It all started with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty… Well, actually it started with me getting bored with just road running, wanting a new challenge and switching to running the trails and hills around us. I entered this as a new challenge for myself and to try a different type of race. The days leading up to it, however, I became a bit worried. I hadn’t done much hill-specific training and running lately, and had a 24 hour stomach bug this past week too. I know my fitness is the best it’s ever been – last weekend’s massive 10km PB shows that – but running a road race pales in comparison to an off-road race with a massive elevation gain. I would be basically running up a small mountain, with a healing stomach. Would I be able to do it?
I was also trying out some new fuel and recovery food. I know, not a good idea for a race…
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was the soundtrack that I listened to as I ate breakfast race morning. We had watched the film the night before (can I just say WOW, what a beautiful and inspiring film! Pat and I are now planning a trip to Iceland). I was thinking about the story, looking out our large picture window into the countryside, and I thought to myself: Danielle, you can do this. You know it’s going to be physically demanding – the most demanding race you’ve ever done – but you’re a stubborn and strong person, you can do it….. If Walter did it, you can do it. Compare myself to a fictional character? Yeah, I’m like that. But it worked.
The race was close to Inverurie, which is north west of Aberdeen. After last weekend’s horribly slow and painful drive to Inverness, we opted to take a route different than the A96. We chose the Netherly Road to Peterculter (pronounced Peter-cooter), and met a diversion that took us no where but back into Peterculter. At this point, Google map was useless – she kept telling us to “Turn right, make a U turn” – so we pulled out the map and took many small roads to get to our destination. We could actually see Bennachie (pronounced Benn-ahee) and the Mither Tap in the distance. I just wanted us to get there but it took forever! It was literally over the river and through the woods a dozen times, zig zagging through the countryside of Aberdeenshire until we met up with the A96 just outside Inverurie. At this point, we were set.
We arrived to a busy Back o’Bennachie parking lot, with racers registering and milling about. Pat parked the car and proceeded to ready his mountain bike: although registered for the race, he opted to pass as he was a week into marathon recovery. He would do an easy mountain bike tour of the route instead. It was, after all, still open to the public while the race was going on.
I was dressed in a race technical t-shirt and my Capri tights, but when we arrived, the wind had picked up – it was due to be 16 mph that afternoon – and it was cold! I had brought extra layers just in case, and changed into my 2XU compression tights (which aren’t so compressive anymore since I’ve lost weight), and wrapped my thermal Helly Hansen top around my waist, in preparation for cold winds at the top. I queued for the toilet, then waited for 2 pm and the race briefing and start.
There were 188 runners participating, and the crowd was very different to a road race: many runners had very muscular legs, wore buffs and down-filled jackets in anticipation of the race start; the usual cutesie, tutu-wearing or costume-ish run garb was no where to be seen. The runners at this event were experienced hill runners, with a few of us trying-this-out-for-the-first-time runners amongst the crowd. People wore Innov8’s, I saw Salomon Speedcross shoes like mine, even road running shoes.
The race briefing was held and then it started immediately! I remained in the back. My only goal for this race, not knowing at all what to expect other than not running the entire thing, was to not finish in last place. With a larger pool of competitors, I knew this was a possibility. The race started uphill, obviously (!), up a landrover track for about half a mile. It then took a sharp left and left the landrover track for a vertical, single path. All running stopped and turned into a single file line of people power walking up this path, amongst the heather and gorse, a spiky, hardy plant found all over Scotland. We were walking because of a slight bottleneck, but also because it was that steep that running would just waste much-needed energy. I power walked for about mile, leaving the forest and past the tree line, up through the heather. I passed a few people going up, but I was also passed.
The trail leveled out for about 10 meters, so I ran this bit, but again, we began to climb. Again, I power walked, pumping my arms for momentum, leaning forward, and in very steep sections, had my hands on my lower quads, pushing myself off of them and up to continue climbing. Some around me though, walked uphill very upright, not at all using their arms to help. I passed them.
Mile 2 came and we were still climbing up a single track trail, through heather and mud. We had made it to the top of Bennachie and our first downhill section! The path turned into a wider, extremely muddy trail. I ran down this hill cautiously, loving the down, and looked ahead to see fluorescent-coloured tops run up Oxen Craig, a small rocky summit between Bennachie and Mither Tap. I could really feel the wind and its chill in this section, glad to have changed to my long tights. I didn’t actually need my thermal top because I was warm enough at this point.
Mile 1: 15:25
Mile 2: 17:18
The thick mud continued along this top section and up Oxen Craig. I really had to focus on just the run and where my feet would go. I couldn’t get lost in my day dreams. When it got too steep to run, I power walked up. Then there were the boulders. To get over the very top of Oxen Craig, I had to literally climb up and over huge boulders, not actually knowing where the path was, instead following a faint splattering of mud left by other runners. More wind hit at the top. I cautiously ran down these large boulders and mud with my eyes glued to the ground.
