Monday, 31 March 2014

Deuchary Hill Canter: Mother's Day treat or April Fool?

I'd hummed and hawed for a while about this race, as my running mileage has been pretty feeble recently and I wasn't sure I'd manage the 11 miles without trashing my legs.  I rashly signed up for it just before the SiEntries deadline, then realised it was actually 12 miles. Oops. Still, it was probably going to be more relaxing than looking after the bairns, so I did what any sensible mother does on Mother's Day and made a run for the hills.

The morning started in the best possible way with toast in bed, made by Rosie at 7am (6am "old time"). She even waited patiently for an hour while I slumbered, before bringing it through at 8am. Very sweet. Slightly thrown by the time difference, we only made it out to the car by about 10.15 - just enough time to get to Birnham. We pitched up at race organiser Adrian Davies' guest house to collect my number at 11.40. Pretty much perfect timing, I thought...and this is where my plans started to go awry. I caught Adrian just as he was heading out of the door, only to be told that the race actually started about 10 minutes drive down the road from the Dunkeld Hilton. Argh. He very graciously took me in to get my number and pins, and I pegged it back out to Matthew & the kids to get a lift to the actual start. We arrived with a bit of time to spare, and milled about while the weans went feral on the Hilton lawns. I refocused myself: responsible hill runner, well-prepared with an annotated route more mistakes.

We were herded in a highly personalised manner by name and number towards the starting line. I was struck by how particularly "human" this race felt - like it was a group of friends going for a Sunday jaunt. Which IMO is exactly as it should be. We set off up the hill, and I dug in for a couple of miles of ascent. The track wound up and up into woods, never becoming quite steep enough to make walking permissible. As we traversed Craig a Barns the hill fell away very steeply to the left, and I the narrow, muddy and moderately rocky/rooty single track felt quite precarious. I ran tilted to the right, in the hope that any trips or slips would see me crash into the hillside rather than plummet to my certain doom. Aware that I was forming a queue of less feardy runners behind me, I tried to side step into "passing places" to allow overtaking.

The woods and mist lent a slightly unnerving stillness to the route. I was glad to still be in a pack of other runners, as we wriggled our way through the woods, eventually popping out onto a wide track at the 2 mile mark. I had mentally noted that the route flattened out a bit from this point...but wasn't there also meant to be a check point somewhere nearby?  There was brief confusion at the junction as some runners turned nose told me we should be heading right (northwards) but I followed them with misgivings for a couple of hundred metres only to be called back by another bunch of runners emerging onto the track from the woods. Why was there no tape or sawdust arrow?? It seemed strange. We debated for a minute or so, with the general consensus being that we should have turned right at the junction. We politely ignored Matt Grove's suggestion of eschewing the track altogether and plunging straight down into apparently pathless woods. After a few more minutes of running northwards on the track, we saw other runners emerging ahead of us from the woods towards a taped and saw-dusted junction. Arse...

With a sinking feeling I realised that we had gone fairly majorly wrong at some point on the wooded single-track and had missed a turning to the Rocking Stone check-point. I had to make a quick decision: carry on regardless and face disqualification, or trek back up to the check-point
 and lose all hope of a reasonable race time as well as subject my poor legs to even more miles than I'd planned for. I gritted my teeth and headed up into the woods, sheepishly greeting the more navigationally adept runners as they ran down. It was a fair way - about 1.5 miles "round trip", which cost about 15 minutes.

Back on track at last, I tried to get into the racing vibe again and picked up the pace on the flattish 3 or 4 miles towards Deuchary Hill. Despite my fanatical tape-spotting, I came close to venturing off route again in the approach to the route crossover, ignoring the tape in favour of a tempting looking road. I was called back by a (slightly incredulous) guy behind me, just as another small bunch of wayward runners trotted down the road bemoaning their detour. Feeling impatient with myself, and beginning to flag despite not even being halfway, I vowed once more to be a competent hill-runner. And then promptly had to stop to re-tie my shoe-laces. Grrr.

