The Kippen Trail Race has become one of my favourite events on the calendar. I did it last year and made a point of making time to do it again.
It stands out in contrast to my previous race, the Salomon Ring of Steall — with its huge participant numbers, corporate sponsorship, big screen telly with clips of rad pro runners downhilling, a big Salomon truck selling the latest kit, etc. Not that I have anything against that. I enjoyed being part of such a big, almost over the top, event like that (and admit that a big city marathon appeals for the same reason). All of this said, I feel like the lower key races on the calendar capture something of the heart of trail running: it brings the most basic and joyful elements of the sport to the centre. The Kippen Trail Race fits into that category.
There’s not much pomp or pretentiousness to the Kippen Trail Race. It’s very well organised, friendly, and feels like genuine community event. It’s supported by local businesses: Skinner of Kippen , Rhubarb Lime, The Inn at Kippen, and – exciting for me – on of my favourite breweries the Fallen Brewing Company (if seeing those cans of lovely local beer isn’t enough to inspire you to run hard…). Conditions were challenging this year. The rain was absolutely chucking it down and even the hardiest runners found themselves huddling for shelter in the retro football changing room. Despite the obvious challenge of the elements, there were still a lot of smiles and laughter.
I did the race on my own last year. This year I made sure to get my family to come along, because I was sure everyone would enjoy it. I wasn’t wrong!
My son took part in the preschool field race and came in second place (proud dad!). Preschool races are both ridiculously cute and hilarious. I love how all the kids just stop immediately at the finish and the way my boy can’t run in a straight line but still gives it 100% enthusiasm. He loved it, but really wanted there to be more races for him!
There’s a 1 mile race for older children. Around the start of this one the heavens opened and it began to bucket. The kids were pretty stoic. It was my daughter’s first trail race and she seemed a bit unsure about the whole thing, but still took off like a trooper at the start. There are some blisteringly quick kids at that race! My wee girl made it around the course, but was soaked to the bone and was a bit annoyed that she had slipped to the back of the pack. But once she dried out and had an empire biscuit, she felt pretty good about her accomplishment – but kindly requested that we have a sunny day next time! My son, on the other hand, “wants to get really muddy like the big boys” when he takes part next time.
The full race was the same as last year. It’s a 7.5km route with 150m of climbing. The course starts from the sports field, heads up through a wood to a couple of farm roads, then back down to the start via a farmer’s field. It’s a short course, but packs a lot in. There’s a good climb to start with, some tarmac, some rocky dirt road, open field, speedy grassy descent, and some singletrack. The views are great as well. Most of us are used to seeing the contour of the Campsies from Glasgow, but the Kippen Trail Race gives us a totally different look at these underappreciated hills, looking southwards at them from the route’s highest point. It’s a nice distraction during the rather fast and furious pace of this one.
I felt good about my run last year and conditions were great. So I was really pleased with cutting 2m47sec off my previous time, especially with the rain and mud this time around. I came 22nd out of 42 runners. I probably could’ve cut a few more seconds had I not played up for the camera, but what’s the fun in that?
The Kippen Trail Race is always great fun. I’m making this one a regular fixture on the calendar.
Not long after I started running, the concept of skyrunning got my attention. On the ISF website it’s described as, “From sea to sky, skyrunning spans the great outdoors, across the world’s mountain ranges…and the imagination of thousands of participants and fans. It’s a sport born in the wild, where the logic was to reach the highest peak in the shortest time from a town or village. Today it represents the peak of outdoor running defined by altitude and technicality… How could that not capture the imagination?The photographs from those races are spectacular. Unfortunately, I’m not one to be content with simply looking at something — I want to experience it for myself.
I suppose that looking at a skyrace is the first step to doing a skyrace. I remember this feeling as a kid. We’d take camping trips up to Siskiyou with a view of Mount Shasta towering above the lake, snow clinging to the peak despite the dry August heat. It’s a view that I remember being beautiful as well as frustrating. I wanted to actually get on the mountain, not just look at it. I was only content after my dad took me up the Old Ski Bowl Trail. My ten-year-old self craved more than a view, I wanted to pick up those impossibly light pumice stones with my own hands, to feel the ice cold of the snowpack during the peak of summer’s heat. Twenty-odd years later, reading about skyrunning, looking at the photos, watching those Salomon videos… it’s a similar impulse. I was excited to learn that Scotland got its own series of skyraces in Glen Coe, one of my favourite landscapes.
I kept hearing things about the Glen Coe Skyraces. Christopher Slight’s first episdoe of Mountain Podcast evocatively describes the 2015 Glen Coe Skyline and interviews the local 2015 champ Joe Symonds. I also listened to Ian Corless do his round-up of the Glen Coe Skyline races on Episode 94 of TalkUltra, a race he’s clearly passionate about, and that enthusiasm is infectious.. I was sold on the idea and determined to take part, at some stage.
