competitor, sat on a rock, with his head in his hands, and gave him a rousing speech about how he had made it onto the Ben, he just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other and pushing on. He got up and started moving.
The trail was busy and everyone seemed to have poles that they kept wafting about with great abandon, not helpful for passing “runners”. Passers by were very supportive, although one lady said she didn’t know how us women (there were only about 16 of us in a total field of 113 finishers) were doing it. Later I thought of a retort: “Why should we leave all the fun to the men?”
The camera people appeared again just before half way, again I hope that never sees the light of day. I then caught sight of the view over the valley to the left of the path and it was all worth it. Apparently the Ben is shrouded in mist and fog for a good 340 days of the year, but not today, today it was epic. Wow. It reminded me of New Zealand, which I’m sure is what lots of people say in New Zealand about Scotland, but wow. It was worth all the stress and hard work for that view alone.
I passed another couple of runners. Then, after the halfway checkpoint, I looked up and realised the trail was steeper and the going rough and I suddenly had to stop and attack my emergency nougat. How was I going to find the strength to climb this bloody thing? Obviously I would, but bloody hell, it was steep, and rocky, and just really hard going.
At that point, the lady who I’d passed a little down the track came back into view. N would be a godsend, providing an outlet for my crazy (probably delirious) chat all the way to the top and back down again, right through to the finish.
On the way up we’d seen a lot of other competitors coming back down, running the trail like sprightly mountain goats. We’d looked on aghast, it seemed far too dangerous for that. However, after reaching the summit, being fed blueberries by the lovely lady marshall at the top, having some charming man take my picture, joking about licking people’s faces for salt (best not to ask), we found a little pace and started our descent. Not far from the summit we passed Dougie Vipond, and not far behind him my old Idiot pal D, which obviously led to me wondering whether we’d need a bit more pace to make sure we beat them both. Apparently there is a small part of me that’s competitive.
It took me over five hours to complete the run. I wouldn’t be troubling anyone for the top spots, but from the moment I crossed that finish line I would always be a Braveheart.
If you like impressive views (although I’m not promising you’ll be as lucky as us), a mighty challenge, and your events a little less fussy, I can well recommend the Ben Nevis Braveheart Triathlon.
The Adventure Show episode about the triathlon is available on iplayer.