Emi Dixon

18th September 2021


Sweating at the top of Am Bodach

The Ring of Steall is part of the Golden Trail series and one of four races that take place on the Salomon Skyline weekend in Kinlochleven, Scotland (which is like, really, really far from London).

I didn’t really need to do a race 20 days after CCC but I’ve never done a skyrace before and I thought it looked terrifying, which I often think is one of the best reasons to do something. Plus I’ve recently decided I need to do more things that scare me, so I drove 10 hours north on a Friday night to run Ring of Steall ‘for fun’. Admittedly I thought Scotland was just about an hour  north of Manchester , so the drive was  a surprise and probably not the most sensible thing to do the evening before a race. ‘For fun’ basically meant not taking it too seriously – that part came quite naturally to me. I told all my friends I couldn’t make a party because I was doing a skyrace, and then sent them a video of Kilian running along a ridge line so that they would think I was REALLY brave. They mostly just called me stupid. That was about as much thought as I put into the race, or the terrain, or whether or not it would be scary.

The race starts and finishes from the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven, and Salomon have a little expo  for the whole Skyline weekend with live music, an MC, and food & drink stands. It had a fun post-pandemic festival atmosphere that you rarely get at trail races besides the big sponsorship fanfare of UTWT. A crowd of spectators stayed all day to support, drink and generally look like they were having the best time out of everyone, which they possibly were. 

Early on the morning of the race, after a mandatory kit check, I collected my bib and GPS tracker, and then hid in the car for two hours. To me 29k is barely a run, and looking at the soggy mountain behind the car park it suddenly occurred to me that terrain was nothing like I’ve ever raced before. Plus I generally find the weather in Scotland unbearable. I was already very far from my comfort zone whilst still inside the car. My fears weren’t at all allayed at the start which was grey and rainy, and where I felt weirdly out of place among some very hardy looking  runners.  Some runners seemed to have arrived already covered in mud; I was wearing brand new shoes. 

We started in waves every 15 minutes, mine at 9.30am, half an hour behind the elite runners. Despite the smaller group the atmosphere in the start pen was fun, the rained serendipitously stopped and I took my waterproof off, finally convincing myself that I might be about to have a really good day. My mood is often directly linked to the weather… I hate this about myself and have been trying quite hard to break the habit so a race in Scotland was a good way to put this to the test. Despite hiding in the car I felt a huge sense of gratitude on the start, to have the time to go all the way to Scotland for a weekend and to be feeling good enough post-CCC to even try and do it. A little bit of bag-piping and we were sent off into hills. There is a super short section of tarmac out of Kinlochleven before you join a very runnable section of the West Highland Way and soon after start the first climb up Sgùrr an Iubhair [no clue how you say this]. Naturally I did most of this first bit at my half marathon pace. 

The Devil’s Ridge. The best photo I took during the race. It’s good isn’t it.

Descending the West Highland Way

There are very few opportunities to overtake on any of the climbs and ridge lines, so if your strength is climbing it’s worth trying to get yourself into the right position over the first couple of K’s. Despite being in smaller start waves, it didn’t take long before I caught runners from the second wave who were hiking the climb, and it wasn’t easy to pass, especially on the knife ridge where I generally felt it was unfair to push past someone who might not be very confident with heights. Fortunately it seemed that I’d managed to carry a lot of fitness through from the previous two months in Chamonix, and despite 3 weeks of rest since CCC my mountain legs were fresh and I felt like I was flying up the climbs. The downhill and ridge running in this race was far more technical than I’d imagined it would be, but so so fun. 

After some climbing to the first checkpoint you start to run along what I am told was the Devil’s Ridge. This was my first ever bit of ridge running and it didn’t disappoint. The ridgeline was fairly exposed and covered in early morning cloud so people ahead of you would disappear into the mist. This is where I took my best photo. I didn’t find the course itself scary but it does take a lot of courage to run with purpose along that kind of rocky, technical terrain where there is a 100% chance that you’ll injure yourself if you fall. This sensation really reminded me of being a child.

