MANY sporting events claim to be the world's toughest, but one with

stronger credentials than most was celebrated at a gala dinner in Fort

William last night.

The Ben Nevis race was marking its centenary, and a specially

commissioned history goes on sale today.

The toughest?

The bare statistics of a book* meticulously researched by The Herald's

shinty correspondent, Hugh Dan MacLennan, tell only a fraction of the

story: almost 15 miles from the start, in Fort William's King George V

Park, to the summit at 4406 feet, where the temperature is regularly

16[DEG] colder than at the foot.

For 21 years, until 1904, an observatory stood at the summit. It

recorded a mean annual temperature which failed to break freezing, and

an average of 261 gales each year, all of them in excess of 50mph. In

May, 140 inches of snow have been recorded at the peak. Even in June the

observatory has been completely buried in blizzard-driven snow.

The first timed assault of the mountain, in August 1895, was by a

local hairdresser, William Swan. He raced to the top and back in 2hr

41min. The record has been reduced to 1hr 25min 34sec, by UK marathon

internationalist Kenny Stuart in 1984. However, Cambuslang's Colin

Donnelly failed by just 15 seconds to bring the record back to Scotland

two years later. The female record (1-43-25), also was set in 1984, by

Pauline Haworth, Stuart's Keswick clubmate.

Women made occasional ascents in the early years, but the first to

succeed with the whole trip, in 1955, was a local lass, 16-year-old

Kathleen Connochie, who defied a diktat from the sport's then governing

body, the Scottish Amateur Athletic Association, who forbade both sexes

competing together. She received a toilet bag for her victory, in a time

of 3hr 02min, a record which survived until after the course was

changed, being surpassed only by Olympic cross-country skier, Ros

Coates, 24 years later.

Special insurance was provided for competitors in 1953, believed to be

the first race to do so. The pay-out was #6 a week, for six weeks, to

anyone who incurred injury -- but only on production of a medical


It was an important feature, as 75-year-old Hugh MacLeod, recalls.

Guest of honour yesterday, he is the second-oldest surviving competitor.

The oldest, 80-year-old Dr John Martin of Edinburgh, competed in 1937,

but is now resident in Australia.

MacLeod retired from the police force in 1976, having served as deputy

chief constable for the combined Ross and Sutherland forces, and as

commander of the central division of the North Constabulary.

But as a young constable, he was playing amateur football without the

permission of his chief constable. ''If I had got injured, I'd have been

out of the force,'' he said.

That was his only training for the 1942 Ben race, for which he did

receive permission to run, becoming part of local history in an event

which adumbrated the infamous ''Jim Peters'' 1954 Commonwealth marathon.

Duncan MacIntyre collapsed just yards short of the line, was

disqualified after having been helped by his brother, and MacLeod came

through to take second behind Charles Wilson, of Kilwinning.

''Duncan was a close friend, and I was devastated for him. Everyone

was delighted when he won the following year. Personally, I was only

interested in finishing. There were Commandos from Achnacarry, Royal

Marines from Corpach, and Royal Navy personnel from Fort William.

''The local inspector had come along, fearing I would collapse, which

would reflect unfavourably on the force.

''I ate handfuls of snow and took it easy. I just wanted to avoid

incurring his wrath. I made the mistake of crossing the river early, and

my muscles seized with the cold. I was delighted to place second.

''I was a member of the local mountain rescue team, but had never been

to the top. I raced a year later -- the only two times I've ever been to

the summit. But I am tempted to have a go at the centenary event next


The race has no motto, but for the next 100 years the organisers could

do worse than adopt one symbolic with Gaelic persistence: ''Anail a'

Ghaidheil air a'mhullach.'' The true Gael stops for breath only at the


*The Ben Race: The Supreme Test of Athletic Fitness, #10.99 inc p&p.

Ben Nevis Race Association. Available from George MacFarlane, 16 Grange

Terrace, Fort William.

* THE Chinese foreign ministry has taken the remarkable step of

intervening in the doping scandal surrounding its country's athletes,

the latest chapter being 11 positive tests from competitors -- seven of

them swimmers -- who won 22 medals at the Asian Games in Hiroshima in


Chen Jian, spokesman for the ministry, insists there is no organised

systematic doping programme: ''This was likely the act of individuals, a

small group of people.''

A strange statement, given the evidence, and one which appears to

pre-empt the supposed independent inquiry launched by the Chinese

national Olympic committee.

Seven swimmers caught cheating at one meeting is by far the highest in

the history of the sport. In the 20 years of drug-testing up to 1992

there were just five positive tests in swimming worldwide. In the past

24 months, 12 Chinese swimmers have tested positive.

Weightlifting, swimming, and athletics world records have been

rewritten by the Chinese during these two years, amid almost universal

allegations of drug-taking. German and Australian swimming authorities

have called for life bans on individuals, and suspension of whole

nations from competition.

We believe there is a perfect solution. Arrive, by negotiation among

all world governing bodies, at an acceptable (low) total for annual

positive dope tests in all sports, per nation and per head of

population. Anything below that level to be deemed maverick acts by

individuals -- and anything over it deemed a systematic doping

programme. The penalty for the latter would be exclusion of that

nation's competitors from all international sport for, say, 12 months.

Sounds great, but it will never happen.

For no international agreement on the ''maverick quotient'' could ever

be reached. Athletics in Britain (population 55m), where the

authorities, of course, deny systematic drug abuse, has reported seven

doping positives this year. Athletics in China (estimated population

1200m) has had five.