How far should one travel for a good race? Depends on the race I guess. Being a bit daft, we’ve travelled all the way to Cornwall for a coastal trail marathon, all the way to Liege for a beer marathon and all the way to Scotland for a nighttime adventure…10k?!
To be fair, this is a fun race and you do have the option to double up the distance via a second lap if you’re keen, which we weren’t! In particular I was feeling a little bit worse for wear with the memory of our misadventure in the South Downs still fresh.
This was also another race we’d been to before, running in the 2017 edition (the race in 2018 was cancelled due to severe snow and wind conditions). In fact, the 2017 edition was my first race on the running wagon after a few years out of action. I remember a chastening experience, finding the bogs, long dips in icy water, steep hills and scrambling extremely difficult. In the end I think I took so long that the bar at the end had nearly run out of beer! I always think these kinds of experiences make you stronger in the end though. So the 2019 race felt like my chance for redemption. I needed to get to the finish before the raucous Rat Race runners drank it dry again.
But first, the epic journey to the start line: a village called Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders. For us, this encompassed around five hours on the train, a quick stop for food in Edinburgh, and then a 90 minute bus journey into the wilderness. The weather was not looking amenable at this point. Wrapped in all my layers and standing shivering on the exposed North Bridge waiting for the bus, I have rarely felt as cold and nervous. The wind was building, the rain had turned to sleet and running was the last thing on my mind. The bus journey was initially even more ominous. As we travelled away from Edinburgh the surrounding countryside looked increasingly petrified with a wintry touch of snow. Looking at the weather reports, it also suddenly became apparent that the area had been hit with a surplus of inclemency. Our penchant for not checking weather before we travelled suddenly looked ready to strike again!
As luck would have it, the closer we got to Innerleithen, the more the weather brightened. As we walked to the event registration area, we even saw some thin strands of light peak through the grey clouds.
Quite the turnaround. We also got to see some of the initial waves pass through the course. While this is a night time race, by the time the runners got into the hills the sun will have dipped below the horizon. Once we arrived, it became apparent that the course had been tweaked to avoid some of the more watery obstacles. In particular I recall one particular segment in 2017 when we had to traverse a few hundred metre stretch up a river. Having already tackled one ascent and descent, the shocking cold and difficult footing was not a tonic for further hill running. I was again a little relieved, but it was disappointing, if understandable once we saw how strong the current was. To underline the bogginess, I even lost one of my shoes in the mud before we even started!
But all this is side commentary. What about the race itself? The first section is a warm up for what comes: a brief soujourn over some rocky paths (won’t see sure footing like this for a while) that transitions into flat out sticky bog and then straight into hills nearly 2km from the start. At this point I was already pretty tired and the sun had finally set. The first climb was around 300 metres and I actually managed to run bits of it (unlike in 2017). It was mostly through well worn trail routes, but now and then we’d dive into the undergrowth up less travelled sections. These were very entertaining as my favourite trail running is along woodland paths. We came to a bit of a contrived false summit (essentially going up, turning around and coming back down again), which required walking rather than running and then finally a bit of descent. We then had another climb of around 100 metres to reach the highest point of the race. It was here we could finally enjoy one of the perks of the Mighty Deerstalker: seeing the scattered head torches of various runners across the nighttime landscape. A trail of glistening light showed where we had come and what we still had to do. This is something I’d only seen at events like the three peaks challenge before.
The next descent essentially took us back to ground level and was extremely treacherous. Another reason for my slow time in 2017 was likely due to wearing road running trainers… This time round I had some decent trail shoes, but even with these it was fairly difficult going. More confident racers breezed past me and some of the more reckless ones tended to strike their fellow runners and various trees and rocks as they went past! I saw a few collisions that made we wince. Some bits were great fun though, with just enough stable footing to leap and jump over the undulating course.
With that now completed, we were treated to a run over the River Tweed and through Innerleithen to take on another of the local hills. We had some very kind people along the course cheering us over these sections. Always nice to hear. The climb was easier than before, but I had my first serious tumble of the year; almost cartoonesque! While descending I had been putting weight on areas with foliage and grass as this indicated safe purchase in my mind. I unfortunately did so on a piece of ground that was completely inundated with water and promptly slipped up, got some serious air time and landed on my backside. Thankfully it was on soft, and wet, ground, so I wasn’t hurt (pride aside). Picking myself up, I then confronted the scramble, which was nearly 200 metres high. I must confess to needing a few stops to catch my breath! I’m not a fan of heights at the best of times, so I was grateful for the night time views. One last descent and then there was just four more kms of boggy, river-side running to defeat. I recognised here and there signs of our earlier walk to registration and was relieved to see the finish line. In 2017 they set-up a water slide to celebrate the last section, but for obvious reasons that had been removed. Probably a good thing as I recall nearly football tackling someone’s midriff by accident at the bottom.
First time running in 2017, we completed the course in around three hours and twenty minutes. In 2019, we got round in around two and a half hours. Not a bad improvement, but we did have two years of running these races as training and some of the water sections were curtailed; so perhaps we should have done a bit better. Most importantly though, I made it back in time to properly enjoy the party afterwards!