The first descent was more gnarly than I was expecting (having done no research I don’t know what I was expecting) and the only real tactic I can suggest for this kind of running is to be brave. But so far being outside my comfort zone was thrilling. 
My favourite section was the scree slope coming off the first descent, which I pretended was a sand dune and threw myself down. Again, childlike and liberating, until I sprained my ankle a few minutes later. I could still stand but it fucking hurt. We descended 1000m over 1.5k on rock to an aid station at the bottom that had an incredible array of cake, but I was too distracted by my foot to eat. Seeing me tentatively testing  my ankle in different directions, a marshall pointed out that the next 2k was a fairly runnable incline on the West Highland Way, so perhaps I could run that and see how it felt. I loosened my shoelaces to relieve the pressure of the kankle and continued. It hurt a tonne but I reasoned that it didn’t feel unstable and I was still feeling super strong on the climbs, so it seemed a shame to stop. To be honest there was no way I was going to pull out after 9km, I was just pretending to myself that I was making sensible, considered decisions. I developed some tactics to get me to the finish: I knew it was unlikely I’d be able to run downhill anymore, so I resolved that instead I would capitalise on the mountain legs, and my love of hills, and give it everything I had on climbs. Only problem was that in my determination to do the race for fun, I had never looked at a course map or elevation profile. From a cursory glance at the printed map that was handed out at the briefing, I thought I remembered that the race was two massive climbs. We had done one, so I ran as hard as I could to the top of the next Munro, only to discover it wasn’t the last one. That happened three more times before someone finally confirmed we had finished all the ascent. I now believe the race has four Munro’s to summit, but in my defence the elevation map totally does look like there are just two huge climbs with some undulating sections in between. That is not how it feels. 

Crossing Steall Falls

There are a few sections of scrambling between the Devil’s Ridge and the final climb up Am Bodach and I was using my arms a lot to climb, however there’s nothing that I felt was particularly sketchy. The climbs were only short but this is the first race I’ve ever done where I’ve woken up the next day with DOMs in my abs and forearms. There were a couple of sections where the marshals were wearing safety helmets whilst they watched us scramble past, though someone did point out that a helmet was suggested on the kit list (but really, imagine what you’d look like running for six hours in a helmet).

My ankle didn’t get too much worse for the next 20k, though as expected I was struggling to run downhill. Once the cloud cleared the views of Glen Nevis and Ben Nevis (I think) were incredible. Not knowing the route is quite a liberating way to run race but at times I did wish I knew what I was looking at, if only so I could come back. This method can also lead to some disheartening moments when you finally descend something, only to immediately start climbing the mountain opposite. 

Five hours into the race my right leg began giving way as a result of pain that came up from my ankle if I landed on a slight inversion. Because of this I twisted it again quite badly on the final descent which was the boggiest section of the course, of mostly grass and a couple of river crossings. This was the point at which I decided I should drop out,
but it was quite clear that the only way back to the car would be the way I was headed anyway. I walked the last 3-4k until we rejoined the start of the course and then retraced the West Highland Way to the finish.

As ever, I spent a disproportionate amount of time researching what shoes to wear for this race (incidentally, if I spent more time researching the course and less time on shoes I would probably do better in races). The terrain is a confusing mixture of loose rocky trail, scree, bog, river crossings, forests, grass, compacted gravel. Even on a dry day your feet will get very wet. We were pretty lucky with the weather and in rain I imagine the course is trecherous. I can’t remember running on a more varied course. In the end I went for Salomon Wildcross 2 (which I’d never even worn before) and they were pretty much perfect on the whole course. Unfortunately I left my shoes and socks in the back of my car for a week after the race, so now they are mouldy. Yay.

I finished 7th in 5:09 and then went straight to the Co-Op to buy all the frozen peas whence I returned to hide in the car and ice my foot.Ring of Steall was epic and the event organisations is top tier. Despite properly messing up my ankle I’ve already been Googling more skyraces (in warmer places, though). Ridgeline running is totally thrilling, and I think in truth, one of the reason short trail races scare me is that they are bloody hard work. An ultra is a nice hike in the hills by comparison.


Next ︎

About      Strava      Instagram