Written by Iain Veitch
I actually did this race about 10 years previously when the bike was a MTB route. I did the half distance version and although I won this I was blown away by the fact that the serious athletes had covered double the distance and maintained faster splits than me.
Once I became more serious about training and saw my own times improving I had thought about coming back and giving the full distance a go. Unfortunately, though, the race was abandoned by the organisers until 2015 when it came back with the bike section being replaced with the road. Even with the slightly sanitised bike the race still held an appeal that a lot of the 70.3 races sometimes lack in terms of character and sheer challenge. I loved the idea of ticking the tallest mountain in the UK box at the end of an already tough race.
When I entered the race I was still living in Hong Kong. I had been based there for the previous 6 years and during that time had managed to completely erode my already pathetic tolerance for the cold. This fact was highlighted in pretty humiliating fashion 3 weeks before the Ben Nevis race at the Scottish Half Distance Championships. My ambitions of doing well overall ended with being helped off the bike a few hundred meters out of T1 with hypothermia. The lady who helped me into the medical tent was lovely but behind those kind eyes I was sure she must be thinking “this lad is a complete snowflake”.
It was with these memories that I arrived at the start line of the Ben Nevis race and although my coach and I had made adjustments and planned for the cold much better this time I was still nervous. I had entered to try and win but now the objective was to get through the cold in one piece on the swim and be physically able to deliver on the bike and run. Some additional preparations for the cold included:
- Taking cold showers for the week before the race. Not going to lie, I found these miserable and the 4 mins that Gav (former paratrooper PT with sadistic streak) set for these seemed like an age. Gradually though I did notice my tolerance improving towards the end of the week.
- Putting my hands in a bowl of ice for a couple of mins and then trying to put on my helmet and zip up a cycling jacket afterwards. Gav suggested this to get used to what I would have to do in T1 with numb hands after the swim.
- Wearing better kit. Instead of just a wetsuit I also wore neoprene boots, strapless neoprene cap and a neoprene vest under my wetsuit.
- Doing a swim at the race venue the day before instead of doing the usual pool swim the day before. This wasn’t much fun but it was good to get the shock of the water conditions out of my system before the morning of the race. I at least knew what I was in store for and had a bit of confidence that actually the extra kit and showers seemed to have paid off as I was able to spend 20 min in the water without wilting like a flower afterwards.
That morning I woke up after the usual fitful pre-race sleep at 6:30 feeling pretty good. While I was pottering about my oldest son appeared and kept me company as I organised the last bits. I then shovelled a large bowl of bacon pasta down my neck and went down to transition to set up my kit. Because my wonderful wife had booked us a place to stay only 2 min away from the start I was able to come back to the house for a coffee, a bit of family time and the usual 25 pre-race ‘comfort breaks’ (was brilliant not having to play the usual portaloo roulette). Finally, I jogged down to the start in all my neoprene kit and got there just in time for the final no-nonsense briefing and ‘warm up’ swim slot. The atmosphere was great with bagpipes piping the athletes into the water and family and friends all there to watch on the shore of Loch Linnhe.
1.9K Sea Loch swim – Despite all my advanced preparation, the swim was still tough. The extra kit slowed things down a bit. There was a strong current against us on the outward leg of the two-lap course and the water still felt bloody cold, especially on the hands and face (apparently 10-11C). That being said the water was clean and clear and the views around us were stunning. Overall it was a slow one for me even by my very average swim standards. I came in at around 33:20 which was about 4 min short of normal but the main thing was that I hadn’t succumbed to the temperature and despite being bitterly cold in transition made it onto the bike able to control my limbs and get on with trying to reel in the 9 people already up the road.
90K road bike – The bike can be best described as jaw-dropping. I have been lucky enough to race in some exotic places in the world but have never seen better views than those experienced on that bike course. Around every twist and turn of the road was another lake or mountain peak that would have done any postcard justice. It is out and back and sees athletes climb about 700M in all. Not flat but at all but when combined with the excellent road surface still feels like a fast sporty course.
Normally at this stage, I go pretty hard on the bike from start to finish and have confidence I can usually smash myself on the run afterwards but with this race, I had seen that none of the previous winners or indeed fastest relay runners had gone quicker than 2:45 for the run section. With that in mind, I really wanted to take the bike very steady and simply not lose any time over the guys at the front. I didn’t want to blow up on the mountain. On the way out I came in at 1:07 for the first 45K and was in 4th place feeling very controlled and fresh. That was good but I realised that the 3 in front were moving well and could possibly negative split the course so, changing the game plan slightly, I put the head down for the next 35K before easing off for the final 10K in preparation for the run. Overall I clocked 2:09 and had moved into 3rd position. I was not sure what the deficit was as race marshals were giving conflicting info. One said 5 min, another said 10! Either way, I had some work to do!
21k up the Ben and back – The Ben Nevis run is utterly brilliant. Pure savagery. Despite being nervous about the cold again (-7C at the top was forecast) I was looking forward to this section and was interested to see how the gamble to play it easy on the bike would pay off. Despite feeling good from the start I still kept it very steady for the first couple of k and even stopped for a pee and to adjust my kit. Once I hit the mountain proper I started to push things and get into a more serious rhythm, the aim being simply to run all the way up and then try to ruin myself on the way down.
The views from the climb were absolutely breath-taking. Although there wasn’t much time to appreciate them negotiating the terrain they were always in my peripheral vision. I had never been to the top before and while I knew there would be little visibility up there the views for the first 2/3rd more than made up for that.
Going up felt very hard but I felt very good. The perfect combination when you are racing and confirmation that you are hopefully executing things well and the preparation/ training plan has paid off. I had not done a lot of hill running in the build-up but Gav and I had deliberately targeted losing about 4.5kg of weight and I just felt good. Able to keep pushing at a decent pace and light-footed. I caught up with and passed the second place runner at just after the half way checkpoint up the mountain. We had a quick chat and he warned me that the front-runner was a monster and had already put about 5 mins into him on the first part of the climb. I was surprised at this but even with the switch back path being visible far above I hadn’t seen him so assumed he must indeed be a long way in front. I would keep pushing and take stock of things when he passed on the way back down.
The top section of the run was super cold and misty with icy rain. Coupled with a steady procession of weekend hikers on the path progress felt slow but lots of people were encouraging and shouting support which was cool. Also, my son had given me his Spiderman hat to wear and the comments about it from bemused onlookers made me smile. I kept expecting to see the leader come charging past but when he finally did he was a little slower than I thought and while I didn’t know for sure yet he was still a little closer to the summit than I expected him to be. This was confirmed at the checkpoint at the top by the mountain rescue volunteers (big shout out to them – amazing being up there for 6 hours + in those conditions!!). The lead was down to 3-4 min or so. This gave me confidence and I knew I had left some serious running in the tank. All the way down people were giving me feedback on how far ahead he was but long story short I made the pass about 3/4 down and he didn’t seem able to muster a challenge. I was lucky enough to have the last 4k to myself and crossed the line 1st in 2:30 for the run and a new course record of 5:20.
Special thanks have to go to Gav for putting up with pre-race bitching about the cold and coming up with a plan not just for the training but for the conditions. Also to my wonderful wife and kids for putting up with the training and then coming to support!
To enter the 2019 Braveheart on Saturday 14th September in Fort William – click here.