The Death of Quads: The Salomon Ring of Steall 2022

The Death of Quads: The Salomon Ring of Steall 2022

2022 had started just as badly as 2021 did with a return of my ankle issues. Pretty much exactly the same scenario as last year where my training was going really well and I was getting close to race time when *bang* it goes. This time it was worse, as my foot went basically at the start of a 21k tough trail run loop from Whitby to Robin Hood’s Bay and back and I just ran/limped on it. Dumbass.

Ring of Steall elevation: W. T. F.

That knocked me out from running for all of November and December, with only slowly starting to get back to it in mid January. The training slowly resumed but meant I missed the Kew Gardens 10k I’d planned as a PB buster at the start of April. (I also just missed the Sheffield 10k today due to COVID. Gah. I feel like I’m cursed to not get that sub-40) I managed to run the Langsett 10k in early May which I’ve been looking forward to for 2 years (rearranged a lot due to COVID!) but really wasn’t in great shape for it and then staggered to the last of my “targeted” races, the Edinburgh Half Marathon. Now, that was a great race, but wasn’t close to the PB I was hoping for due the previous injury. Still, it did pretty much signify that I was back on track to getting fit again, which was something I really needed to see.

Skyrunning up Moel Siabod in Wales back in 2020. Photo by Kelly Gibson

At some point in the year, Andy decided that he wanted to do the rather mental looking Ring of Steall race which he’d seen on his browsing of crazy things. At first I was a little hesitant to agree to it. The website makes it out to be quite scary and serious. Plus the elevation graph looked pretty monstrous. But then I remembered that two years ago we did go on a Skyrunning holiday and that was fine and fun and plus, I’m a bloody climber!

So, I signed up, along with Kelly G (of previous races and bouldering post fame). Once committed, I attempted to try and pin the group down for another sky running trip with Dean of Adventure Awaits who ran the last one, but all three of us were incredibly busy with me probably being the worse having a whole tour thing planned halfway through the year.

Looking back on the descent of Tryfan from Bristly Ridge

I ended going on my own for another weekend, specifically to try and get some ridge running experience as this was really the bit I was worried about. Climbing and getting a bit of edge exposure was fine, but I wanted to make sure that once I ended up with nothing to either side of me I wasn’t going to freeze up and cause a problem for the people behind me. The weather wasn’t on my side for this plan though with 40-50mph winds up on the exposed tops over parts of the weekend, so we didn’t actually get the chance to do any ridges! Still, there was plenty of grade 1 scrambling and a whole bunch of useful navigation training, along with 38k and 2,200m of climbing. All good leg training for what was to come!

Training rolled on for the course, but frankly it was kinda hard to get anything that would prepare me. There was quite a bit of hill running, mostly downhill really trying to get the quads used to the hammering of the massive downhill after the first half of the ridge run.

Andy, Kelly and I did make a special trip out to attempt hill reps up and down Win Hill in the Peak using the really horrible Parkin Clough, which is pretty much the closest thing we find to match the elevation pattern of the race. I’d planned us to try and do 4 ascents and descents which would have been half of what was in the race, but we all kinda petered out after 2 as a) the light was fading making it a bit dangerous and b) we were knackered! We all intended to come back again but never actually (at least in a group) managed it.

The rest of the training kinda rolled on, but it was disrupted by trips to Paris, a massive heatwave, a tour around the country, and then finally, a bouldering trip to France before it was the week before. My coach was trying to get hills and distance into my legs, but there was just too much going on and my lack of car meant I couldn’t just get out and find the hills. Oh well, it was done, so all that was left to go and run it!

The race was in Kinlochleven on the Saturday morning, so rather than travel 350km on the Friday after work and be knackered for the race, we elected to leave on the Thursday evening, spending the night in a (really weird) AirBNB in Gretna Green meaning the travelling was split in half.

