Like all pilgrimages, this one has its rituals; the trip to the foot of the fabled Ben always the first – maybe it is just to check that it is still there but tradition dictates that all will jog to the first bridge. On this occasion the elite squad took off in advance, in pursuit of Mikkelson-Barron, brows furrowed at the prospect of barbed wire interfering with the traditional route.
The captain of the Mourne Runners cyclocross section lagged behind though, keen to regale all who would listen with tales of his exploits on the first race of the season and by the time the runners returned 40 minutes later none of the assembled throng at the Ben Nevis Inn could quite understand how he hadn’t won it.
Puzzled faces peered out from under the covers on Saturday morning; not only were there blue skies and not a breath of wind but no sign of rain. The dire predictions of mist, storms and torrents came to naught. A unique experience for most would follow – a Ben race where the course was visible from top to bottom.
But first the vital pre-race preparation with porridge and eggs on the menu. A well-known national pub chain seemed to do its best but even Oliver Twist wouldn’t have been asking for more of the gruel and the scrambled eggs seemed to have been devised in the Goodyear school of cooking.
So it was a mean and hungry looking bunch who took their places behind Lochaber Pipe Band for the nerve jangling shuffle to the starting pen. At the gun the McKees moved effortlessly along the Achintee Road with William reaching the gravel track in 6 and a half minutes and David hard on his heels.
On to the steep and rough terrain above the Red Burn and a group of Mournemen, Jonny Scott, Richard Hanna and Garth McGimpsey traded places with eventual ladies’ winner Diane Wilson also in the mix. The duel continued on the descent with Scott eventually leading the trio home with a slightly battered Hanna just 25 seconds adrift. A superb run by McGimpsey saw him improve on his 2016 time by a remarkable 12 minutes, proving that all those years of sharing with Ricky have finally paid dividends with some of the stardust drifting down from the bunk above. With all three within 2 and a half minutes of the coveted two hour mark, 2018 must be the year.
Sam Herron, after a season spent nursing a persistent niggling injury which allowed little or no mountain training, showed his class with a finish on 2.11 with Richard Bell just five minutes behind.
Further down the field there were rubber problems of a different variety with Darren’s soles not up to the demands of a storming descent where he made up a ten minute lead to catch the chairman just below the river crossing and leading to an appointment with his new best friend in the beautician’s following up last week’s wax with a pedicure. There was much learned debate about the speed of his descent with club scientific adviser McAleenan noting that the force of the impact was equal to mass multiplied by velocity and while there was some control over the speed there wasn’t much that could be done about the weight.
Prior to the race Herronsports were offering attractive odds on the chairman returning to Claggan Park with at least one limb either a different shape or in more than one piece but after a rash of bets the bookies took a hammering with Bell arriving home at a leisurely pace but intact.
Of the race virgins Jonny Scott was first home in an excellent 2.01, Clare Withers, unflappable as ever showed no fear on the lengthy run down, shadowing specialist descenders Ciaran McAleenan and 14 times veteran Ricky Cowan off the summit but wisely backing off on the craggy rocks half way to the Burn. McAleenan flew off the summit matching Cowan step for step until the stile.
Back at the sharp end William McKee was the top Club finisher in a brilliant 15th place with David just over five minutes behind, iodine patches doing the trick, on a mountain that neither of them had ever seen before.
The star of the show this year though was the weather with a treat for those travelling slowly enough on the descent to be able to lift their eyes. The Halfway Lochan sat shimmering in the middle distance against a backdrop of an azure sky and the mirror-like Loch Linnhe beyond. If you were taking it seriously though you might not have seen any of that with more than one Mourne runner heard to remark afterwards, “What Loch, I didn’t see one”.
In keeping with tradition, post-race celebrations were muted with Horlicks the predominant beverage of choice. Ricky Hanna in particular needed to keep his wits about him as he stalked race winner Finlay Wild around town hoping to extract training tips, eventually cornering him in the Pizza Corner where his favourite toppings were carefully noted. Anne is now under strict instructions that the Hanna Sunday lunch from now to next September must be Hawaiian with extra pineapple.
Results were carefully digested in Glasgow airport en route home and the club performance director pronounced himself well satisfied with the outcome, especially the team result which saw Mourne finish in 5th place ahead of several legendary hill running clubs including Clayton le Moors and Helm Hill whose team included former winner Rob Jebb. There was heartfelt concern that the best Fell Running Club in County Down could only manage 32nd place although at least it was an improvement on 36th last year.
A postscript was a bit more rubber bother on the road from George Best to the Kingdom with the Honda limping to a halt suspiciously close to Brennans. Is it true that they serve pizza at 1am?