Last updated: 30-Aug-18
By Ian Corless
Every now and then, a race comes along that makes everyone stop, look and think, “Is that possible?”
Just one year ago, Shane Ohly from Ourea Events, with the aid and careful planning of Gary Tompsett, came up with the idea to put on the ultimate Skyrunning event, and to do it in the UK!
The Dolomites, the Alps and the Pyrenees make the perfect playground for a mountain extravaganza, as we have seen from races like the epic Trofeo Kima and Ice Trail Tarentaise. Many said, “Skyrunning in the UK? Really?”
Well of course it was possible.
The doubters still doubted and I understand why! We don’t have any mountain much over 1000m and Skyrunning calls itself a high altitude sport.
But look at the history. The Ben Nevis race dates back many years and in many respects is a pure Skyrunning race. It starts low, goes high via the most direct route and then returns to the start via the most direct route. The objective? Get to the top and back as quickly as you can. Skyrunning!
Fell and mountain running in the UK is a long standing tradition and Joss Naylor and Billy Bland are now known worldwide for their epic mountain exploits on the Wainwrights and the Bob Graham Round.
Andy Symonds, one of the UK’s top fell, mountain and Skyrunners said:
“Skyrunning is about running high up on rough ground. Getting up, over and along big mountains with big views. The UK series does just that. Our series may have lower mountains but we run up and down them more! 4000m vertical gain is till 4000m!”
So to that end, Ohly and Tompsett created a beast. It is a beast located in the Highlands of Scotland that would take in a circular route of Glen Coe and one that would include the grade 3 scramble of Curved Ridge and the grade 2 scramble of Aonach Eagach.
Madness! People will die! How dare someone put on a race on such challenging terrain?
They heard it all.
As I said, doubters will doubt. But behind the melee of tabloid sensationalism, Ohly and Tompsett went through the course inch-by-inch. They looked at all the possibilities and ended up with not only the most challenging race the UK has ever seen, but a race that now ranks as one of THE Skyrunning races to do in the world.
This sentiment was echoed by the Skyrunning World and European Champion for the ultra distance, Emelie Forsberg saying post race:
“Waow! Seriously the best race in this distance. Super technical ridges and gullies (think Trofeo Kima but no via ferrata!) some parts very runnable on nice but still tricky trails. Glen Coe, I’m thrilled to have run this race. Thanks to your amazing organization. Even though it was hard the course made me go fast. Thanks all of you standing along the course, you made me feel so welcome here!”
The presence of a Skyrunning World Champion on a first edition race speaks volumes. It just doesn’t happen normally, particularly when no Skyrunner® World Series points are available. But this course enticed Emelie, it captured her heart and mind and the reality exceeded her expectations.
Florian Reichert from Germany has also been racing around the world on Skyrunning events since 2012. He recently ran Tromso SkyRace® and embraced the challenge of Glen Coe.
“What a great closer of a long, successful and satisfying season – #glencoeskyline had everything (and more) of a SkyRace I expected! It was by far the most technical, most demanding, most dramatic and most scenic race I have ever done! It’s amazing what the organizers put together here in Scotland. I feel deeply privileged that I have been part of the inaugural race of what will become an epic on the Skyrunning calendar! Thanks for having me here and thanks for your support!”
The doom and gloom of congested trails, broken runners and a blot on the landscape just didn’t happen. In actual fact it was quite a different story. The strict vetting procedure of each runner before they entered the race ensured that every participant was not only capable of the challenge, but also had a very realistic chance of finishing. Only 24 did not complete.
Day walkers and adventurers on the mountains instead of having a day ruined had a day enhanced by seeing athletes pushing the boundaries and testing themselves on what many considered, an impossibly difficult course.
“How far did you say they are running?” one walker asked.
“Well they started at the ski station, went up Curved Ridge, they ran all the tops down that side, crossed the road at the bottom and then came along this side of the mountains crossing the Aonach Eagach and then eventually returned to the ski station via the West Highland Way after 50+kms.”