Time to Run (walk slowly up hill)

The night before was fueled by a big bowl of filled pasta and pesto along with a cracking load of broccoli which turned out to be quite a yummy idea. I also tried out a Mountain Fuel “Night Fuel” which really just seemed to be hot chocolate! Hot chocolate before bed? Why ever not? There was also a substantial amount of packing and repacking of our packs going on, along with debates about how to handle the predicted weather forecast. It was looking like it was going to be a nice double digit temperature with a bit of rain down in the valleys, but 2 degrees / -5 to -8 with windchill on the tops. Whut?

I really couldn’t work out how to dress for this. I’d packed most of my running gear, so I had options from shorts and vest, right up to my winter insulated tights and merino long sleeves. On the Facebook group, people seemed to be electing for shorts, but having never run with a -5 wind chill, plus being really paranoid that I was going to freeze up when I got that wind to my face while on a ridge, I just couldn’t make myself commit to shorts. Instead, I planned for my standard running tights with my long sleeve merino which was fine for pushing the sleeves up and down as necessary. This had worked quite well on the warmer tops in Wales earlier in the year

I dragged my carcass out of bed at 6 in the morning wanting to make sure that the single bathroom I thought we were all using wasn’t overly congested (Turns out, there was an on-suite in Rowan’s room that I didn’t know about so this was a little over zealous). I had two breakfasts (one sachet of instant porridge and then some vaguely odd porridge-like goo called “Morning Fuel” by Mountain Fuel) and got my stuff together!

Ready at the start! Kelly G’s photo by random stranger.

It was 20mins to the start line. We turned up, found the tent for the bag drop which was very sparsely filled. I suspect that was due to it not actually being that clear in the documentation there was a bag drop! I only realised because I spotted it on the map. We then returned to hang around at the start to watch the elites go and then jump into the pen for a kit check.

My kit check was really quick. I was wearing my waterproof, my survival bag was in the stretchy outside bit of my pack so easy to show, and when I opened by bag to show my waterproof trousers, the INOV8 logo was very obvious so he just waved me through. Everyone else in the group took quite a bit longer for the check. The kit check was serious though. People were being turned away for not having things like taped seams! Take note!

The Climb

And we’re off.

The race starts with about a 1k of easy running before you start on the start of the climb. The climb at this point isn’t too fierce, but it does pretty much become a but queueing walk with occasional spots where overtaking is possible if you are moving quicker. It’s a reasonably rocky trail crossed intermittently with stony drainage ditches which if you aren’t paying attention or are looking ahead for a spot to overtake could easily take you out. (Especially when you are bombing back down this way with knackered legs on the way back later on!). You eventually pop out on a wider double width stony path called the Military road which is much easier to run on. This descends a lovely 20 meters or so which feels heavenly after the previous little climb before then swinging right off the nice path onto something much steeper and looser looking. Here is where the ‘fun starts’.

At this point it turned into a march. An hour long, constant, sloggy climb of lose rocks, peaty mud, slippery damp grass and a couple of stream crosses. Ouch.

I don’t think I’ve ever climbed solidly for an hour before. I’d left the rest of the group before hitting the Military Road, deciding to try and make this a race, rather than just surviving, but I was starting to realise I had no idea how to handle this sort of terrain. Would there by anything left in the tank at all by the time I got to the top of the first hill? I was half trying to overtake people initially, but ending up pulling back a little, instead only overtaking people who were wielding poles in that “I’m going to take your eye out” manner they tend to. Dangerous things, but I was wishing I’d brought mine!

I was pretty warm up to this point with the tights and long sleeve merino doing their job a bit too well. It wasn’t too bad with the sleeves pushed up, but I definitely thought to myself that I should be wearing shorts. 3/4 of the way to the ridge line though it started to get cooler and the forecasted freezing wind started to threaten.

As nearing the top I heard a hello and Dave appeared behind me. He’s pushed on from the group behind and decided to push it a bit faster, so we summitted into the ridge together. I paused to pull on my cheapo windproof gillet I picked up from decathlon to keep the wind off which did a surprisingly good job. There were a bunch of supporters/marshals waiting for on top of the ridge ringing cowbells which was nice and motivational and we were finally on some ground which we could run on…. for about 20yards!

