After some respite from the icy remnants of the “Beast from the East,” waking to the sound of gusting winds hammering fat raindrops against my window made me want to succumb to inertia, stay in my bed, and curl under the duvet. I’m normally well up for a Saturday run — especially a race – but I’m ready for the gentler climes of spring. From the cosy perspective of my bed, a 10k didn’t seem particularly inviting.
At the beginning of winter, I’m usually excited about a bit of snow and cold. Running in adverse conditions can be invigorating. There’s a strange kind fun that comes with heading out all bundled up, buff over my face, and hat pulled down so that it leaves only a slit for my eyes (my son tells me I look like a ninja, which is kind of cool). I could be sitting inside watching Saturday Kitchen with a cup of tea instead of braving the elements and feeling fully alive. I like that.
But the novelty eventually wears off and this winter has overstayed its welcome, IMHO.
As much as I wanted to stay in bed, I know it’s important to set down markers in my running. I haven’t run a hard 10k since I’ve started training with the Springburn Harriers, so this would be an ideal chance to mark my progress, as well as taking part in one of my own club’s events. Even though conditions weren’t ideal, I felt that a 10k PB was on the cards. So I pulled on my shorts, club vest, and made the short journey to Bishopbriggs.
As always, the hardest part is the first step out of bed. Once I arrived at the Bishy Leisuredrome and saw many clubmates and friends also mad enough to run on a day like this, I was glad that I decided to turn up. It’s always worth getting out, even on the worst days.
The Jack Crawford 10k was rerouted due to the lingering snow heaps that remained on the road. So instead of the usual course that takes in a bit of the road, the route became an out n’ back along the Forth and Clyde canal towpath.
During the race, there was a nasty headwind on the way out that made running hard going, but thankfully the worst of the rain held off. Racers were trying to do the sensible thing and draft off other runners. Unfortunately, the problem with that is everybody wants to draft, so there was a fair amount of leapfrogging that made pacing difficult. I eventually decided to stick to my own pace and take the wind head on rather than attempting to shelter behind others. This meant getting a bit isolated, but it was easier slotting into my own pace, rather than trying to set my pace by other runners. There was an “on a dime” turn after the 5k point, after which the wind was blissfully at our backs. I’m not sure how much the wind, strong as it was, actually slowed me down in real terms. The psychological effect of the wind, however, shouldn’t be underestimated. When it’s all up in your face, it the wind is an energy-sapping adversary, whereas the perception of the wind totally changes when it’s at your back, it becomes an encouraging helping hand.
My plan was to initially pace for a 45min 10k. That meant heading out at a hard-but-in-control pace of 4:30 per kilometre, then trying to run harder on the final 5k to (hopefully) nip under 45min. As per usual, I set off too quick and ran the first kilometre in 4:10. At the time, it didn’t feel too taxing, but I knew it wasn’t a sustainable pace. The jostling for position to use other racers as a windbreak made the 2nd kilometre a bit wonky; it turned out to be my slowest split. After that I was able to keep my pace fairly steady at a 4:30 for the first half, and (as planned) picked up speed in the second half keeping under 4:30 (with the exception of a 4:32 wobble on the 9th).
I find pacing on a flat course difficult because I’m more accustomed to hilly routes. It feels unrelenting. Hills offer a chance to change things up. The Jack Crawford 10k is pancake flat, Garmin only registering 7m of elevation gain. I’m pretty happy with my pacing, even though the race showed there is room for improvement.
My official finish time was 44min 33sec, which is my fastest 10k to date. I’m delighted with the PB, especially given the tricky conditions. Last year, I was running my 5ks around 22:20, so to maintain a slightly faster pace over twice the distance is a nice reminder of the progress I’ve made.
As for the race itself, it was well organised, friendly, and competitive. Big kudos go to the team who had to alter the route at short notice and everything thing still went forward without a hitch (from a racer’s perspective at least). As Springburn Harrier commenting on a race organised by the Springburn Harriers, I’m probably biased here, but I think the organisers did a great job.
Here’s a bunch of posts shoved into one! New things at work, sick kids, and taking on some new responsibilities (some freelance teaching and training) have kept me from the blog. Yes, I’m still running and have carved out some time to get back to the blog here more regularly. As follows are some pieces that I only half-finished and never posted. Here they are:
On the joys of “Advent Running”:
In the mad season before the holiday break, in reality the whole of December, everything is too busy. Work is too busy. Home life is too busy. The kids are too busy with their Christmas presentations and parties. So at first glance, it seems odd that for the past three Decembers I’ve given myself something else to do on top of all that: Advent Running.