At last the route became steep enough to make walking permissible as we ascended Deuchary Hill. The top was spookily atmospheric, with great grey boulders looming out of the fog. I picked my way down the first short steep section, and settled in for six miles of gentle descent. I had buddied up with Davy Duncan of Ochil Hill Runners during the ascent, and stuck with his reassuring presence on the way down through the fog, until I hit the main track back to the finish. I tried to pick up the pace, mostly out of a sense of wanting the running to be over. The track was unforgiving: slightly heathery and uneven, then somewhat rocky and muddy, and finally foot-hammering tarmac. I caught up with a springy-legged bloke and conferred about the distance to the finish. I guestimated 3.5 miles, and he thought it was a bit further. Both options sounded uncomfortably far. We oscillated a couple of times along the road before he edged decisively away. Lacking any confidence in my ability to cover the last stretch without getting lost, I was determined to keep him within eye-sight, although I did resign myself to the occasional walk.

At last (and in keeping with my 3.5 mile guestimate) I saw the springy-legged bloke nip into a taped turning. Phew! The end was nigh. I followed him and was greeted by familiar shouts of "Go on Mummy!!" as the path suddenly twisted through some trees and rhododendron bushes before spewing me out feeling disorientated onto the finish line at the car-park.

My route with cock-up areas highlighted.

My total distance was 13.5ish miles - almost double the distance of any runs in recent months, so I was fairly pleased with my time of 2:05ish.  We headed back to Adrian's house for tea, cake and home-made soup. Adrian was remarkably serene, apparently able to organise a three day race series, put in some excellent running, and knock up refreshments for several dozen in his kitchen without so much as breaking a sweat. Respect!

During the kettle-boiling/cake-cutting chat it transpired that the route markers had actually been tampered with in the first couple of miles: the sawdust arrow and tape had been removed, and (I think) a log had been placed over the crucial turning up to the Rocking Stone check-point. The ensuing chaos meant that a significant number of runners (particularly those too slow to keep up with Adrian :-D ) had wonky finish times, either "too fast" from taking a short-cut, or "too-slow" from backtracking to the check-point. Adrian offered an "honesty policy" for those who knew they'd gone wrong, adding 10 minutes to their time. Bah - in hindsight I should have crashed on rather than backtracking! The prize-giving was understandably a bit confusing, and I'm intrigued to see the overall results.

Thanks again and well done to Adrian for organising a race despite very limited marshal availability and naughty race-tamperers! I'll be back again to try and get it right :-)

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Congrie Conga and an impromptu Chapelgill

We had decided to make a family day out of the Chapelgill race today, with me chaperoning the Joneslets around the fun run (the Congrie Conga) and Matt racing the not-so-fun full-sized run. If time allowed, I thought I might then run the route by myself while he "recovered" and looked after the kids (ha!).

The weather was bleak as we approached Glenholm, with strong winds, chilly drizzle and clag around the tops. Matt and the kids registered for their races, and headed for the starting areas (only metres from each other). Martin Hyman (organiser of the fun run, and all-round top geezer - the world would be a better place with more of his kind) gave the kids race briefing, offering a Full-Conga, and Half-Conga and extra kudos for smiles and muddy patches. The five young starters headed off with enthusiasm, accompanied by their less springy parents. It was properly steep! Both the full and half options count as an "A" gradient-wise...Not a race to be sniffed at. 

Nearing the top of Congrie Hill

At the Half-Conga turning point Matt headed back down with Ronnie and Solly and I plodded onwards and upwards with Rosie and another boy. We circled the brave marshal at the windy top and headed back down - no need to follow the markers, just the quickest route back to the start. Rosie has inherited a strong doonhilling gene (not from me :-( ), and made light work of the descent, but a nonchalant canter to the finish saw her almost pipped at the post. A rather poor show of muddy patches were compared over KitKats, Smarties and juice.

