Fort William, Scotland.
The Glen Nevis River Race has been running since the early 1970s, and is used to help raise funds for the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team. The event is described as a race down the Nevis River, through Glen Nevis, under Ben Nevis, on lilos (air beds).
I first came across this event in 2008. Due to family commitments, we were unable to take part that year, so when the 2009 date went public, Rhona and I decided to go for it.
As with most challenges I do, (these days), I contacted the organizers first to make sure that even with me being registered blind, I would still be able to enter.
Frazer, the owner of No Fuss Events, who runs this race suggested that we meet up and discuss it. After our first meeting, it was suggested that Rhona and I come back closer to the race and have a test swim. Frazer organized for Stephen Cant and Jenna Jackson (the male and female winners of the 2008 race) to take us for the trip. The river was pretty low, and we had a great time. It didn’t look too difficult, so we were all happy.
Two weeks later and the race had arrived. Also, in the intervening 2 weeks since our last visit, the rain had been constant, and the river had changed from a low level pretty river, to a raging monster which looked like it could not be tamed!! What had we put ourselves up for!! Not only had we put ourselves up for this, but we had persuaded our good friend Dennis Underwood to come along for this jolly jaunt! Sorry Dennis.
The atmosphere was buzzing and we got chatting to other entrants. We met one guy from Northern Ireland who had bought, what he thought was a 6ft inflatable alligator online to ride down the river on. However, when it arrived, it was only about 4ft long and pretty narrow. The lilos were supposed to offer some protection, and this wee lizard wasn’t going to be doing too much of that.
The race started with a 20ft jump from a cliff, which I had done on my training trip. However, due to the high river level, fast moving water, and my poor sight, Frazer had arranged for me to start from a small eddy next to the jump, with Rhona going first, then me and finally Dennis acting as rear shepherd. (It was feared that I may not have enough time to catch my lilo before hitting the first rocks, which would obviously be a major problem.)
The racers were set off at 1 minute intervals*, and as we were number 10, we did not have long to wait until it was our turn. “Go!” and we were off. Lying on our lilos, and kicking like mad, Rhona went first, with me at her feet, and Dennis just behind me. All had started well. Within a few feet, Rhona was off her lilo and I raced past her. Now I was in front.
(I often hear people referring to “guide dogs” as “blind dogs”. Not much use to a blind person. However, I was now the “blind dog” guiding Rhona and Dennis!)
Within a few seconds I was swept into the left bank of the river and trapped in a small eddy at the foot of a cliff. Rhona had caught up with me and was now whizzing by, over a small waterfall and down into some rocks. I tried to swim out behind her, but the river was too strong. Then Dennis flew past me, holding on for dear life, to his lilo. I had to try to follow him, but I couldn’t swim out of this eddy. I stood up, bent my knees and leapt into the air, hoping to clear the eddy’s edge. I was out, then down, then thrown to the right and then crashing into a rock. Not to worry, I was out!
From here, we played a sort of “leap frog”, passing each other, as one of us would get trapped against a rock, then fall off the edge and catch up. Rhona, would be in front, then Dennis would take the lead and then it would be my turn. The river would take you to the right and drop you over a waterfall. Then you’d be swung to the left, careering over rocks, towards the cliffs, and then back to the right. Every so often there would be a relatively calm section, which was where you’d try to climb back on to your lilo, before hitting the next set of rapids, or hit a rock, or drop over a waterfall. As with everyone else, I spent more time off the lilo than on it, but all the time I was telling myself “whatever you do, don’t let go of it”. When it came to the big rocks, it would be the thing that would cushion the blows.
Within a few hundred yards, we had lost Dennis. He’d crashed into a rock and was struggling to get off. As we were in the river, there was absolutely nothing we could do, so if things were really bad, one of the safety guys (placed all along the route), would come to his assistance. As it turned out, he managed to get off and back into the water to finish the race. Our team was now down to just Rhona and me. Rhona was trying to keep me in sight, but I had pretty much lost her. Every time someone went past me, I would shout “are you Rhona?” This obviously confused some people, but those who had seen the sign on my back !BEWARE Blind & Stupid” realized the situation
As we thundered down the river, some of the rapids and drops seemed to be getting mighty big. It then dawned on me. We must be getting close to the “Leg Breaker”. This section had been closed in 2008 as the river was too high. Sure enough I started to recognize certain features. The cliffs had gone and the banks were a bit lower. The rocks were much bigger, and there were loads more spectators. This was one of the best places to watch the race. This was where the carnage took place!
