The strange lure of Britain's lofty peak: 'The challenge is simple: from the sea to the top of our highest mountain and back down'

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The Independent Online
HIKERS struggling up the zig-zag path to the summit of Ben Nevis in the wind and rain were taken by surprise when runners clambered across the track from the steep mountainside below. Wearing only shorts and singlets, they scrambled up, climbing hand over hand and scattering loose rocks, their sinewy legs pumping hard. Then they sprinted away up the hill into the clouds above. In the Scotrail Ben Nevis race the steady gradient of the path is not always the quickest way to the top.

For fell runners the first Saturday in September is kept free for 'The Ben', as Britain's highest mountain is popularly known. Rising to 4,406ft, Ben Nevis draws walkers from all over Britain to tackle the climb. It is a hard day's walk and not all succeed, but only those who have witnessed the race would believe the 10-mile round trip could be made in 1 hour 30 minutes, the time taken by the winner, Ian Holmes, of Bingley Harriers.

He was following in the footsteps of athletes going back nearly 100 years. The first recorded run was by the local barber, William Swan, in 1895 in 2:41 and the first race in 1899 had 10 competitors. The modern-day race began in 1937 with three runners and only one finisher, and has been held annually since 1951, except for one cancellation, with the record coming down to 1:25:34.

This year 336 runners set off from the Claggan Park sports field in Glen Nevis. To the haunting strain of the bagpipes they marched into the grassy arena and set off along the road for the first mile. Then the path climbed steadily, starting to twist as it steepened to reach the gorge cut by Red Burn. Most runners took the direct line upwards across the gorge before the final climb to the top, which still held some snow. Then came the descent. Already tired and cold, the runners hurled themselves back down, dodging walkers, muscles stretched to the limit and concentration at a peak on the slippery and loose surface. Many fell, cutting knees, heads and arms in a display of total commitment.

George MacFarlane, the race organiser, has his own opinions on why they do it. 'It is a challenge which is simple, from the sea to the top of our highest mountain and back down again. That's what makes this race unique.' He added: 'The runners need a lot of stamina for the climb and courage for the descent.'

Another opinion on the qualities needed to battle The Ben came from Eddie Campbell. 'It's not a long, slow run. You have to be fast and train on the hills a lot. There is a knack to it, especially coming down, and a lot of runners find the descent hurts more than they thought it would.'

A local legend, Campbell has completed every race since 1951. Sporting a red bandana to keep a mass of grey hair in place, he was cheered into the stadium. He is not the only one to keep coming back. Jim Smith, of Todmorden Harriers, finished his 30th run and one of the oldest competitors was Hugo Soper, 66, a finisher 35 times. 'It was terrible at the top,' he said. 'I've rarely felt so bad up there and it is the first time I've stopped to put my waterproof on.'

Last in was Nigel Chisholm, a local bank official, and even wet and exhausted, he could still smile and say: 'Somehow I do enjoy it, it's in my blood.'

(Photograph omitted)