Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Stuc a' Chroin 5000 : Racing on the edge

The Stuc a' Chroin hill race has a reputation for being brutal and for this 25th Anniversary the weather this year was every bit as brutal as the terrain. Whilst waiting at the finish for a friend to finish news filtered through that two runners and a marshal had had to be taken off the summit and airlifted to hospital, setting up an anxious wait for him to appear. When we stood at the start 4 hours earlier the benign conditions gave little hint of what was to unfold.
One week before the race I did a couple hours of marshalling for the Highland Fling at Drymen on a beautiful sunny morning.  While my foot injury hadn't healed sufficiently to allows me to race the Fling, witnessing so many runners heading past on a great adventure was inspiring, being part of great race means more than just covering the distance and so it is for the Stuc a' Chroin hill race.  If I couldn't do the Fling I wasn't going to miss the opportunity of running it, with another week of rest and a race 1/4 the distance I could easily rationalize away the risk of exacerbating my injury.

Last week when I ran the Balfron 10k with my running friend Andy I had raised the idea that we should both do the Stuc a' Chroin hill race 6 days later.  It was a bit of a hard sell, all the local runners who've done the Stuc a' Chroin hill race have come back with tales of how brutal the 14 miles and 5000ft ascent/descent are, with some declaring 'never again' on finishing. I had done it once before two years previously and got round in 3:22 suffering with cramp in the hot conditions.  Having done a number of ultra's since then I have learnt to be less intimidated by terrain and distance, one simply paces oneself for the day. With an idea to run the Lochalsh Dirty 30 in June we needed to get training for it, so with the promise of sensible pacing on the day and the goal of using it as training Andy warmed to the idea of finally tackling the Stuc a' Chroin.

Andy agreed on condition that he tested his legs out on a run up our local mountain Ben Ledi, so we went up on Tuesday after work. The sun was shining and light winds at the summit made for a magical run.  Despite my lack of running over the last month I felt strong on the ascent and descent and my foot didn't shout at me.  Andy had a great run too, but struggled with legs of jelly on the final few hundred feet of descent.  Miraculously Andy didn't report any muscle soreness or fatigue the following day, in contrast to me - despite my 4th ascent of Ben Ledi in a month I was hobbling around with classic DOMS.  The rest of the week I rested up giving my foot a chance to heal for the big day.

Saturday came and the weather in Callander was sunny with light winds. Forecast was for rain showers arriving later in the afternoon, with a little luck we'd be finished by then I reasoned. I took my Montane running jacket and long sleeve running top just in case, not expecting to need them.  Andy picked me up and we headed up to Strathyre and as we drove the blue sky filled in but still looked benign.  On registering I was told that my race number of 175 was so grand as to deserve a spot prize which I was to pick up on finishing the race, two years earlier I had won the fastest local prize so it looked as if my good luck  was continuing.

In great spirits we lined up at the start with 206 other starters.  Amongst the lean, mean and hardened hill runners we both felt rather like impostors, the best hill racers in Scotland were out to run and it was a glorious sight and great atmosphere. We were there to witness and be part of the 25th Anniversary race. The race started on time and we all surged forward, BRING IT ON!

50m's into the run I was walking as the field made it's way along the narrow path up the first hill. It took a couple of minutes to get into running, I was happy to be near the back and taking it easy, my plan wasn't to race hard but take it easy on the first ascent and see how the day unfolded.  The lack of quality of training in the last six weeks due to injury had taken pressure off any expectations of a quick time, so I was there to enjoy the race. After half a mile slowly working my way through field I caught up with Andy and we ran together for another mile, Andy's plan was the same as mine - to take it easy respecting the distance and the route we'd be taking. Not all runners looked to be so cautious with quite a few of the runners we were overtaking breathing hard, and this was on the first few easy miles on forest track ascending above Loch Lubnaig.  Shortly before leaving the track Andy decided to take it easer and I continued slowly moving through the field, on this first ascent conscious to keep my HR below 170 bpm, 5 below my lactate threshold leaving higher efforts for the next climb - the brutal climb out of Glen Ample up Ben Each.

The route heads through a brief section of woodland and then the trail starts heading up to the open hill. Once we were off the track conditions underfoot deteriorated rapidly, the previous day of rain turned the trail into a boggy, muddy mess. All too often I found myself sinking shin deep into mud.  Half an hour into the race and my feet were soaked and my lack of more aggressive lugs on my Trailroc's was was proving inadequate for the conditions. I was slipping regularly and for the first time in four years of running I completely lost traction and fell, finding myself eating mud and heather.

While I had little traction I was still running well within myself and was jumping off the narrow trail through into the heather to pass runners who had gone out too fast and were now puffing hard.  Finding myself running easily and strongly offset my frustration with slipping regularly.  Light rain had now set in so I zipped up my Montane running jacket and prepared to descend down into Glen Ample.