And so to the big race. We regrouped at the start and I had some cheery chitchat with Bob, Gordon et al. "Are you not racing?" "No! I'm looking after the kids!" <happy, relieved expression>. And then Gordon put a spanner in the works by suggesting that Helen would be more than happy to look after the urchins while I raced. "Three minutes to go!" announced Robin the race organiser. "Oh, no, I don't think so...I er....haven't sorted out my shoes." "You've got your shoes on. There are still numbers just over there!" Me: "Erm..." Matt: "Go on, it's better if you do it with everyone else...otherwise you'll probably get lost." He knows what buttons to press. And so I swiftly dumped my progeny on Helen, ducked behind a tussock for a wee and grabbed a race number. "30 seconds to go!!" Crumbling under pressure, I was still shakily attaching my number as the race started.

Fannying aboot. Photo courtesy of Digby!

Apparently this race has more ascent per mile than even Aonach Mor, the uphill-only race. I can confirm that it certainly felt that way. The terrain was heathery with intermittent grassy patches, but none of it felt runnable. For at least five minutes I had the distraction of a guy in skimpy shorts, which due to the keen side-wind offered me a close-up of his "banana bag" and the tantalising promise of an escaped bollock. I then tucked in behind Bob W who made a very insubstantial windbreak. On and on, up and up into the clouds. In the slightly flatter approach to the summit the sidewind became a brutal headwind, sweeping the clag towards us in a sinister fashion. I overtook Bob and Matt, and enjoyed the fleeting victory, knowing they'd soon be hurtling past me on the descent.

Sure enough, Bob nipped past me at the turning point with unfeasible perkiness, and I braced myself for the looooong stretch downhill. I was overtaken by many people at this point, including le spouse. My descent was dismal, and powered mostly by the anxiety of being left in the clag - I needed to keep other runners in eye-sight, for fear of getting lost. Despite my timidity, I fell over and bruised my pinkie nail. <sob> I emerged from the clag with relief - only a ridiculously steep final stretch and it was all over, with a fairly mediocre 30:10 on the clock.

Priority number one was to scan Helen's face for signs of child-induced trauma. She appeared as cheery as ever (clearly made of stronger stuff than me). I was hugely relieved to have run the route with company, rather than venturing out by myself - so thank you again Helen!! The kids couldn't be persuaded to part with even one of their hard-won sweeties, so Charlotte (first lady!) shared her Love Hearts with me. I was disappointed to see they weren't custom-made to say "Chase Me!". The kids were looking shivery, despite their warm togs, so we tottered back to the car. Phil Davies won the race within three minutes of his 2003 record, despite the wind, Matt achieved an excellent 12th place overall (but didn't manage to catch Bob), and I somehow managed to nab 2nd lady. Where have all the fast chicks gone? Not that I'm complaining or anything...

It has growing room.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Bishop Hill Race 2014

Bishop Hill was my first ever hill race back in ye olde 2012, so I felt fairly confident I would be faster this time around. I was hoping for a few minutes off my time (28:36) and, position-wise, to drag myself up from the bottom quarter to the middle of the field...ahhh sweet Mediocrity, how I aspire to you.

On the drive to Scotlandwell cheery sunshine gave way to swathes of grey drizzle, and my optimism wavered. A very unexceptional road run on Friday from the kids school to Arthur's Seat had battered my lower legs, and a morning of stretching wasn't making Bishop Hill look any less hulking. Matthew deposited me at the Village Hall and took off with the kids to find a place to wave and cheer, and I found myself a bunch of Carnethies to hang with. Gordon's call to arms had been successful, and the room was awash with vibrant yet tasteful yellow hoodies. It was great to see Jane Jackson make a return to racing, albeit without her mandolin. How about this bumbag-sized one for next time? For the racing minstrel.

