I am standing on the edge of a thundering 40ft waterfall with an inflatable pool Lilo in my hand, a swirling mass of white-water beneath my feet and a man telling me to jump. This is the defining moment of the River Nevis Race – an annual bout of Scottish lunacy which sees competitors fling themselves down a two mile stretch of white-water rapids with nothing but a novelty inflatable device for company.
As I step out into the thin air I hear the crowd lift its voice just above the roar of the water, and for just an instant – though in my wildest fantasies I never thought it would happen this way – I am a true daredevil. I am ‘World Extreme Lilo Champion’.
Up until that point, however, I was pretty much chewing my fingers off with fear. Set in the shadow of Ben Nevis, near Fort William, contestants of the River Nevis Race are obliged to navigate the deepest and most dangerous parts of one of Scotland’s most challenging rivers while overcoming such comfortingly named water obstacles as ‘dead dog pool’ and my personal favourite ‘the leg breaker’. The event is timed, with the winner taking home the highly coveted title of ‘World Extreme Lilo Champion’.
The race is intense, and definitely not for the feint-hearted, but it’s also not for the particularly serious either. As my fellow contestants and I carry our colourful array of inflatables towards the start of the race we must seem more like standard bearers in Monty Python’s Navy than extreme athletes. And therein also lies the magic of the event: it provides one of those rare moments, so acutely British, when only the preposterousness of one’s situation matches the bravado required to see it through.
As my number is called I approach the rivers edge, thumping gorilla fists onto my life jacket and swearing in inner monologue. A crowd has gathered on the far side of a rocky gully where the water drops steeply, funneling it in a disorientating swirl of hydraulic noise and energy. But as I crash heavily through the first set of rapids, one hand extended through the foam clinging desperately to my Lilo, the other pushing off rocks and awkwardly trying to remount my ride, I realise that I am actually having the time of my life. The difference between watching a fast flowing river and jumping in it, is the difference between seeing a bottle of whisky on the shelf and downing it in one. I am immersed in the experience, drunk on the adrenalin and convinced nothing can stop me.
After that defining jump, when my head finally pops above the rapids, gasping after an eternity of false surfaces, I understand that like those climbers who scale impossible mountains ‘because they’re there’, this is also one of those wild existential tonics, only somehow made sweeter by its playful eccentricity. To test your mettle against the elements is brave, but to be able to laugh at yourself while doing so is truly enlightening.
The River Nevis Race is run by No Fuss Events – a lovely bunch of Scottish lunatics who put together a range of different extreme and endurance events in the great Scottish outdoors … though perhaps none quite as bizarre and brilliant as this. There’s a small fee to enter, and most people use the event to raise money for charity. Camp out at the base of the glen near the foot of Ben Nevis and enjoy a carnival atmosphere leading up to the big event.
Big thanks to excellent photographer Andy McLandish for the use of some of his photography on this post – including the main image and the 2 shots of me looking terrified. Thanks also to No Fuss Events. If you want to see more of Andy’s work check out …