Put simply, the challenge of Advent Running is to run (or some other form of exercise) for 30min every day leading up to and including Christmas. The Guardian did a piece on it, which you can read here. There are a number of other similar challenges, like the popular Marcothon.
Back in 2015, taking part in Advent Running was when I shifted from seeing running merely as a cost-effective (if not dull) form of exercis, to having a major psychological shift where I started to enjoy the act running itself. December, at first glance, seems a strange time to #FallInLoveWithRunning because the weather is awful and it’s dark and there’s not enough time… and you get the gist.
The challenge of a run streak, however, turns battling the elements into an adventure. An online community that has formed around the slight-madness of trying to run 25 in 25. The Advent Running group on Facebook is a nexus of bonhomie, where people of all abilities support each other in the pursuit of trying to live a little healthier over the holidays. I’ll admit that I’m inclined to cynicism and melancholic by nature. Yet I don’t find the support of fellow Advent Runners cheesy or contrived (like that forced smile of the waitress last time I was in an IHOP). So much is wrong in the world and there’s a lot to be angry about and many reasons to be sad — something a tumultuous 2017 has only confirmed. The Advent Running community is something that reminds me, in the midst of everything, how good people can be and that there is a lot of joy to be found in the everyday. The ability to share what might seem like inconsequential victories and stumbles (“I had a terrible week, but I at least managed to get out the door for a 5k in the rain…”) feels liberating. As Boris Pasternak once wrote, “And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness.” Maybe that’s making too much into it, but if so, I wonder why I’ve kept coming back to it three years in a row?
The other thing about making time to run every day is the realisation that there actually is time. When work leaves me tired, I’ll plop myself on the settee and sucked to a blue-black hole of social media scrolling. Before I know it, it has eaten up a half hour of life. Realistically, I can find time to run. I can also find time to sit and play a game of “Fireman Sam Snap” with my son. It’s a reminder that in the busiest time, there is still time. There’s also the reality that taking a break from the tyranny of urgent workstuff actually makes me more productive.
Here’s to Advent Running!
Race Report: Kirk Craigs Christmas Cracker
My final race of 2017 was the Kirk Craigs Christmas Cracker, a perfect way to cap off a year of running. I was hoping to go under 1hr, but managed 57:48, which was good for me. Still worth saying that only put me in 51st out of 73 racers. This stuff is humbling.
Kirk Craigs captures the no-frills thrills and unstated brilliance of hill and fell running. Jonny Muir made this apt observation:
The race stats in a field, goes straight up, and “down to big stone and return via same route.” There was prize giving and homebaking in the village hall afterwards. It was great to catch up with some of my fellow Carron Valley Trail Runners because I haven’t been able to get out for the midweek runs recently.
It’s little brute of a race, packing 536m of climb into 6.8k. It was also my first run in the Ochils and it set the bar pretty high — lovely hills and more mountain like than my local Campsies. The initial quad busting incline is flowed by a glorious fast and flat-ish section along the top that gives that unparalleled feeling I only get when racing in the hills: a sense of presence that come from being immersed in the elements while pushing at the edge of physical ability. It feels a bit like flying. Is that what the cool people call “flow state” (it’s an accurate description, but I feel silly saying that due to the mediocrity of my running!).
I ran 1,000 Miles
I’m happy to say that I reached my goal of running 1,000 miles in 2017. It was a fun challenge that Trail Running Magazine put to their readers. A bit like Advent Running, they’ve hosted a virtual community where runners of all abilities can find mutual support, ask questions, and argue about the best shoes.
I was happy to get to 1,000 miles in the end after a number of weeks out due to my adventures with pneumonia and sepsis!
I feel like my running has really progressed this year, so I’m hoping to run 2,018 kilometers in 2018. As I pace and mentally calculate distances in kilometres, I’m happy to set a goal in metric because it means less maths.
I also achieved my goal of completing to 50 parkruns this year. Making sure that I dragged my arse out of bed all those Saturday mornings helped me cross that 1,000 mile finish line.
Some racing, but less racing in 2017!
I did a lot of racing in 2017. I’m going to step back from bigger events. The running community is wonderful, so I’m hoping to give something back and do more volunteering this year.
