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Gary Baum 's Journey

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The Scottish Fours

It was a typical July Friday night in Lochaber. We pitched the tent in the wet, at 10pm, and then slept fitfully, listening to the incessant wind and rain, until we woke at 4am, a quarter of an hour after our alarm had failed to go off. If we were not to be late for Martin, there was now no time for a hot drink - so we hurriedly collapsed the tent, stuffing handfuls of wet nylon into kit bags and jam sandwiches into our mouths as we put on our fell running gear. It was light by now but as we drove round to Glen Nevis we realised that the cloud was down to about 1000 feet and that the day ahead would probably offer even more challenges than we had hoped for.

The aforementioned Martin is, of course, of the Stone variety and the day ahead involved taking part in his most recent creation – the inaugural Staminade Scottish 4000’s Duathlon. The event’s title is, I suppose, somewhat self explanatory, but, for the uninitiated, the Scottish 4000’s Duathlon involves linking the Bridge by the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel with the Norwegian Stone in Glenmore – via 31 miles and 13000 feet of ascent on foot (including, of course, all the 4000 foot Munros), and about 60 miles of cycling. The route has been followed numerous times and, until the weekend in question, the record stood at 12 hours 35 minutes – set by Mark Hartell in 1998, although Mark did not include the recently promoted Angel’s Peak in his itinerary. To offset this, possibly, it must be pointed out that neither did Mark have the option of mountain biking down the new fast cycle descent that takes the pounding off the legs for the last 1500 feet of Aonach Mor. The idea of turning the challenge into a race was actually Paul McClintock’s, who completed the route last year with Duggie Gillespie in a time of 13 hours 20 minutes. It was, however, down to Martin that 26 competitors and a group of willing volunteer helpers and marshals gathered near Fort William on a gloomy Friday night.

Jane (Meeks), Liz (Cowell), Paul (McClintock) and I started the ascent of the Ben at 5am, along with a couple of runners from Kendal. The girls planned to stay together. I hoped to keep with Paul for as long as I could but was pretty sure that he would want to pull away after a while. It had stopped raining briefly and spirits were raised as we began to imagine that the day was about to turn. The clouds seemed to be breaking up. How wrong could we have been? By the summit of the Ben (1hr 23min) Paul and I and the two other guys were in thick cloud and rain and the girls were out of visible range behind us. We had passed one bedraggled, rather miserable looking small group of Three-Peakers about half way up but otherwise we could have been the only people on Earth. The wind was also building and we were feeling cold as we descended on a bearing towards the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. Despite the conditions, things seemed to be going well enough, and maybe we were too relaxed when we thought we recognised the ground from previous visits and forgot the compasses for a while. Thanks to this lapse of local knowledge we had to re-climb about 100m and contour back into the arete. The girls were by now, of course, ahead. The ridge was a cold, wind and hail battered, slippery, exposed scramble – but at least there was no way we could lose our way for a while – as far as Carn Mor Dearg anyway. It was just before the summit of the third top - Aonach Beag - that we caught up with Jane and Liz, who were pretty surprised to see us coming up from behind – they had assumed we must have been two very fast 6 am starters. We stuck together as a four over Aonach Mor and down into the ski area. From here, Paul donned leg armour and helmet and hopped onto his pre-positioned bike while I tried unsuccessfully to keep with the girls’ pace as they legged it down to the ski station.

Martin was at the ski station and seemed pleased with how things were going. He also related some good news - that the weather in the Gorms was predicted to be much better. Jane and Liz completed the change-over quite smartly and it was a few minutes later that Paul and I began another chase, this time on our road bikes. Our tactic was to draught each other in 2-minute spells with a short rest and stretch on the hour. The wind was blowing strongly in our favour and we made excellent progress. A speed of 20mph up slight hills seemed relatively effortless – for a while anyway. The foot and mouth enforced cycle training had maybe paid off too. We passed Liz and Jane quite soon – and seemed to be going a fair bit faster than them. Maybe we would build up enough lead on this 60 mile section to keep ahead of them on the hills in the Cairngorms. We were impressed that Martin had arranged a series of big yellow signs indicating our progress. ‘Keep on cycling’ said one, ‘Keep smiling’ said another. The one that said ‘15 miles to go’ was the one that really cheered us up as it came much sooner than expected. We must have been flying along!….and then we realised that the signs were nothing to do with us but with a much shorter bike race on the same road. Spirits were dulled a little and then, to compound matters, the road changed direction down into Glen Feshie for a final gruelling 5 miles into the wind with legs now tired after three hours of continuous pedalling. Thank goodness that running uses different muscles to cycling….