The rain had cleared, but the overcast skies and caffeine-swigging made for a shivery, jittery wait in the woods. I peered at the little gully beyond the start-line - what a cruel way to begin a race. As we set off, the seventy or so starters scrambled down and up the other side of trench to the sound of strangled yelping (a child? My child?? A dog?? Who knows!). The route begins with a steepish slog out of the woods, and as I couldn't remember if the track narrowed to single-file, I did my best to weave my way up through the field. As ever I experienced a wave of genuine affection for whichever runner ahead of me resorted to walking, thereby letting me off the hook. I'm sure my up-hill "running" is slower than my walking, so I'm not sure why I persevere with it, but hey ho.

The terrain flattens out for a stretch as you contour round the hill. The views would be amazing, if you weren't blinded by sweat and seeing stars. Alan cheered me on at this point saying something like "second lady is just ahead of you". It took me a few oxygen-depleted seconds to process the words into meaning, but it certainly gave me a renewed vigour. I overtook a couple of runners at the base of the next steep climb, and then dug in for a short hand-on-knees push up to the first summit. The short descent before the next climb was welcome respite for the uphill-muscles, and I caught sight of Tinto Hill Runners' Julia Connor just ahead. I wondered if I could catch her up, before hitting the plunge down off the hill. I couldn't.

I was bracing myself for the descent, replaying memories of the 2012 race: I'd been very pleased to tuck in behind Joan Wilson until the summit, thinking "Hey! I'm keeping up with a Real Hill-Runner!", only to see her disappear into the distance at supernatural speed on the way down. Herds of other runners overtook me at that point, springing over (what seemed to me) lethally rocky sheer drops, as I gingerly crept down, clinging to grassy tussocks. It wasn't quite as terrifying this year, but I was nevertheless left for dust by several fearless mountain-goats, including Jane Jackson who nimbly and cheerfully skirted past my flailing arms.

Andrew Gilmore on his way to winning.

Charlotte hurtling to her win.

The whole Gilmore family raced - surely there should be a prize for that?

Jane staying vertical where many found themselves horizontal.

Me running gaily.

Glad to be past the "danger-zone", I pep-talked myself into a fast blast along the flatter stretch of the descent, and pattered through the slightly boggy track by the wall. I caught up with Jane as she negotiated the kissing-gate, and took advantage of her deft choice of line on the muddy descent. I think we oscillated a couple of times along this stretch (it's all a bit of a blur) and both overtook Julia. The final dive into the woods resulted in an inelegant wipe-out, and I expected to be hurdled over by the sure-footed ladies on my tail, but it didn't happen! A scramble down and back out of the little gully made for an exciting finish, and I hobbled off to the side to nurse my immediately cramping shins. Shins! Not the easiest bit of the body to stretch out, it transpires. They really were very sore, and I was, at least temporarily, unable to empathise with Jane's exhilarated cries of "OMG that was so much FUN!!".

Charlotte (who had also had great fun, but alas due to her excessive speed a mere 21 minutes of it), came over for a chat, and (with the insouciance of a seasoned prizewinner) said that we had probably managed a Carnethy ladies' hat-trick with positions 1, 2 and 3. If my shins hadn't been so crampy, I'd have jumped for joy.

We made our way back to the village hall where rumours abounded about Bob Waterhouse who'd been struck down within feet of the starting line: he'd twisted his ankle...No! He'd twanged his hamstring! It was a badger wot dunnit. Assaulted by a family of delinquent badgers! (This may not be true - but sympathy to Bob the Hobbling Badger Botherer anyway).

I warmed up with a curried parsnip soup, and waited for my progeny to come and witness the momentous (quite possibly singular) event of a "podium place". Unfortunately Matt had deemed them "too muddy" for the village hall and had hustled them off to the car, but the two bottles of plonk for 2nd place, plus another for the ladies' team win took the sting out of their dereliction.

Returning to Bishop Hill reminded me of all the bits I love best about hill-racing: it's low-key and friendly, offering a real challenge to the speed-merchants, beautiful views for the more sedate runners, and finishes with soup, scones and smiling faces. Thank you to Lomond Hill Runners for a great event!