2nd September 1978

What were you doing on the afternoon of Saturday 2nd 1978?

As it was the first Saturday in September you will realise that this was the day of the Ben Nevis Race.

For those not familiar with the race, since 1971 the race has started at Claggan Park, with a 1 mile run over an undulating road to Achintee, when the climbing starts, continuing without break for 4 miles and 4400ft to the summit. You drop your tally in a bucket and head back the way you came up. The final killer is the lap round Claggan Park to cross the line.  10 miles, 4400 ft in total. There is nothing else in the UK to compare with it.

Back to that day 30 years ago. You might want to check out a grainy YouTube clip. A view of some runners warming up shows someone looking remarkably like Seb Coe – while he might have achieved glory on the running track he would have been completely out of his depth on the Ben.

The 2nd September was a damp misty day with the summit covered in thick cloud, and the rock geasy and treacherous.  After 3 second places Mike Short (Horwich) knew that to be in with a chance he had to make the most of his awesome climbing prowess, for Billy Bland (Keswick) was one of the swiftest and most fearless descenders at that time.  At the summit, reached in just over the hour Mike had a 15 second lead over Billy.  On the descent Billy quickly reduced this lead to shreds and went on to win in 1.26.56, Mike destined for second place again 1.47 behind Billy in the fourth fastest time ever recorded.

Billy missed out on taking the record by 1 second.  No one had told him on the run in how close he was, and he later said had he known he was sure he could have made the extra effort on the run in.  Watching the film, Billy (49)is not wearing a watch (Very few runners did in those days) and the casual wave as he enters the park suggests he is not racing for a time.

Mike Short (364) is seen finishing in second. The white haired man, who resembles an old testament prophet is none other than the great Eddie Campbell.

The film and the facts of the race  are only part of the story.  To win the Ben takes a special type of athlete.

Billy Bland, despite his outstanding ability on the hills, especially on rough ground, only won the race once. He led at Achintee, the base of the decent and the start of the road section on 5 other occasions, but was caught each time. Mike Short was second 6 times, never winning the race. Unlucky or what? He ususlly led at the summit, but was caught on the way down.  He now lives in Switzerland and recently won a gold medal in the World Masters Hill Running Championships on an uphill only course.  He was proudly wearing his old Horwich vest.

Eddie Campbell was already a legend in 1978. He had won the race 3 times in the 1950s, and by 1971 was awarded a prize for 21 consecutive sub 2 hour races.  It was in fact his 27th sub 2 hour race. He eventually went on to complete 44 consecutive races. It wpuld have been 45 had the race not been cancelled in 1980 when the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team refused to go beyond Red Burn (about 1/2 way) due to bad weather.  Eddie led a group of runners to the summit and back in protest at the cancellation.

Looking through the list of past winners it is interesting to note that many went onto become international marathon runners. Jeff Norman, who won in 1970 on a longer 12 mile course, went on to run for GB in 2 Olympic marathons. This at a time when team places were decided by a trial marathon, when some 80 to 100 British men were running sub 2.20 marathons each year. Yet most of his running was on the hills.

Dave Cannon who won 5 times in the 1970s ran the marathon for GB. Dave was well known for his reckless descents.  They were so scary they even frightened the other leading descenders of that time. No mean feat. Dave was to compete fo GB in the marathon. His best marathon time being 2.11.

Kenny Stuart, whose 1.25.34 record set in 1984 still stands today.  On a wet day with greasy slippery rock he got from summitt to finish in under 25 minutes, despite being passed on the descent by another demon descender, Jack Maitland. Kenny regained the lead at Achintee and, it is reported, jogged round the park umaware of his record time.  He was later to run many sub 2.15 road marathons.

Into the 1980s and Keith Anderson also won the Ben race, and later ran the marathon for GB, and is now involved in coaching.

Will Kenny Stuart’s record ever be broken?  The race organising committe are offering £1000 for anyone who does.  They publicly state that they think their money is safe.  Anyone who has had any dealings with these folk will know that they would never make such a reckless offer with as much 1p, never mind £1000 unless they were absolutely certain!

If you weren’t on the Ben that day you now know what you missed.  Some of you may have been a bit on the young side, so blame your parents!  If you can remember what you were doing that Saturday afternoon, let me know.

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