The Devil’s Ridge

Yeah so much for that easy running! We weren’t really at the top of the first climb yet, and there was still another 500-600 to the top. Again, more slogging, but once we got up there into the wind, we had a fun little winding descent where I got to actually run and then we hit the ridge proper.

Stob Choire a’ Mhail rises in the background

It really wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. The trail is good, it’s just that the ground disappears away on either side of you as a steep grassy bank for…. well… a bloody long way! I feel like I ran it, rather than walking, only really slowing for bits there the ground got a little more technical, but looking back at the data it looks a lot slower than I remember it. About half way along there was a section with a marshal where we dropped down around a rocky outcrop (which looked fine to go straight over tbh!) and did a bit of a big step up the back of it to regain the trail. Later one there was a fairly simple scramble down rock slab with a marshal at the bottom to stop us falling over the edge at the bottom! Urk! This was really the only bit of climbing on it and it was very simple.

The end of this part of the run culminated with a steep ascent of Sgurr a’ Mhàim which was the highest Munro we’d be doing. Looking up at it, I could see it was banked in cloud so stopped to take off my wind proof and replace it with my water proof. This took faaaar longer than it should have and frustratingly loads of people I’d worked hard to try and over take flew past as I faffed. Never mind! At this point I was starting to feel like I’d completely overdone it in the first climb and that I would be lucky to finish anyway!

Water proof in place, I started back pushing up the final 100m to get to the top and into the cloud bank.

The Quad Wrecker

Hitting the top we were treated to a couple of marshals, one of which was chilling out in his survival bag. It was COLD up here, but really not a problem with the jacket on and moving. There was again a brief bit of ok terrain to get the pace up before we started descending and oh my god.

It started out being mostly broken scree, which was ok, but soon turned into a -40-50% zigzagging train which was a complete killer. I put a little pace into the first section of it and quickly realised there was no way I could run down here and reigned it back again. My shoes were AWFUL. (Peregrine STs). The were just so unbalanced on the stones I had absolutely no faith in them at all. The fact they didn’t have real laces meant I couldn’t tighten them right up and lock lace them to keep them in one place and stop my toes hitting the end. Also, they collected LOADS of stones which was particularly ridiculous.

About a quart of the way down, and starting to really feel it in the thighs, I spotted a big boulder on the right and scooted behind it to empty my shoes out. There was a runner behind here who had gone over on his ankle. He attempted to start going down the hill but couldn’t weight his ankle and decided to return to the boulder. 750 metres is a long way to go on a knackered ankle so I convince him to wait behind the boulder which was nicely blocking the wind and get into his survival bag and I’ll make sure someone at the bottom knew he was there and hopefully have someone help him down.

It took about 2 minutes to sort my shoe to continue the descent, and on reflection, I think this was the worse part of the whole race. The bottom section was really really un-runnable with huge big steps and lose stones and a ridiculous gradient.

I hit the bottom and entered the feed station and my legs nearly gave out completely like that footage of Jonny Brownlee being helped by his brother. Shit. This isn’t good. I’m only 11.5k in to a 29k run!

The Glen Nevis Jungle Trail

After giving myself a mental slap, I pottered around the feedstation trying to find someone who looked official and found a medic and told him about the guy up the hill. He then wandered off to go and find someone else to handle it. Hopefully it all got sorted.

I then grabbed a bit of cake and stuffed it in my mouth (really dry! 🙁 ) and drank a cup of Redbull/water mix they were handing out. Dave had turned up at this point and was wanting to head off with me, but I delayed him a moment as I needed a few more minutes for my legs to not feel like death. I grabbed two pieces of hummus sandwich and got them top up one of my water flasks (I’d only had probably 100ml in it :/ ) and then we set off.

About to be disappointed in my sandwich

We started out running, but swapped to a walk as Dave wanted to eat his sarnie. I munched on the bits of sandwich I’d grabbed but they were also really dry and rubbish. Not good Salomon Skyline!

We walked/run together for a bit chatting before he told me to bugger off as he wanted to walk more than I was wanting to run.