I signed up for the Strathearn Marathon. I don’t think road marathoning is my “thing” but I’m keen to give it a bash. I think it will set a good marker as to where I’m at with my running. It’s not a flat or fast course (as evidence by the men’s record being 2.39.33!), but I’d like to run close to 3h 30min, or at least sub-4hr if training or the race day goes pear-shaped. The Strathearn Marathon is my main focus this year. It also means that I have the marathon under my belt, so I can put my name in the hat for bigger races like the Highland Fling in the future.
I also love that this race is organised by the Strathearn Harriers and is good value for money. If I’m honest, I find the cost bigger city marathons off-putting. Maybe I’m just getting more stingy as I get older?
I’m toying with the idea running of the Ochil Ultra later in October, but we’ll see how training goes and if I’m able to keep my mileage up. If last year taught me anything, it’s the danger of committing to too much. Increasing training and intensity too quickly is the direct route to injury.
So here’s a race report . It’s a month late. In keeping with the usual and depressing November tradition, the family has run a gamut of winter bugs and viruses. I’ve written much of this in the down time between washing cycles of vomit soaked laundry. This is glamour of life with young children! But let that take nothing away from what was a brilliant race.
When I took part in the Antonine Trail Race half marathon last year, that was the longest distance that I had ever run. In the year since then, I’ve run ultra distance (50K), competed in a mountain race that kept me on my feet for over eight hours, and joined a running club. So I was looking forward to coming back to this race. Not only because it’s a great event, but to see how well I could race with an extra year of training and experience under my belt.
Comparing 2017’s ATR to last year’s race isn’t a true like-for-like comparison because the course changed and is now slightly shorter (by 0.8k). That said, the new course is possibly tougher as it puts in more trail – not groomed, but muddy singletrack — and adds an extra 70m of vert. Many of my fellow racers were of the opinion that the new course is tougher. In my mind, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
When I logged the race on Strava, I saw this:
Now, these aren’t true PRs as I’ve run a quicker 10k that wasn’t logged (but is that real? It’s not on Strava, so…?). Still, it shows that I ran well according to what I usually do. For once I was actually pleased with my pacing in keeping my effort fairly steady. Given the ups, downs, and mud, the ATR isn’t one for an experiment in negative splits. But I think that I managed to keep the effort pretty consistent.
Before the race, I thought I that I had the potential to go under 2hrs on the course, but managed to go well under that. It couldn’t have gone better. To compare results:
In 2016: 2:12:46, 90th out of 165 runners.
In 2017: 1:57:19, 64th out of 210 runners.
That’s an improvement of 15min and 27sec. Last year I finished in the second half of the race, this year I moved up well into the first half. I’m under no illusion that my time is impressive in any objective sense. But I found it encouraging from a personal perspective. The race provides a some confirmation that after a year of training properly and getting out of my comfort zone, I’ve improved. It’s a satisfying feeling. I’m aware that in the past year I’ve seen my times improve by considerable margins and know that my progress will, inevitably, start to plateau. And that presents a new kind of challenge to look forward to in the years to come.
As for the race itself – you could go back to my write-up about the ATRX as my effusive comments for that one also apply here. The marshals are super stoked to be there, encouraging, and helpful at all the critical points. Organisation is spot on. The race also manages to have a fun vibe – the people in fancy dress for Halloween contributing to that – while feeling like a competitive race with some pretty rapid runners in the mix. It gets that balance about right, competitive enough without feeling cliquish. There were some nice touches with the Halloween decorations at the halfway water station and light up skulls in the canal tunnel. I now have an amazing bright fuchsia race t-shirt to match my equally bright fuchsia buff from the 10k — dog walkers on the Strathkelvin Rail Path now shield their eyes when I come running past!
We had perfect weather, which helps to show off what a beautiful part of the country this is (before doing these races, I only knew Croy as that place where I changed trains to get over to Edinburgh). This was my fourth race in the Antonine Trail Race series and the weather has always been amazing. I don’t know what kind of crazy voodoo magic James and Co. have up their sleeves, but it seems to be working.
I love how the Antonine Trail Races are so open about how their funds are used, their commitment to low environmental impact, and how they link into local charities. The race doesn’t just feel like it’s a disconnected even that happens to take place in the area around Croy and Kilsyth. Rather, it feels like it’s actually linked into the community as well as showcasing what a lovely place it really is. I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about these races and it’s a credit to all the work put in by the race director and volunteers.
Here’s a great bit of race footage from Ryan Davidson (“Thermal Tech Search” on YouTube):
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.