Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Seven Skies

"I tell you what would be a great route for a Carnethy Ultra", says I at a club committee meeting, "the Seven Hills route PLUS the skyline. Yeah. That would be great." Okay, so I'd unimaginatively suggested the most preposterous local route I could think of that included Carnethy Hill. Fast forward a few weeks and keen bean Matt has adopted this as a Great Idea, and booked a day off work for it. Even if it gets the brush off as a club ultra route, it looks like I'm not escaping it. Despite the fact that I've never run further than 22 miles, and significantly less than that recently.

Kids safely despatched to school, we availed ourselves of giant cups of tea, and headed for the bus to take us to Calton Hill.  It took an astonishingly long time to get there from Tollcross, which gave us time to drink our far too hot tea. The views from Calton Hill were lovely...and terrifying. The distant hazy Pentlands only hinted at the extent of our intended journey. Fretting over my knee (which felt for all the world like someone was repeatedly pinging the back of my leg with an elastic band) we jogged over to the Castle esplanade and took a couple of minutes to stretch and apply ibu-gel. 

Matt suggested taking the Tollcross/Morrison Steet route to Corstorphine Hill, and I toddled happily along, glad not to actually have to *think* about navigation. Corstorphine Hill was leafy and shady and we revelled in the loveliness of the sunshine and gentle breezes. A quick snack of salty peanuts and some water saw us on to Craiglockhart. That steep ascent is surprisingly tricky with dry ground and road shoes. I clung to roots and whimpered a bit.

Our intention had been to get to Swanston by 11ish, and we were already about half an hour behind schedule. A minor detour through Oxgangs didn't help (MattNav had an incurred unexpected error). At this point we would have sold our souls for ice-cream, but so many corners and so few shops! We made it to Swanston by about 11.45 and opted for the more nourishing option of tomato and lentil soup and a roll. We refilled our water and I changed shoes (yes, in a fit of preciousness I has decided I needed both my road shoes and hill shoes. A decision which proved quite sensible, I think).

 I warned M that I would be taking it easy round the reverse/butchered skyline route, and this meant walking the ascents. Despite my adherence to this rule, I felt worryingly tired and breathless on the ascent of Allermuir from Swanston. I noted that my fingernails had also gone blueish. Yikes. My guess is that my body had (not unreasonably) decided that 11 miles followed by lunch probably meant going-home time, and had diverted the blood supply away from locomotive extremities to the all-important task of digesting.

 Several upward undulations later and my fingers had pinked up and we were on top of Allermuir. I stashed my road shoes by a fence. Unfortunately the resultant half-emptiness of my little rucksack amplified jiggling, and by the top of Capelaw I'd had to deploy two buffs to protect my chafed collarbone. Sweat was trickling into my eyes by this point. Man, it stings! I was regretting having given Matt Grove my cap in a moment of ill-advised generosity. We marvelled at the fact that only a few days previously there had been hypothermia and exposure victims at Stuc a Chroin. Go home, Scottish weather. You're drunk!

 Harbour and Bells hills were infinitely more pleasant when tackled with relatively untrashed legs. They seemed like benign, rounded, grassy hillocks, compared with the hallucination-inducing, energy-sapping leg-wobblers of the proper skyline route. We traversed Black Hill (the most ominous monster of a hill, whichever way you approach it) and Hare Hill. The track was runnable but by this point both of us were feeling weary. With about 18 miles under our belts, which was officially, yet dispiritingly, Nearly Half Way, we settled under some shady trees for lunch Mk2. A very noisy bee bumbled beside me as I undertook some repairs and maintenance: paracetamol, another smearing of ibu-gel and a pathetically inadequate plaster on my blistering heel. Matt insisted that I eat a dry and dismal peanut butter sandwich. I had to force it down, feeling literally sick and tired at this point. Couldn't think of anything appealing to eat, until I passed a man with a banana. I wanted his banana. I wanted it so bad.

The track sweeping round to the Kips offered good running, heart-lifting scenery and excitable bird-chirping. It did seem to go on a bit though, and at the foot of West Kip I was feeling spent and dispirited at the prospect of a very hilly return leg. I think it was at around this point that I was having an inner argument with my legs which went along the lines of:

Legs: ow
Me: shut up
Legs: no YOU shut up
Legs: I hate you

This went on for quite some time.

 By the top of Scald Law we'd done about 22 miles which was The Furthest I've Ever Run. I say run...there was a fair bit of walking and shuffling by this point. Approaching Carnethy, we were buoyed to see Kate and Jess bounding towards us. I hadn't been convinced that our planned rendezvous was going to happen, so had the triple boost of Things Going To Plan, cheery chat, and plus fresh legs by proxy. We pottered off Turnhouse for a coke in the pub. Not my usual choice of drink (in fact the only time I've wanted it before has been during pregnancy) but wow, it did the trick. Castle Law had been a worrying prospect for the duration on the run, and Flotterstone had been earmarked as a potential bail-out point, but I was feeling unexpectedly strong and felt that if we were ever going to do this route this golden and benevolent May day was the day to it.