I knew the route was steep and took it easy knowing that I was already struggling with grip.  With a few seconds of starting the descent I found my feet sliding away from me. It took me a second or two to arrest my progress as I slid down on my back.  Back on my feet again and even more cautious I continued but again fell and did so several more times as the same runners I had picked off in previous minutes poured past me until the gradient eased off.  Without a pair of Talons or Mudclaws there was nothing I could do about it.

Once through the bogs at the bottom of Glen Ample the route crosses a track where Marshals were handing out bottles of water.  I took a quick sip, thanked them and headed on, keen to try to get in front of runners that had past me on the descent.  The climb out of Glen Ample up Beinn Each is a brutal 1500ft climb, following a tiny path that is only wide enough for one runner so you have to follow single file, scrambling the 45 degree slope locked in step.  Just occasionally the path opens out enough to allow you to pass slower competitors, when it does you have to put in a short sprint to pass a runner or two and then get back in line.

Last time I raced the Stuc a' Chroin I was maxed out going up Beinn Each, pushed on by runners right on my heels, and desperatly trying to keep in touch with runners ahead.  This year I found the climb much easier, perhaps because I was being held back by slower runners this year, and my HR rather than going up as I climb actually went down to the low 170's and my breathing was easy.  From the half way point up the climb I took every little opportunity to overtake, my legs responding to the intense sprint to get past runners.  Once back in step with others around me the lactate build in my legs subsided quickly and I was back in comfortable climbing mode. I found myself perplexed by just how better my body was responding to the climb than others around me who were wheezing away.

The summit of Beinn Each was now in cloud, the wind had picked up and the rain was unrelenting, but Mashals at the summit were cheerful and really supportive, handing out jelly babies and water.  Running strong I was looking forward to following the undulating ridge towards the final climb up Stuc a'Chroin, but thanks to the cloud I had to make do with the guidance of Marshals and flags.  As soon as we started descending down to the ridge my cautious speed on descent meant that I was again being passed by those more confident about footing.

Loosing hard won places so easily was depressing but now the trail was rocky, wet and very slippery so I couldn't risk pushing harder and taking another tumble.  As we progressed along the ridge those that passed me began to falter and I was back to steadily making my way through the field.  A few hundred meters before the climb at Stuc a'Chroin the lead runners appeared through the mist. I never cease to find delight in the ease with which the elite's dance along the trail.  Ever a gentlemen, local running legend Presad passed and shouted encouragement.

The ascent of Stuc a' Chroin began, but as visibility wasn't great I couldn't get any idea of just how far I had to go, so I just followed the ribbon of runners up and up.  The faster runners were now streaming down past us from the summit making for some interesting close passes as the those climbing had heads down checking for footing and the those descending were scrambling for a good line across the slippery rocks, snow, mud and heather.  Again I found the climb easier than those around me and passed many runners who were struggling.

Eventually I passed a Marshal who said it was only 100 meters the summit. It turned out this was distance rather than elevation so pretty soon I found myself up next to the summit Cairn.  After getting my number marked with an X, and a swift drink of water, I check my time - 1:56, two minutes ahead of my previous time.  I was surprised and delighted after loosing time on the descents and what felt like an easy climb I had expected to be 10 minutes down on my previous time, not 2 minutes up, ohh yeah game on.

On turning round at the summit and back into wind the weather suddenly asserted itself ferociously, gale force winds, icy sleet blasting exposed skin. It wasn't an environment I wanted to hang around in and I made my way down as quickly as the slippery rocks would allow me.  Again I was loosing places on the descent, but in those conditions all I cared about was steady progress down.  I passed Andy who was making good progress up to the summit and he looked strong, I guessed that he was less than 5 to 10 minutes behind.

Whether on snow, rocks, grass or soil I was slipping and falling onto my back regularly, on one fall I twisted and arrested my fall awkwardly, straining my back, shoulder and wrist that subsequently tightened up.  Thankfully after a couple of minutes the tightness wore off and I was back running comfortably again.  Psychologically the fall stayed with me, while my energy levels were great and my legs remained strong the constant battle to stay upright and failing was frustrating and I found myself cursing the lack of grip out loud.

After descending back to the ridge the route goes back on itself half way towards Beinn Each, then heads into a diagonal descent back into Glen Ample and the Marshal point that we first passed at the bottom of the ascent up Beinn Each.  I was looking forward to this next section as the path wasn't too steep and the heather and grass should allow for good running and quick progress. The constant rain had different plans though, and I found myself with even less grip and again slipping out of control for seconds at a time and falling regularly.  My slow progress meant I lost a few more places. Never in my life have I run with consistently poor traction - curse my super wide feet that prevent me from wearing those lovely but narrow fell shoes.