Off I trotted along the trail which eventually turned into road, which was actually nice and probably helped the quads recover significantly. My pace grew and grew, apart from the hills where I deliberately walked and everything was hunky dory till we were unceremoniously turned left off the road and up a really rather over grown trail. Apparently this is here as the later parts of the path we were on up to the Steall Waterfall can get quite busy and tight.

This was a hard section! Slogging up the right of the valley through the trees, over streams, under branches etc until eventually we topped out and started another little steep descent back down to the river. It did feel a little incongruous compared to the rest of the run, but I understand why they did it!

One back down close to the river, it was a lovely bit of easy running trail before we hit the edge of the river and met the marshals for wading the river.

A lovely foot refresher

I was kinda dreading the wade, but actually my feet really appreciated it as they were getting pretty warm in my shoes by this point.

And then.. the climb.

Back up the other side

This climb was LONG. Really LONG. Oh no, actually it took pretty much exactly the same time as the last big climb, but it just felt sooo much longer. Lots and lots of switch backs and by now the legs really didn’t want to work.

Still I felt surprisingly ok, and was making a decent progress, slowly catching up on people and over taking them as I climbed, until probably the last quarter. It just got too hard as it got steeper and steeper and it just turned into a epic slog of keeping going.

Again, like the previous one it started warm and got chillier. The main difference though was the false summits. It always seemed to be teasing you that you were near the top, only to disappoint you a few metres later. Luckily I’d watched a reccie video a few days previously which had warned me of this, so I just ignored what I was seeing and kept on plodding.

As it got colder, I got more and more worried. I’m not good with cold wind and I’d got lucky on the previous ridge and really didn’t want to end up with a face fill of -8! As as I started to feel it I stopped again to swap into my gloves, running jacket and grab another buff, one to go around my neck and pull over my face if needed, and the other to hold my cap on!

Returning Along The Ridge

Jacket, Hat, Gloves, Two Buffs. I’m a pussy. About to summit An Gearanach

I don’t remember all that much of the actual run along the ridge beyond it being hard. Really hard.

A lot of it was quite scramble-y, with no real clear running areas, although my legs were so dead by this point that any sort of running was very hard! Initially we were in a good chunk of cloud which probably made it a bit less scary? There were quite a few moments where I remember stepping over large pieces of stone, leaning to the right away from a drop into misty greyness beside me on the left. Every step was carefully deliberate as I could never be sure my leg was going to obey me and lift high enough to clear rocks around me.

There was a point there we climbed to a small peak to be greeted by a tent with people doing something inside it and I really couldn’t see where to go next. There was a guy behind me who gestured me down the hill to the left a bit and we dropped down the edge of the ridge onto the side to go under the tent. There was a runner in there with full on hyperthermia-style shakes and two marshals trying to get some hot drinks into him. Scary! It was then I realised just how chilly it had gotten and I was really glad I’d paused to get my warmer stuff out. It sounds like they attempted to get a helicopter out to get him off the hill at some point but the visibility was too poor. They did get him off, presumably after a lot of hot tea!

After crossing below the tent, we had a mildly tricky climb back onto the top of the ridge; only tricky because of extremely dead legs mind you! I think here we started to drop down from one of the peaks and dropped out of the cloud a bit which was very welcome!

While contemplating the next mini mountain I could see in front of me I tried to remember if this would be the last one and managed to work out that it wasn’t. After this next hill would be Am Bodach and I was warned that it was going to be a bugger. I’m really glad I managed to work this out so that when I started descending I wouldn’t have been shocked to see it looming ahead. If I’d have thought that this was the last hill, I might just have sat down and given up!

I was overtaken by a two people running together as I picked my way down. They were going quite bit quicker than me at this point and were talking about their time and how they were hoping to duck under 6 hours. I felt like I’ve been out for days by this point, so checked my watch and realised that if I kept on pushing I might actually be able to come in under 7 hours. This seemed important, not that I actually had a time in mind at all, in fact, I had had absolutely no idea how long it was going to take me so had refused to really even contemplate one, but now I had a round number to fixate on getting in under.