 The gentle incline up Castle Law started well as I trotted ahead of Matthew, but I had a sudden onset of extreme weariness on the final steep climb to the top. Shuffling along, looking at my feet I noticed the terrain was hoaching with deadly obstacles, like pebbles 'n small twigs 'n stuff. Someone needs to sort that out. The inner row between me and my legs escalated as we hobbled along towards Allermuir, and we were just about to fall out big time, when we were greeted by Kate and a blur of waggy tail and zippy legs. We briefly took in the view, and marvelled at being able to pick out pretty much the whole route. 

The impending second half of the seven hills looked SO flat, with Braid, Blackford and Calton hills being all but imperceptible. Even Arthur's Seat looked small, although we had to admit that this was partly due to it being Very Far Away. Kate gently escorted us off Caerketton and offered us a final escape option at Hillend car-park, but by this time we were determined to crash on. 

We realised that we were unlikely to be able to pick up the children from their playdate at 6.30 as arranged, unless we set a blistering pace. Unfortunately our pace was pretty much the only thing NOT blistering, and my dear friend Joy agreed to an extra hour of child-wrangling. After thirty miles, a paltry six or seven more seemed manageable, and I slipped into my road shoes. Mmmm. Comfy.

We girded our loins for the slog along the A702 into town. By this point I had developed a crusty layer of salt on my face, and more sweat was trickling into my eyes, necessitating one-eyed running. Matthew was hobbling and grimacing as his IT band was aggravated by the tarmac. As our ragged bodies reeled and swaggered into town, I imagined that we looked like a pair of old sea-dogs re-entering civilisation after a raging tempest of hills. But we were so near to our goal! Braid Hill's ascent compared favourably to the last few Pentlands, and the early evening air was scented with gorse's incongruously tropical fragrance. The gently rolling terrain had acquired a Teletubby-like quality.

Blackford steps were basically just shit. Anything that required a stepping motion reactivated the twangy back of knee. It made me cross. From the top of Blackford Hill, Arthur's Seat still looked depressingly far away. A quick time check from Matthew indicated that we were still pretty much on schedule, if only we could up our pace to a nippy 11min/mile. I staggered on, amazed that my legs were still apparently demurring to my authority. Every bit of them was hurting by this point, including my hitherto compliant hips. They felt for all the world like I might just jiggle them out of their sockets. My inner juke box played hip-related tracks by Shakira and the Sugar Hill Gang, and my inner monologue rambled on about pain just being in your head. I fantasised about stuffing the sides of my pants with frozen peas.

The tarmacky trek from Blackford to Arthur's Seat seemed interminable, and I was hungry and thirsty. I was sure someone had told me that Graham Nash would lick his arms for salt during ultra runs. This may have been an unkind ploy to have me running around looking like a crazy arm-licking lady, but I tried it anyway. Elaborating on this theme, I hypothesised that my snot (ever abundant while running) was not only salty, but also full of H2O. I regretted wasting my natural source of fluids and electrolytes for the last 35 miles (and Kate, just think: it's genuinely free of artificial additives!).

By Arthur's Seat we were both utterly trashed. Limbs were flailing seemingly at random, and those steps made me want to cry. My inner monologue took a further turn for the worse, with unbridled belligerence towards unsuspecting passers by. I had imaginary confrontations which went along the lines of:

Passer by: Hey lady! Why are you so SLOW??
Me: Because I've just run 36 miles, YOU TWUNT!!

 Fantasy rage powered me to the summit, and I waited, poised, with the camera for Matt who mysteriously appeared from the “wrong” side.

 It was 7pm, and a difficult decision needed to be made. We needed to leave at least 10 minutes to get from Calton Hill to pick up the kids, to avoid our childcare favour moving from the Slightly Rude zone into Bloody Liberty. This left twenty minutes to get from Arthur's Seat to the top of Calton Hill and back down and into a taxi. Do-able if on normal form, but we were far, far from normal. Matthew, usually a demon descender, was struggling with even the gentle track down to Queen's Drive. Calton Hill looked so tantalisingly close. I took a photo, and with the merest twist of regret hailed a cab. As we trundled homewards Matt reminded me that if we were doing the West Highland Way, that would be roughly the first of three laps. If I ever so much as suggest giving the WHW a go, feel free to shoot me.


  1. Great run, brilliant write-up, nice photos!

  2. Thank you! How funny to see you this evening :-D. Crazy weather, huh?

  3. Crazy, indeed. First at Swanston rain, heavy, then by time I'd passed the cows no rain and too hot, had to remove the smock. Then after Caerketton, wind and hail in my face, a bit sore at times. Then on Capelaw brilliant sun, too hot, had to remove buff and hat and gloves, and the colours as the sun lowered in the sky coming own from Harbour were divine.

    You're using deuter speedlite 15 same as me? I find that the shoulder straps chafe my neck something rotten. I've got to find a solution soon, maybe be something on the straps (not buffs!), maybe a different pack. Any ideas?

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