“That is unbelievable, they are superhuman. And they can do that in one day? What a honour to be here and see this unfold.”
It was an epic day in the mountains.
In the early stages of the race, it was all going to script with Joe Symonds, Es Tressider and a handful of other top male talent dictating the pace. Emelie Forsberg held a slender lead over the 2015 Berghaus Dragons Back winner, Jasmin Paris.
Climbing Curved Ridge was the highlight of the race. Coming just 6-miles in, it was a real brutal way to kick off. The Curved Ridge route ascended Stob Dearg (Buachaille Etive Mor) via the exposed Grade III scramble (a ‘Moderate’ graded rock climb).
What followed was a master class of pure Skyrunning by Joe and Emelie. They pushed the pace, extended the gap between the competition and when they entered the Aonach Eagach Ridge, barring an accident, the race for the respective top slots was over. However, Joe was only 10-minutes ahead of Emelie… could she close the gap?
But only by a couple of minutes. Joe crossed the line in 7:36:21 and Emelie 7:44:19.
“My overall reflections on this race are that the route was absolutely phenomenal. I can’t think of anywhere else on mainland UK that could offer such quality of extreme mountain running. It is no overstatement to say that this really was a first for us in Britain. Elsewhere Emelie has already given her thoughts on how it compares to other races of this distance across the globe. To organize this event was of course brave, given the objective danger involved. But bravery often pays off, and you can mitigate against the dangers, as the organizers did, by taking appropriate safety precautions and vetting participants carefully.” – Joe Symonds
The race is done. The stories are being told, the images have been seen and the video teaser is live. Races don’t become iconic after one edition, but its fair to say that the Salomon Glen Coe Skyline has come close. Worldwide exposure has been phenomenal. Of course this is down to a beautiful set of mountains in a remarkable part of the world, but this event could not have happened without a team of people coming together with a vision and then pulling off what many said, could not be done.
They did it!
And they did it with bells on… cowbells actually.
Ohly and Tompsett were brave men putting this challenge out in the open. Ohly summed it up well in numerous interviews with The Times, The BBC and other national media:
“We are not creating another mass participation fell or trail running event, but rather a world class Skyrunning course for experienced and competent participants, The Glen Coe Skyline is a fusion of mountain running and alpinism where competitors need to be skilled at both disciplines to negotiate the course.”
Dan Bailey from UK Hill Walking commented:
“Saturday’s inaugural Salomon Glen Coe Skyline race went down a storm with competitors and the many spectators who came to offer support. Despite misgivings from some quarters the event ran smoothly. Taking in every mountain around the rim of Glen Coe, including the steep grade 3 scramble of Curved Ridge and the long, involved grade 2 traverse of Aonach Eagach, the race has brought Skyrunning to the UK. Fusing mountain running with hands-on scrambling, un-roped, it carried a real element of risk besides physical challenge.”
Attention now turns to 2016 and the possibilities it will bring. It’s rare that a first edition race goes so smoothly. Tweaks are needed and Ohly and Tompsett are perfectionists. As Ohly says, in his post race report.
“So, after sending almost 150 runners off on this world-class course, how come I am so relaxed? Because I had plans for almost everything and my plans have been critiqued by the right kind of experts. Because I was supported by an incredible team of volunteers and most of the UK’s leading adventure sport event experts. More than anything, because the entries were restricted to carefully selected competitors, allowing me to predict, with a fair degree of accuracy, their skill and experience levels.”
The Skyrunner UK Series now follows with the Lakes Sky Ultra on the 12th September closely followed by the 3×3 80km and the Mourne Skyline MTR.
Joe Symonds 7:36:21
Mark Harris 7:44:51
Jayson Cavill 7:49:42
Emelie Forsberg 7:44:19 (2nd overall)
Jasmin Paris 7:54:29
Sarah Ridgway 9:21:44
Watch the video here.