In October last year, I ran up and down Beinn Dorain one early morning. Though not the gnarliest of Munros, there’s this lovely singletrack along the edge of the mountain if you diverge from the main path. Looking down from there, I had a bird’s eye view over the West Highland Way trekkers looking like miniatures through gaps in the clouds, which were billowing over the mountain’s edge. That perspective, as well as moving fast and light across the mountain, was an incomparable feeling. I signed up for the Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace on the morning that it opened.
Fast-forward to 16 September 2017… I was standing on the starting line of the Ring of Steall Skyrace. I felt a great sense of gratitude just to be there. Not only that being physically able to take on the challenge is a like gift in and of itself, but a couple weeks before the race it seemed that work crises and car trouble meant that I wouldn’t be able to take part. Thankfully and unexpectedly, all the pieces fell into place a fortnight before the race. I woke up at 4am on Saturday morning and drove up to Kinlochleven from Glasgow to register.
I’ve never done anything like a skyrace before, so I went into it without any great expectations about my time or performance. The first thing I wanted to do was (cliche as it might sound) enjoy the experience and try to soak the whole thing in — the atmosphere, the views, the camaraderie, and competition. I was also acutely aware that my training had not been ideal. Not having my car for most of the summer meant that getting specific training in the mountains was nigh impossible. I did a lot of runnable inclines, but precious little scrambling. My only real performance goal was to make the cut-offs and finish.
I felt fairly comfortable during the first half of the race. The famed Devil’s Ride was more spectacular than had I imagined. The sight of other runners picking their way along the ride, disappearing into the mist was a fantastic and slightly surreal sight. It also gave a hint of the challenge of this race after the first climb to Sgùrr an Iubhair — I just did a big sustained climb, but there was visibly a long way to go! Traversing Devil’s Ridge was slightly easier than I thought it would be, maybe I had given too much credence to its ominous name? The scrambling was fun and unlike anything I’ve done in a race before, but I never felt out of my depth or scared (I have done a fair amount of scrambling in Scotland, Greece, and California, but never combined it with running).
The descent into Glen Nevis from Sgùrr a’ Mhàim started out enjoyable, then got tricky due to the sharpness incline, coupled with muck and standing water. I felt my quads start to protest. As I made the critical check-point 5 before the cut-off, I felt more confident that I would indeed finish this race, but knew that it wouldn’t be a fast time. In the aid station, I took a moment to stuff my face with Soreen Loaf and had my first drink of Coke in over a year. I sat down and dumped the grit out of my shoes. As I started running into Glen Nevis on the flat trail, my legs were feeling slightly fatigued but were still turning over. I enjoyed the company of other runners on this less technical and runnable section. The company also made the very muddy section leading down to the Water of Nevis crossing more enjoyable. One of the highlights of Glen Nevis was seeing all the tourists, asking us runners what we were doing. “Why would you even want to do this?” asked one American walker, her expression matching the incredulous tone of her voice. My honest response, “Why would you not want to do this?”
It was on the climb up to An Gearanach that I started to pay for my less-than-ideal training. The sustained climb on the wet and crumbly-sandy stuff took the little power-hiking oomph that was left in my legs right out of them. My quads started cramping in places they’ve never cramped before. To keep myself moving in the right direction and stave off the cramping, I had to shorten my stride. It made the seemingly endless 1000m climb even more of an embarrassingly slow trudge.
I was gubbed… but as with any climb, there’s always the anticipation of a summit. Don’t underestimate the rejuvenating powers of a summit check-point. After dibbing in with the marshal, I felt able to run again after seeing how far I had come. The sense of accomplishment of getting to a summit and taking the 360° views gives a serious mental boost. The Water of Nevis looked like a thin blue thread below and there were awe-inspiring peaks and waterfalls in all directions. It goes to show how much of this endurance stuff is in the head. And the sound of cowbells… pure magic, that.
The ridge after the first An Gearanach check-point was tricky. I found it more taxing that the earlier Devil’s Ridge. Maybe it was just the fatigue, but I found myself needing to use my hands regularly to make the climbs up to Stob Coire a’ Chàirn and Am Bodach. I’ve never been in a race where my forearms started to ache!
I’ll admit that I was feeling rough, but I never once had that “why am I doing this?” question in my mind. Maybe this goes back to looking forward to doing the race for so long, then thinking that I had been robbed of that opportunity, then being able to do it at the last minute… it filled me with a great sense of gratitude. Even in the most physically trying moments, I still felt that special joy that only comes from being in mountains.