Now midday, it was a great sight to see the vehicles and our kit bags ready for us, with fresh clothes and food. Jon Broxap gave me some scones and offered me tea – my first hot drink of the day and boy did it taste good. There was a small group of 4am and 5am starters getting ready to leave and a couple of heads could be seen bobbing in the undergrowth a way up the track. Before I had even got my shoes off, however, Jo Roe (Paul’s wife) and Katie Boocock (whom we had also overtaken) cycled in, closely followed by Jane and Liz. So much for that time we were making up. We had passed them, it turned out, as they were restarting having just picked up a flying bike computer.

So much also for the idea that I was about to use different muscles - if that was the case why was I hobbling so stiffly and sorely as we set off up the road at the start of the leg to Cairn Toul? I was now sure of two things – that Paul would leave me fairly soon and that the girls would overhaul us somewhere on the Great Moss. I was correct in the second prediction, but Paul steadfastly remained with me all day. It is a long, long way to Cairn Toul from Glen Feshie and by now the relatively pleasant weather had again deteriorated to cloud and wind. Having gained the ridge, navigation over Angel’s Peak and Braeriach was not really a problem, despite the poor visibility, although we probably could have gained a little time by being braver cutting more of a corner on Braeriach. Liz and Jane were now gradually increasing their distance from us and as I stumbled painfully down the steep rough descent to the Lairig Ghru – and a manned checkpoint – I saw them moving apparently very strongly up the other side towards Ben Macdui. So strongly that Jim Davies did not seem to be catching them. He was the first of the 7am starters to come through and had just passed us – running easily down the steep flank of Braeriach. The fact that he had taken two hours less than us to reach this point probably explained his initial lack of speed ascending behind the girls. Needless to say, by the time Paul and I had reached Ben Macdui Jim was completely out of sight – and the girls were about 15 minutes ahead.

The surface from Macdui round to Cairn Gorm was generally excellent for running, but anything other than a gentle descent was by now causing real pain in my knees.At least the cloud had now lifted and we enjoyed fantastic views into the Loch Avon Basin over to Carn Etchachan and The Shelterstone Crag. I tried to blot out the soreness by thinking about climbing experiences on these crags in their winter garb – but these memories were just as painful, so I soon stopped! I hobbled down to the Ptarmigan restaurant, Paul patiently waiting every now and again, and then stumbled down a ski tow parallel to the hideous new funicular rails. I could stride a bit on the last gentle dirt road but I so much wanted this to be over now and to be back on the bike for the last descent.

To avoid the inevitable injuries, Martin had set the finish of the actual race at the ski car park, but to attempt the record you had to cycle down to Glenmore. We clearly had no designs on the record but still enjoyed the sweeping hairpins down towards Loch Morlich. And then it was over. 14 hours 38 minutes – 19 minutes behind Jane and Liz who were equal first ladies. Jim Davies had finished in 11 hrs 36 minutes – an awesome achievement, but the previous record was also beaten by Steve Birkenshaw, Pete James and Tom Gibbs (who also did the fastest bike section).

It had been a unique event – we agreed that we could not think of a better venue for a mountain duathlon in the UK – and the organisation of the day with its complicated logistics seemed to go like clockwork. All 26 starters finished the event (a first for any event of this scale?) and we received excellent hospitality at Glenmore Lodge. The lift back to Nevis Range in the Glenmore minibus the next morning really emphasised the scale of the event – but, even more so, it put into perspective the 15 year old record held by Martin Stone himself – that of a solo unsupported run over the whole distance (21 hrs 39 mins). Next year maybe?

Gary Baum
2nd July 2001