Under foot turned to a wider sandy path, more walker-friendly, and it was here that I picked up the pace. I could see runners heading up Mither Tap, ahead, the final big climb and the distinct rocky outcropping, that apparently used to be a large fort dating to pre-Pictish times (veeeerrrrrrryy old – but that’s Scotland for you). Again, my running turned to power walking up stoney steps to the top, then across Mither Tap. Here, the race marshals told me the big climbs were done and it was now downhill from here. Yessssss! It was at this point I ate my Honey Stinger race fuel, and let me tell you, they were delicious! And they worked well.
Mile 3: 14:46
Mile 4: 13:13
For me, the best part of hill running is the downhill. It’s a test of physical fitness, strength and stability because one foul step and you could wipe out quite hard. I love running down uneven paths, be them stoney, muddy or full of tree roots. I like how my footing constantly changes, like I’m hopping from stone to stone in a stream, but downhill. It’s a true test of my strength. This downhill section from Mither Tap demonstrated just this. I’ve been doing single-leg squats and plank variations for some time now, and both helped with this part of the race. I felt strong and in control as I ran from stone to stone, zig zagging down the hill, around muddy parts, taking big steps, small steps. Always in control and focused on just the trail, not letting my mind drift.
The trail met the tree line and into the forest I went! I took a sharp left into the woods, which was one of my most favourite parts of the race. Most of the forests here have been planted over decades, and the trees are so close together that no light comes through. This forest section was like running at night! Throughout my time on top of the hills, I was with runners, but I managed to pass most of them during my descent and was alone. I could’ve been scared, but I wouldn’t let myself: it was such a cool section of the race! Cushioned under foot, incredibly quiet, solitude and dark – I’ve never experienced that.
Mile 5: 10:47
Mile 6: 9:25
The forest opened up to the wettest part of the course. The wider, pine-needle covered trail turned into a 6 inch wide, deep trail, soaked through with water from rain the day before. If I wasn’t running through thick, deep mud, I was running through puddles and lots of them. I found this to be the most physically and mentally demanding part of the route, made even tougher by tired legs. While this race was visually stunning with ever changing landscape, in terms of mileage, it felt like forever! That, paired with slower than usual paces. I was very glad to finish the wet section, and was informed by marshals that I had a little climb then it was downhill to the finish.
The path turned into landrover track through a natural forest, with plenty of daylight. I stopped to walk a bit only to hear the race marshals encouraging runners behind me; the competitive Danielle started running again, couldn’t let them pass me!
I also saw a red t-shirted runner up ahead, and made it my goal to pass him, despite how tired my legs felt. Although it felt physically demanding, my pace time was actually quite good considering the elevation gain and loss I’d just experienced, and the fact that my quads were pretty much toast. I managed to pass red t-shirt man, and continue ahead only to see Pat approach on his bike! He cycled next to me for a bit, telling me how what the route ahead was like and how he was proud of me for doing this race. He’s a keeper my husband.
I was so happy to see the last of the race marshals, who cheered me on through a last right bend into the downhill stretch. This was the landrover track we started on, and I knew it was all downhill from there. I ran as hard as I could, passing walkers and eventually Pat on the side of the road, who snapped some photos of me.
Mile 7: 12:20
Mile 8: 9:22
I crossed the finish and collected my goody bag. I had run 8.2 miles in 1:44:05, with an average pace of 12:42 min/mile, and an elevation gain of 1620 feet! This is double the elevation gain for the Dundee Templeton 10 race.
I grabbed some water, met Pat and we both headed to the registration tent, where a large spread of home baking was waiting for all runners. It was made with sugar, gluten and grains, but I didn’t care, a wee cheat treat was okay. I grabbed a small piece of lemon loaf, a peanut butter-chocolate cookie, some flapjacks made with nuts and dried fruit, and slices of chocolate banana loaf, all for Pat and I to share. I got an initial sugar jolt in my jaw, which always happens when I eat something really sweet, but the treats were delicious. I did eat my share of them, I confess, along with my Honey Stinger recovery bar (which I didn’t really like).
We also saw some less fortunate runners that had taken tumbles in the race: one man with two very bloody knee caps. Another with a cut across his nose, and cut on his knee. A woman with a bloody hand. It’s a tough race!
We changed, I stretched, and then we headed over the river and through the woods home. My treats caught up with me and I felt ill, with a headache, but also tired and happy about my run and experience.
This race has gotten praise from the press, and I can see why. It’s a challenging course, but runners of all abilities can still do it. The landscape is incredibly stunning and varied; it never gets dull. The race organisation and marshals are superb – I was always encouraged by them every step of the way. I will definitely be doing this race again, and in the mean time, continue to work on my physical fitness and stamina.
The thing I love most about hill running is that you have to be so in tuned with what you’re doing. You can’t let your mind wander, you have to be in the moment. It’s this kind of running that makes you feel alive, and ready to face everything and rise.
Watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty the night before helps too 😉
Have you seen this film????
Have you done a hill race before?
What’s the highest hill you’ve run?
Next race: the St. Andrews Duathlon at the end of October