So, my dead legged march changed in character a bit for while, pushing myself to try and keep moving a little quicker, but it didn’t really last all that long with the daunting final climb up Am Bodach ahead of me. This really was the crux of the whole thing. As you got higher, it got steeper and the going got tougher needing to use hands to pull yourself up what were essentially a bunch of giant steps along a rough goat track! There were definitely a few moments where I just ground to a halt, trying to work out how to get my legs high enough to get over the next lump!

It’s all downhill from here!

Staggering onto the top of Am Bodach I was greeted by my penultimate cheery marshal. I cried: “Have I finished? I can I get a taxi back from here?”. “The only taxi back is one you really don’t want to have to take” he replied, although the thought of being carried off on a stretcher right now seemed pretty desirable.

From here the going started drifting downhill. I remember having a little spurt of running that disappeared pretty quickly as the going got rough. The thigh deadness and real lack of trust in the shoes mean that I just couldn’t tackle any of the ground here that should have been runnable with a bit of care.

I paused to pull off my gloves and jacket just after we reached the saddle where the we’d joined the top 6 or so hours ago and started the half run/stagger downhill. I have never run with legs as tired as this before, even including my shattered finished at The Firelighter last year. I was tired in that race, exhausted from 9 hours of constant movement over 57k, but this was weird, and much harder. Right now I felt like I had plenty of gas in the tank, but my legs were so broken that moving was really tough.

I picked my way down, breaking into short little runs between the rocky or really slippery sections. The grassy muddy bits we’d come up over had been hammered into swamp at this point and here my shoes FINALLY started to perform. I found myself able to actually to run a little and overtake people who were carefully picking their way through 3 inch deep mud. These little spurts were immediately reined in as soon as we came to a drop which I had to step down, or lumps to go over and the thighs really weren’t having it!

One such lump took me out as I didn’t left my foot high enough and splattered down into the mud with a laugh, right next someone taking photos who were far too slow to get a shot of it.

The mud was pretty epic though, and the shoes were loving it, although they couldn’t help me when I stood somewhere where I ended up knee deep in the muck. I’m very glad I wasn’t bombing down the hill at that point.

Once down the muddy trail, we hit the military road again and had a lovely flat easy to run trail for about 20 yards before it turned into a hill! Oh, I remember bombing down this before. There were two guys walking up it ahead of me and I remember thinking to myself, aaah I’ll just jog up it and overtake them but swiftly encountered a “nope” from the legs. The easy trail was far too short lived though as we approached one last marshal pointing us off the wide track and down something smaller.

“About a mile left, down this easy going trail!” he yelled. Well, that sounded nice? Except it wasn’t that was going with my legs! It was the first trail we found, with the intermittent drainage channels which turned into significant obstacles for my knackered legs! This was the longest mile ever, I though to myself as I pretty much stagger to the bottom.

Then it was road, glorious easy road… and a hill, but I could handle that, and I got my head down for the last 600 of easy going tarmac. Up the hill, over the bridge, around a corner and the finish line is ahead, and my sprint appear allowing me to bomb through the finish line with it just ticking over 17:00 meaning I’d finished in 6:45ish

There was someone there who popped a medal over my head as I stagger to find the poster below for my free finish photo. I’m laughing in the shot because a few seconds before this was taken he’d lined me up for a shot and my thighs almost gave out nearly dumping me on my ass.

Phew, well that was a really moany write up. I blame coming back from Scotland with COVID which knocked me out 4 days after the race. My thighs were terrible the next day and I was still having to take the stairs side on 8 days later! I’m not 100% sure when they recovered as I was by that point mostly laying in bed watching Netflix and feeling sorry for myself.

So, a proper Sky Running race done! Did I enjoy it? I think so? It was bloody hard and if I do something similar I will have to do A LOT MORE climbing and descending training. I suspect regular trips out to Win Hill as that’s really all that I can get to around here that is close enough. But do I want to?

I’m not really sure. We’ll see what’s next, but I’m pretty sure it will be epic.

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