This is what I was up to last weekend, while Yvonne and her band of helpers were busy putting the finishing touches to the inaugaral Remembrance Run. I grew up nearby, and this long extinct volcano is the most visible landmark of the upper Clyde Valley. A mere 2300 feet, it’s a distant outpost of the Southern Uplands and very popular with walkers and hangliders. On Saturday however, it was the turn of the fell runners. I arrived at race HQ at Symington Village Hall sporting a bumbag containing waterproof breeks and a cagoule, in addition to my shorts, shoes and MBH vest. The organisers insist that you either carry or wear full waterproof gear in case the weather changes (which it can, with surprising speed). The majority of the other entrants looked to be seasoned fell runners, with most clad in the ubiquitous Ron Hill longs and wearing a variety of far more sensible shoes on their feet (Inov-8 Mudclaws seemed to be de rigeur). In comparison, my Asics 2120’s stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Entry was on the line, so I asked the man handing out the race numbers if my shoes were going to be a problem. “Och, ye’ll be fine”, was his considered opinion “just be a wee bit more careful coming down”. Another runner I chatted to was less equivocal: “yir gonnae suffer!” he opined. I figured it was too late to do anything about it now, although race sponsors “Run and Become” had set our their stall in the hall, with a tempting array of kit on display – maybe i’d come back for a pair of those fancy fell shoes if I lived to tell the tale….
I’d only ever walked up Tinto before, many years ago, and where running is concerned my racing has been confined to roads. This was quite a different proposition, and I took my place towards the back of the pack so that I wouldn’t hold up any hardened fell runners. The route was quite simple – you run 2.2 miles up a path to the mist shrouded cairn atop the hill, and then you come back down again. There are a few complicating factors to make it more interesting, however: much of the path is on loose scree at angles steeper than 60 degrees; at certain points, you encounter near gale force gusts of wind in your face; unless you’re walking, it is well nigh impossible to control your descent off the summit; around the summit, boulders the size of your head litter the ground everywhere you look. Not surprisingly, i’d forgotten all this since the last time i’d climbed Tinto 30-odd years ago!
As I waited for the hooter to sound, I asked a pencil thin (there are no fat fell runners) competitor from a Fife club whether he had any top tips for a first timer. “Aye – dinnae follow that yin” he laughed, jerking a thumb at one of his clubmates. Suddenly the hooter went, and most of the field started toiling up the hill at what seemed to be a fairly relaxed pace. I overtook a few dozen, and was starting to think – “hey, this isn’t that bad” when the advantage of grippy soles started to become clear and I just managed to avoid doing the splits. The going got progressively steeper after this, so that slipping was the least of my worries. In no time, I found myself doing the fell running equivalent of the “Ironman Shuffle” – when the terrain is too steep to go bounding up and the lactic acid is eating your calf muscles, you angle your foot upwards and press your palms down on your upper thighs. Soon, almost everyone around me was doing the same sumo wrestler impression whilst rasping the pained chorus of the oxygen deprived. After about 13 mins, my Garmin pinged to let me know i’d covered a mile – fancy that, a whole mile!
It’s best that we skip over the remaining 1.2 miles to the summit – they were grim indeed, and I was still 7 or 8 minutes from reaching the cairn when the first three runners came flying (literally) down a terrifyingly steep section of the path to our left. They appeared to be in freefall, and many shouts of encouragement hastened them downward and out of sight. The very top of Tinto was cloaked in a damp chilling mist, and as I rounded the cairn and started the run for home, I could see that the hard part was just about to begin. In short order, the terrain was rushing past my feet at Ronnie James pace – it would’ve been quite enjoyable, but for the knowledge that one false move would lead straight in the direction of A&E. The ground was moving too quickly for me to consciously decide where to put my feet – they seemed to pick their way over the loose boulders and scree on autopilot. Slowing down was out of the question, and as I approached the lower reaches of the hill I started to bound across the tussocks as a race within the race developed with five or six other guys. Gradually, their experience in reckless descent started to tell, and all but one managed to sneak past. A flattish stretch of ground before the final descent saved the day, and I buried myself to overtake four out of the five before we reached a fence 200m or so from the end. I took this at a vault (demonstrated here by a “proper” fell runner!) , and hung on, finishing with a trademark roar!
When the red mist had cleared, I checked the Garmin. The final mile had been covered in 5 mins dead (like I so nearly was). All around me, people were flopping to the heather in various states of exhaustion, and some (like these guys) were enjoying a post-race “sauna”.
After a quick stretch, I hastened back to the village hall to exchange my race number for some very welcome soup and a roll, and to find out how i’d done in the overall standings. Out of a record field of 246, three times winner Jethro Lennox of Shettleston had been deposed by Joe Symonds from Dundee in a staggering time of 30mins 19 secs. Multiple British Fell Running Champion Angela Mudge was first lady and 10th overall in 34 minutes 29 secs. Eight minutes shy of her time, I was pleased to make 42 mins 29 secs for 97th, and celebrated by purchasing a running beanie emblazoned with a Saltire.
I’d survived my first bash at hill running – something a bit different to try if you find yourself in the lumpier parts of the UK, where fell and hill running is more popular than road racing.
Don “AikenDrum” H