Not having been on my lilo for some time now, I hit the big one. This was the “Leg Breaker” itself. I had been swept left, then right, and all of a sudden I went over what felt to be about a 5ft drop. I felt the water pummeling me, and I fought to get to the surface. I got to the surface and tried to swim on. However, the Nevis wasn’t going to let it happen that easy. I was dragged backwards and then under the fall again. Again I re-surfaced, and again I tried to swim clear. Once again I was dragged back and under. I knew that other racers would be coming over the drop any time now, and that if I got dragged back for a third time, I could get hit by someone coming over. On this attempt, I gathered all of my strength and went for it. Kicking my feet, and swimming with one hand, while the other held on to the lilo, I gave it everything I could. A few seconds later, I was clear and swam around the corner into an eddy on my right.
Now, where was Rho? I had been in the eddy for a few seconds when I spied a couple of guys on the rocks above me. I thought they may be safety guys, so I shouted to them. The noise of the water must have been too loud, as they only answered after several more shouts. For a while they could not see her, but then spotted her on the opposite bank.
It turned out that she had an equally tough time in the “Leg Breaker”, but had eventually swum clear by going left. She had been really shaken up, and was unsure if she was going to carry on. After a few shouts across the river, she made up her mind.
We both jumped back into the river, like some old Red Indian lovers, (Running Bear and Little White Dove),hoping to meet in the middle. It was not meant to be. As we swam like billy-o, the river took us downstream. Within a few seconds, we were over another drop. Again, this one felt to be around 4-5 foot. As we came out of that, the river went calm. We had made it through the worst of it. Well, apart from the big waterfall.
We swam the next few hundred yards, chatting how we’d got on and wondering if Dennis was OK. We soon arrived at the get-out section for the waterfall. We walked down the path for another 50 yards and then around the corner to the bridge above the “Lower Falls”. The bridge was packed with spectators. We made our way to the jumpmaster, who told us where to jump, while his buddy, the “lilo-master” dropped in the lilos. The waterfall was much bigger than the last time we’d jumped it, and it looked and sounded really scary! Rhona went first. There was no need for a countdown. She was told where to jump, and she did. What a star!! Lots of people had been very scared and had needed some coaxing. Not my Rhona!
Then it was my turn. I had met the jumpmaster before the race, and told him what I needed. He held on to me while I found the edge and put my feet there. Then when I stood up, I bent my arms and pointed my hands out in front of me, like a robot. He pointed my hands in the direction I should jump. I squared my body up with my arms and jumped! I could hear the roar of the waterfall to my right, and as I entered the water, I could feel the froth from the churned up water all around me. I went deep and it took a few seconds for me to stop going down and start to rise. A few seconds later and I was back on the surface. As I looked behind me, my lilo landed on the river. I grabbed it and we were off.
After that, the rest of the river was pretty tame. We eventually made it to the end, where we were told to exit the river, and pick up our free Ben Nevis whisky minature and a can of Red Bull.
How much fun can you have on a lilo, without getting arrested!!
As I said earlier, everyone was set off at 1 minute intervals. However, due to the rain still falling and the water level rising, this was reduced to 30 seconds, and in fact, the last few racers were set off at 15 second intervals. Little did we know at the time, but the safety team had decided that the race was within minutes of being cancelled. The river was at the highest level that could be safely run.
The winners of the 2009 race were the same as in 2008. Stephen Cant won the guys race, and Jenna Jackson won the women’s race. It is thought that the winning times are unlikely to be beaten, as the river will never be run at a higher or faster level than in 2009.
Can I also take this opportunity to thank everyone at No Fuss Events, the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team, who made up the majority of the safety team, Stephen and Jenna for our training day, and everyone else involved in making this such an amazing day. Hopefully we’ll be back in 2010!!