Finally at the bottom of Glen Ample I was glad to be heading back up hill, at least I could grab hold of the heather to help assist with traction on the ascent.  I didn't have long to delude myself in this as when crossing some boggy ground I stepped into what looked like reasonably solid ground, the bog swallowed my left leg leaving me waist deep. I pulled myself out of the bog with my hands. Now head to toe covered in mud I just had to embrace the conditions and engage a black sense of humour - at least the constant rain will wash it all off!
With the next ascent I had the chance to gain back places and even made up a few more.  The previous time I ran the race I suffered badly with my calf cramping, this time I was feeling strong.  I ate a gel on the ascent, more out of curiosity - it was a freebie from a previous race and while I not big into gels it went down easily and didn't taste too sickly.  The climb out of Glen Ample seemed to be over before it started and I was out onto the open hill once more.  My hope of picking up pace was thwarted by the bog on top the hill that sucked my shoes down on every stride.  Oh joy.

The path then heads down along a deer fence back towards the forest where it rejoins the track.  Again I looked forward to getting back to something resembling a path and better footing, but while the path was less boggy it was far more slippery and I was constantly slipping sideways as the path traversed the slope.  Thanks to the constant rain the underfoot conditions had deteriorated substantially from earlier.  Just before you enter the short section of woods the path headed downhill steeply and the only way I was able to stay upright was to grip the the deer fence with my hands and slowly step down.  I knew the hell of slipping constantly was soon to be over so my mood picked up.

After a short descent between and through the trees the path opens out onto the forest track and the welcome sight of Marshals and firm footing at last.  Two miles to go on gently descending forest track was a joy!  My pace quickened and I set about reeling in the runners ahead.  I was running strongly and rapidly catching up with runners that were struggling ahead, when quite unexpectedly I heard footsteps approaching from behind.

Another runner who had taken the first half easy like myself was also finishing strong, he drew alongside and we fell into step and started chatting.  Jim was up from the Lake District and was a well seasoned fell runner, clearly better prepared than me as he'd checked the mountain forecast for the Stuc a'Chroin summit. At 4pm it had been forecast to be 55mph winds, sleet/rain, 2 degrees with a -10 degree wind chill.  Neither of us felt the winds were quite that strong but it can't have been far off.  Descending at 7min/mile pace we passed quite a few runners that were either staggering along or walking probably due to cramp.  We kept the good pace up nattering away like we were on an afternoon stroll and in no time we were descending to the finishing field.

I was bouncing along with joy at this point. I let out a "whoooohooo" and let gravity speed me homewards, over taking one last runner.  At the bottom of the path it turns sharply right and flattens off into the field, and this rapid change in direction at high speed set off a brief cramp in my left calf.  Thankfully it didn't take hold and I put in a final sprint for the pure fun of running a great race.

On crossing the line I undid my jacket so the Marshals could see my number and they called out my finishing time 3:18:17, a PB by four minutes.  I was really chuffed, despite awful conditions and lack on any descent training since February I had run a great race.

I collected my cup of soup and then sheltered in the adjacent prize giving tent watching the runners head in.  I was expecting Andy to come in around 3:40 but this time came and went.  There were other runners who had finished but were now being treated for hypothermia.  Speaking with one of the Marshals I heard that two runners and a Marshal had been airlifted to hospital.  My joy at finishing well turned to concern for those heading to hospital, and also increasingly for the whereabouts of Andy.  My phone had got wet during the race and was no longer functioning so I couldn't attempt to call him or call home.

The prize giving went ahead at about 5pm, around 4 hours after the start, and still no Andy.  There were a few late finishers still coming in and getting rousing applause - as much as the winners, then finally I spotted Andy heading to the soup tent, wrapped in a blanket.

Andy had made good progress to the summit of Stuc a'Chroin but shortly after he began the descent he heard a scream from uphill and turned around to see a women tumbling downhill towards him.  She tumbled into his arms and somehow he was able to keep upright and arrest her fall.  Afterwards he continued on his descent but started to notice that he was now getting cold.  He kept moving but couldn't get warm, and began noticing oddities with his eye sight.  He got back down to Marshals in Glen Ample and reported that he didn't feel great, and they suggested that he'd warm up on the ascent out of Glen Ample.

He headed on but didn't warm up, and on getting to the top of the ridge the boggy/slippery conditions on the path back he just found himself getting colder.  He made his way down to the Marshals at the forest trail and reported in that he was feeling pretty unwell.   Thankfully they had a four wheel drive jeep that they bundled him into with heaters on full and wrapped him in a blanket and brought him back to the finish.

