McBurney’s 21st…Newcastle AC New

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(Brian McBurney and Sarah Graham)

Saturday 7th September dawned bright and dry and as I looked from the bedroom window of our accommodation, on the outskirts of Fortwilliam, I could clearly see the upper slopes of Ben Nevis. Standing at 1345m high it is the highest mountain in the UK, and being so far north in Scotland weather conditions can change in the blink of an eye, if the event had of been one week earlier, they would have had to cancel it. NAC on tour were over for the annual pilgrimage to Fortwilliam to race The Ben, a race to the top and back.

The weekend started 24hrs earlier for us as we met in Hilltown at 5am for an early flight to Glasgow. Picking up the hire car, we made our way north on one of the most scenic routes I’ve ever driven. The mountain ranges were simply stunning and once we passed through the snow barriers, used to close the road in adverse weather, we knew we were getting close. Arriving at our house in the early afternoon, we had lunch, gathered a few provisions and did a bit of sightseeing. The team so far included, Catherine McIntosh, Gary McEvoy, Pete Grant and David Hicks, who although injured at the minute was there to shout from the sidelines. Arriving on later flights were Bronagh McInerney and Brian McBurney who was over to complete his 21st Ben Nevis race, quite an achievement on its own to make the trip over every year.

The race started at 1pm with the first mile on a tarmac road before hitting the foot of the mountain. From here to the halfway point, there is a fairly decent path, although very busy with walkers. After crossing the river at the halfway point, suddenly the terrain changes, becoming very steep and covered in loose scree and large boulders making running near impossible. I left Claggan park 2hrs earlier planning to summit in time for the race leaders coming and as if on cue I found myself rounding the summit cairn with none other than Finlay Wild, on his way to make it 10 wins in a row! In the six minutes it took for the next runner to appear I stared in awe at the mountains I could see in every direction, very unusual on top of Ben to have zero wind and 100% visibility. I slowly made my way back down as the rest of the field came and went, handing out water and various bits of advice as I went. On my return to the finish field, a quick glance confirmed all NAC made it back unscathed, then it was down to the important stuff like, “What time did you do?”

Home and changed it was time to celebrate, after everyone was fed and watered, we made our way to the Nevis Centre for prize giving. The highlight of the evening for NAC was watching Brian collecting his Connochie plaque in recognition of him completing the race 21 times. Rival club Mourne Runners were also celebrating as this year’s female winner was H&D regular Sarah Hanna, nee Graham, taking part for the first time she was ecstatic as she crossed the line taking the win in 2:12:21, even beating hubby Ricky to the top! Overall winner was Finlay Wild, for the tenth time in a row, in 1:32:05. First NAC man was Gary McEvoy in 2:14:04, closely followed by Pete Grant 2:19:19 and Brian McBurney in 3:09:05. NAC ladies Catherine McIntosh and Bronagh McInerney finished in 2:44:18 and 2:48:20 respectively. Celebrations needless to say lasted well into the night.

Sunday morning, and once again the big mountain was out of sight as cloud hovered around the upper slopes, we made our return to Glasgow and our onward journey home, vowing once again to return next year for another go. Brian on the other hand said those famous last words, “Never again!” But, 12 months is a long time and there is no rule to say you can’t race it 22 times.

As I write this report, looking back through some of the amazing photos I took, looking at distant mountains, perhaps for future expeditions, I wonder what did I do to deserve to be a fell racer in this part of the world?

By Hill Runner