At the final summit check-point, I stopped to take in the views, ate an energy bar, and drank the rest of my water. I felt a spring return to my step and I ran the rest of the way down to the finish. I surprised myself and made up a bit of lost time, even passed about fifteen people. Upon reflection, a couple reasons for this:
1) The end was (literally!) in sight.
2) Much of my training took place in the permanent bogs of the Campsie Fells… so where many of my fellow runners were cursing the mudfest of the final descent, I enjoyed the mayhem. That kind of terrain has become my bread and butter. I was able to maintain my balance, and never fell on my arse. When I could run during the Ring of Steall Skyrcae, I felt confident. I paid for not doing any scrambling in my training for the race, but reaped the benefits of all those hours doing steep boggy descents in the Campsies. In all my races, descending is my strongest hand, so I also get a bit of extra confidence on sections that others don’t seem enjoy.
3) I think my competitive instinct kicked in, remembering that as well as being an adventure, the Ring of Steall Skyrace is indeed a race. The irony being, of course, is that my time was far from competitive. But that’s what racing does: it makes you push that wee bit harder and dig a wee bit deeper. Outside of a race, I’m not sure I would’ve run that final descent on my spent legs.
I felt like I ran a half decent pace all the way down from check-point 10 into the finish at Kinlochleven; my best splits for the entire race. I finished in 8:09:30, knackered but having loved the experience.
The finish line was a welcome sight and enjoyed seeing so many other racers (the faster ones!) cheering everybody in. There was a great atmosphere, like a mad carnaval of mountain running as well as the esprit de corps that comes through shared experience.
I think we lucked out with the weather. Not that it was perfect. I like that we got a bit of everything that Scotland has to offer. Moody clouds, dreich, sunshine, and even felt a bit of sleet on the summits. It made it feel like a more of an adventure (and showed the wisdom of the mandatory kit rules!) as a result.
The race was well organised. I can’t say anything negative. The red flags that marked the course were remarkably easy to follow, even in the mist. The marshals were always encouraging and helpful. Even the beef chilli and rice at the finish tasted amazing (bear in mind I was starving, so I probably would’ve wolfed a boiled pig’s foot at that stage).
All in all, a wonderful experience. I’m still buzzing over a week later and can’t wait to go back with the benefit of experience and more race-specific training under my belt.
This comes a bit late as the race was over two weeks ago, but the Cort-ma Law Hill Race is such an experience I still wanted to write about it.
The Antonine Trail 10k was my introduction to trail racing. The Cort-ma Law Hill Race was my first traditional Scottish hill race. Trail race, hill race. What’s the difference? This article on Fell Running Guide does a good job of describing the differences and overlaps. Of course, that article is about fell running, not hill running. But for the sake of ease, you can read the article on the assumption that fell running is fairly analogous to hill racing in Scotland. It’s hill running up here, fell running south of the border (as well as Northern Ireland, from what I can gather). The nomenclature does lead to some oddities though: the Cort-ma Law Hill Race isn’t a fell race because it’s in Scotland, even though it takes place in an area called the Campsie Fells.
So… it’s a hill race, which is like a fell race, that isn’t technically a fell race because it’s in Scotland and therefore a hill race, but the route traverses the Campsie Fells. Got that? Set me right if I’ve got something wrong.
The Cort-ma Law Hill Race is memorable, in that “it’s so miserable, it’s fun” way. The official description of the Cort-ma Law Hill Race captures this well: “The highlight of this race is the section of man-eating emerald green bog between Cort-ma Law and Lecket Hill…”
So, to the route. It’s an difficult race though “only” being 10k. It starts on a steep incline (a 17% grade hill for the first mile, if Strava is to be trusted) then levels out – i.e. runnable, but undulating — from a big pile of rocks called Chrichton’s Cairn across to the summit of Cort-ma Law. This part is pretty straightforward. There’s an easy hill track to follow and, though squidgy, is fairly firm underfoot. The route then takes runners across a bog to the summit of Lecket Hill. From the summit of Cort-ma Law, you can see the faint outline of track, but it’s a different thing when you’re in the bog itself. It’s very wet up there and the bogs are deep. The track looks less defined when you’re on it and it splits in many directions at the boggiest bits. It’s tricky running and picking a good line is tough — what can look like a foothold can easily give way to slimy green nothing. After the initial bog, runners reach the summit of Lecket Hill and make a steep decent. Not down the main and well-known track that leads to the Crow Road off Lecket, but off-piste down a tussocky fence line. There’s a burn at the bottom (in full spate this year!) that needs crossed and then another steep and rough climb. There is no clear track at this stage so it’s a slow process of picking your way up through tussocks. I don’t know if it’s possible to run this section and for me, it’s the toughest part of the race. After a slog to the top, there is yet another bog crossing (complete with decomposing sheep) and then runners rejoin the main route and have a quick descent back to the Crow Road carpark.