Back at the finish and with cup of warm soup the Marshals were great making sure he got back in the Jeep to warm up.  Shortly after another runner suffering from hypothermia joined us in the Jeep to warm up.  She had finished the race but had to have a cut on here knee dealt with cooled down too much. She was now shaking with blue lips that gave the Marshals concern.

After half an hour Andy had warmed up a little so we headed to pub to warm up with a cup of coffee and to find a fire.  Once Andy's sense of humour returned I knew that he was well on the mend.

Even now four days later I am struck by how close we all must have been to suffering from exposure.  Apart from my fingers I never felt cold during the race. Sure it was windy and wet, the underfoot conditions were awful, but I never felt threatened by the conditions.  I felt strong, warm and well within my comfort zone.  But just how long would it have taken for things to turn sour? An injury or incident that slows you down for a few minutes?

I am also left wondering how much the role of hypoglycaemia and hypothermia might be entwined on events like this. Low blood sugar slows you down and you generate less heat from your muscles, and low blood sugar itself thwarts some of bodies natural mechanisms for keeping warm.

For the last few months I am having been changing my diet away from predominantly carbs to eating more fats and I believe I'm seeing hints that my rate of depletion of glycogen is now lower - I certainly felt strong with consistent energy levels throughout the race.  Might being an efficient fat burner also help with avoiding hypothermia as well?   Could this be something the Inuit benefit from?

Reflecting on the race fills me with mixed emotions.  I am not a risk taker by nature, but in these conditions I didn't worry when I perhaps I should have been more aware of the potential risks.  However, despite my troubles with injuries and lack of training my legs and feet held up really well, I ran a strong and well paced race and finished really strongly.  This is a race that I have learned a great deal from, both about myself and about respecting the mountains and their rapidly changing weather.


  1. Mountain running does have its risks but that's one of it main attractions! Hypothermia is always a danger, though that's the first time I have heard of a marshal being airlifted to hospital - blimey!

    My own lack of descending skills are the very reason why I never took to mountain running. I just can't let loose and always had runners stream past me on the few occasions when I tried it.

    You, on the other hand, clearly had a great race, despite the lack of suitable shoes and even more pronounced lack of training. Well done!

  2. A great blog.
    In my mountaineering days I was aware that many sensible people regarded my hobby as foolhardy, but for me, part of the challenge was ensuring that it would only be unforeseen misadventure rather than lack of adequate planning that led to injury or worse. I was occasionally tempted by the exhilaration of scree running (in mountain boots – not running shoes) but mostly I took the descents very steadily, aware that climbers are more likely to die on the descent than the ascent. So even when hill-walking, I am always a bit amazed whenever lightly clad runners skeeter past me down icy slopes. Even when doing occasional runs in the Peak District (perhaps the most comically misnamed gently rounded hills in the world, outdoing even 2000 foot Mt Lofty in the Adelaide Hills) I have enough awareness of the unpredictability of the setting to carry a space blanket with me. But your account gives an insight into the ways in which the risks of hill running can be managed reasonably well. Avoiding exhaustion is one of the crucial things. It is interesting to speculate that a low carb diet might play an important part is ensuring efficient fuel use.

    1. I've done some hang gliding in the Peak District and there for sure aren't anything like the "peak" Ben Ledi that I can see out of my office window :-)

      I feel that this years Stuc a'Chroin race illustrated that sometimes even experienced fell runners and marshals can get it wrong. As a runner in skimpy clothing we rely heavily on our high work rate to keep us warm and this served me well, but drop this work rate just a small amount in tough conditions and suddenly you can find yourself in a downward spiral and suffering from exposure.

      On the low carb diet side, I suspect there is a benefit from avoiding exhaustion of your glycogen stores. Since lowering my carb and increasing my fat intake my weight has dropped to it's lowest level since I start running again, I believe this weight loss is primarily fat loss. When I started running four years ago I put on muscle and gained around 4 pounds, but now I'm a couple of pounds lighter than this without loosing muscle mass. This great from perspective as a runner, but... I pay the penalty when going swimming - my density is higher so I sink in the water and unless I keep moving I now get cold in the pool.

      So while glycogen sparing is probably good for avoiding hypothermia, however loosing body fat increases the risk. In my case it looks like my ability to keep moving a good rate for longer is what will protect my from hypothermia, but if I get injured and my work rate drops I'll have less insulation to retain the warmth I have so may be in greater danger. The solution is to carry extra layers of clothes in case of such an eventuality. For the Stuc a'Chroin race I'm certain that my running jacket was a big factor in staying warm. Given these experiences in future I'll go with a rucksack and an extra top if similar conditions look likely, just in case a incident stops me in my tracks.