Stunning. Only one word will suffice when describing the landscape around Fort William as hundreds of triathletes gathered on Friday to register for the Ben Nevis Braveheart Triathlon, says Malcolm Bradbrook.
Loch Linnhe brooded along the shoreline and the Nevis mountain range loomed over us to promise adventure and threaten pain in equal measure.
This was my first experience of an ‘extreme’ triathlon. Since taking up the sport 12 years ago, I have wanted to try an event like this but lost my ‘bottle’ when it came to it, believing myself to be undertrained, unprepared and generally not strong enough. But not this time; 2019 was going to be the year I went for it and, once I was committed, the opportunity to finish a triathlon with a run to the top of Ben Nevis was irresistible.
Last week was spent furiously examining various weather forecasts and praying conditions would be kind. My prayers went unanswered as strong winds and heavy rain featured prominently in all predictions.
At registration, Fraser, the jovial race director spelled out the difficulties of such weather when he said that for the athletes to get to the top of Ben Nevis, a marshal would have to be on top of the mountain for about five hours. With gusting winds of up to 90mph forecast he announced it was unlikely we would be able to reach the summit – a disappointing thought but not one competitor I spoke to thought it was the wrong decision.
At 5am on the morning of the race the weather looked better but Fraser’s brow remained furrowed as weather reports came in from his family and friends who delivered information from the surrounding area. Sure enough, by 7am the winds had picked up, Loch Linnhe was getting rougher and we could see the speed at which the clouds scudded across the upper reaches of Ben Nevis.
We were told the plans: a short swim (about 700m) because the buoys marking the course kept blowing away, the full bike course and a run of about 15.5km to the half-way point of Ben Nevis and back.
Cheered that the event wasn’t cancelled we huddled at the side of the loch like emperor penguins as a piper roused our spirits. The first shock was how warm the water felt, at 13.5C it should had been bracing at best but the temperature was more than manageable. The first half of the swim was into the waves, which made it challenging but I found a rhythm which was only broken by the odd kick to the ribs by fellow swimming who switched to a few seconds of breaststroke to get their bearing.
As we turned we could feel the power of the tide and the wind pushing us back to shore and I imagined the grins on the faces of every of those swimmers as our speed doubled and we surfed back into shore feeling, for a short time at least, like Michael Phelps or Rebecca Adlington.
I am always a faffer in transition and the rain and the wind only added to this. Once the wetsuit had been removed I wanted to put on sleeves, a rain jacket and gloves but my sodden skin and numb fingers wouldn’t obey and seven minutes later I stumbled out of transition after losing a battle with my sleeves and with gloves only half on. It didn’t take many rotations of the pedals to warm up though and transition frustrations were soon forgotten as I hit cruising speed and the grin returned, beckoned by the sight of mountains all around me.
I had not anticipated much from the bike leg as it seemed to be flat and relatively straightforward when compared to the challenge that lay ahead on Ben Nevis. However, the beauty of the surroundings and the rolling route provided challenge and stimulation. True, none of the route was up 10%-plus climbs but the steady kilometres at 3% sapped the legs and brought a challenge of their own. I rolled back into transition having had an enjoyable race with a few other cyclists and with legs much more drained that anticipated.
Second transition was no less of a faff than before but with the promise of extreme cold higher on Ben Nevis it was important to wrap up and I headed to the modesty tent to shelter from the wind while donning a baselayer, new rain jacket, hat and gloves. My legs felt leaden as I headed through Fort William to the foothills but they gradually eased off and the sight of the path stretching upwards round the mountain was a great motivator.
The leader passed me on the way back down just as I went through the gate onto the mountain proper and the path immediately became a lot steeper. This was what I came for but the challenge of training for such terrain when living in a flat county like Oxfordshire was clear. I fell into a routine of walking sections that looked like a rugged staircase and running everything else, while picking round the scores of walkers taking on the challenge.
The rain kept coming and the wind whipped around us, strengthening with each vertical step. My recently purchased rain jacket kept out the wind off but the hood blew around like a balloon, which was aggravating to say the least. I considered stopping to tuck it away but ploughed on, not wanting to stop for fear of not getting started again. Halfway up Ben Nevis may not have been what we came for but at nearly 800m of ascent, it is a challenging height and I soon started scanning the horizon for the elusive turn point as my quads creaked and groaned with every step.
Soon we were into the clouds but the increasingly frequent stream of athletes running the other way showed that I was close to the turn and eventually the welcome sight of high-vis clad marshalls hove into view as they offered kind words and jelly babies in equal measure.
As soon as I turned and started back down I felt fresh and light, the different muscles used on the descent felt wonderful. The wind was still playing its part and during a couple of gusts it felt as though they brought me to a physical standstill but on I ploughed ignored the cursed hood and skipping from rock-to-rock. A huge gust then caught me, filled the hood and dragged it straight across my face blinding me as I ran downhill at speed. The inevitable happened as my foot caught and sent me sprawling forwards banging palms, elbows, knees and shins. A quick check showed no serious damage and there was little to be done about the trickles of blood streaking my lower legs.
The next 10 minutes was painful as I gingerly picked my way down but eventually I regained some confidence and broke out into a run. Reaching the road and solid ground was a welcome relief but my promise of catching those who overtook me when I fell failed to materialise. I limped home a little broken but a long way from beaten and sporting the biggest smile I have had all year.
Thank you Braveheart, you are truly an epic event.