In recent races, I’ve been firmly in the middle of the midpack. Not so with this race, I placed 59 out of 69, even though I ran a course PB by 8min 43sec. I’m guessing this race attracts particularly fast runners or those who are just really adept at this kind of terrain, or maybe they’re just really skilled at both. Or possibly just more people run trail races than the more fringe and hardcore hill racing crew?
The weather on race day was fine – clear skies with stunning views over Glasgow and the highlands. This was pretty good luck because two weeks before the race it had been raining constantly. Last year, there was two weeks of sunshine before the race. The course, especially the Cort-ma Law to Lecket section, was totally sodden. Conditions were more challenging than last year (not that last year was a cakewalk), which made me feel even more pleased with my 8:43 course PB. Course marking seemed a bit clearer this year – wee metal stakes with red and white ribbon at crucial points – and the marshals did a sterling job showing the way, noting our numbers at summits, and offering encouragement. All of this is done while persevering through some truly awful midge clouds.
As with the ARTX in May, it was interesting to run this race again, one year after more disciplined running and training. Though I was one of the last finishers, I felt that I ran the best I could. I expected that I would run the race quicker this year, but not by 8 minutes. Off-road races are more unpredictable than their tarmaced counterparts, but they can still provide a marker for personal progress. Looking at the stats for the two races side by side can show the things that are going well, or not so well. So, after thinking about 2017’s Cort-ma Law Hill Race compared to 2016, here are a few nuggets:
Running with a regular training plan has worked for me. Mixing it up with long runs, speed sessions, and hills seems to be working. My placing was back. 10th from last, but cutting more than 8min off my previous time is something to be proud of. All of this said, I don’t think my progress will stay on the same upward arc.
Power hiking can be as fast as running. Or faster. I felt like took it easier up the first hill and didn’t kill myself trying to run it. As it turns out, my power hike was quicker than my run on that first steep incline. Still much room for improvement here, more hill sessions are on the cards.
Don’t do stupid things like trying to cycle to the race when I don’t have enough time. Prepare my bag with the mandatory kit well before the race. Show up with time for a warm-up. The last-minute cycle to the start last year killed my legs.
Storm the downhills. I’m a slow climber, but I can go at a decent speed downhill and actually pass a few people. I should play to my strengths and save something for a pace kick on the downs and not ’t fully deplete my tank on the ups.
Compression leggings look stupid on me. Fact. That said, they seemed to work on this rough terrain. I felt less fatigued afterwards (maybe psychological?) and my legs weren’t as torn up at the end. Function over fashion.
It will be interesting to see what happens if I do this race next year…
So much about running is gradual. For me, just starting to actually enjoy it took a while. But on that journey runners take, there are usually some memorable moments that we look back on to mark our progress. It might be a parkrun PB, meeting up with a club for the first time, or something like that.
For me, The Antonine Trial Race 10k (ATRX) was my first trail race and the event inspired me to get into running on the trails and hills. So it was fun to return to the race, everything familiar and different at the same time. In 2016 I didn’t know anybody, standing around like Nigel-no-mates, but still enjoying the craic. On Wednesday, I knew so many people, a bunch from the Carron Valley Trail Runners crew as well as a handful Springburn parkrunners. Oddly, the weather was almost the same as it was last year — that’s to say, perfect. I don’t know how James and the race crew have managed this two years in a row — spooky.
Last year, the hills near killed me. This year, they were tough but felt more runnable. Last year, I was timid on the decent. This year, I confidently stormed down the hills with my arms flailing like a total eejit. I passed people on the downs, they passed me on the ups. All in all, my strategy of recognising that I’m a slow climber but quick controlled-faller worked. I leapfrogged competitors for the first 8k, but only got passed once on the final 2k. Last year, I ran the course in 59:18, this year 53:06. A course PB by over 6 minutes!
The race itself has a great vibe, the marshals were all so encouraging (especially the team on the final hill!) and it’s a beautiful place to run with fascinating Roman ruins all over the place. I’d say it’s an underappreciated bit of central Scotland and I’m pleased this race gives it the attention it deserves. There are so many great views — there’s a class panorama over the Campsies from the top of Croy Hill, but I really love the old gnarled trees and almost terraced grassy descent at the 7.5km point.
The race links up with local charities (this year, PALS) and everybody arrives with tins for the local foodbank. In the goody bag there’s a garish pink buff. The medal is a rock with the ATRX logo. Seriously, what’s not to love about this race? It’s no surprise it sells out so quickly.
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and the (honestly) unexpected PB was a bonus. Looking forward to the full Antonine Trail Race half marathon+ come autumn.