At 52km long and 4,750m of ascent, the Glen Coe Skyline on paper sounds like a challenging race, but the numbers are only half the story.
In addition to the distance and elevation, the route involves large sections of scrambling, and racing along the narrowest ridge on mainland Britain. The technical nature, long ascents and descents, and high levels of exposure make this one of the most challenging races in the world.
The route starts at sea level in Kinlochleven, and ascends slowly along the world-famous West Highland Way, before descending the Devil’s Staircase into Glen Coe. A scramble up Curved Ridge, on Buachaille Etive Mor, follows, before runners turn west and climb a number of mountains on the South side of Glen Coe. A long descent follows into the Glen and the one aid station on the race, before a torturously steep ascent takes runners up on to the Aonach Eagach Ridge, where competitors then turn east and carefully traverse the length of the ridge that runs along the entire north side of Glen Coe. After the ridge there is then a short section of runnable terrain back on the to West Highland Way, and retracing steps back to Kinlochleven.
I had looked at the race a couple of times. The first edition didn’t work with my race calendar as I was doing the Tromso Skyrace a couple of weeks before, the second edition was the day after my wedding, and this time it fell on my 1st wedding anniversary… Luckily I have a very understanding wife and was given permission to enter!
Having grown up in Scotland and climbed all of the mountains previously, I was familiar with the terrain and the sheer ruggedness of the course. However, I had only done sections on individual days, and never anything close to the entire route in a single outing.
I had also completed the Tromso Skyrace on 3 occasions, which is similar in terms of distance and elevation, so I was happy I could get round the course, but was extremely aware that Tromso does not have anywhere near the same percentage or difficulty of technical climbing as the Glen Coe Skyline.
I had completed Sierre Zinal a month earlier, and from that race I knew my legs were in good shape, especially from a climbing perspective. I decided that the most beneficial training I could do was to practice more technical scrambling routes to work on this specific area and improve ahead of Glen Coe.
In order to implement this and give myself suitable time to taper for the race, I visited Snowdonia the week after Sierre Zinal and completed an 18km route with 2,500m of climbing and sections of scrambling up Tryfan and Bristly Ridge on Glyder Fach.
The following weekend I decided to recce the race route over two days. Primarily, this was to familiarise myself with the more technical sections of the course, but also to check for water on the route as there was only one aid station. This also served as a tough training weekend. I appreciate this isn’t a luxury I am normally able to do, but I was grateful that I did it.
Day 1 involved running the first 33km of the route from the start in Kinlochleven to the position of the first aid station. This involved around 3,300m of climbing and one of the two most technical sections of the race – Curved Ridge. I was feeling good, and able to maintain a decent pace throughout the day.
Day 2 was wet, and I knew I had the hardest section of the race – the narrow technical Aonach Eagach ridge – to do. This involved a 1,000m climb straight up from the car park in Glen Coe and then along the wet and slippery ridge, famous for the exposure and long drops on either side. I took my time, got acquainted with the route, and the options on the ridge. At the end of the ridge, rather than dropping back down to the finish in Kinlochleven, I turned back down into Glen Coe to loop back to my car. This was a much shorter day at only 7.4km, but still had 1,300m of climbing.
All in all, I was feeling good ahead of the race, and was happy to rest up and taper ahead of race day.
A race like of this magnitude always attracts a high-quality field, with the likes of Kilian Jornet and Jonathan Albon present in the men’s field and with such high calibre runners, the race started fast.
I was running comfortably but as we approached Curved Ridge there was already a queue of runners waiting to climb. Unfortunately there was nothing to do but await your turn. Once up the toughest section of scrambling, the field thinned and there was room to run my own race. I remembered to fill my water bottles at a stream as knew it was the last for some time, and was moving faster than I had on the recce run.
I came into the aid station and met some friends who had come to watch – this gave me a real boost, but I was rude and didn’t hang around to chat, as I knew the next climb was a brute, up on the Aonach Eagach.
As I climbed I was beginning to feel the pace a bit, and a runner I had been running with began to pull away from me. I had put some Coke in one of my bottles at the aid station and had a good drink of that. Five minutes later I had my energy back and started to power hike up the climb.
Once on the ridge I found it a lot easier than my recce. It was a dry day the rocks were a lot less slippery, and I was in my element. I caught a few other runners and we went along the ridge together. I was able to keep them updated on how far was left and what as coming up as I think it is fair to say they had underestimated quite how hard the ridge would be.
The sun was up and I was beginning to run low on water. I knew that we would be off the ridge soon, and although I hadn’t recced the section from the end of the ridge back to the West Highland Way I was confident there would be a stream to fill up at. It is Scotland, it rains a lot, so there would be water.
I was wrong, there was not one stream for the next 8km. The ground was damp, there were bogs everywhere, but not any clean water. I was beginning to get thirsty as the sun was fully out, and I was on runnable terrain and wanting to push on. Once back on the West Highland Way we crossed a stream and I decided, despite only 5km downhill to the finish, to stop and refill one bottle. Having rehydrated I was feeling so much better, and was able to maintain a strong run to the finish.
If you are doing the race here are my 5 key points to build into your training plan:
The video I made is available here:
If you would like more advice or training plans on the race please get in touch.