This past weekend was a big weekend for running, both in Scotland and the UK. There was the Virgin Money London Marathon, the Hoka Highland Fling (a 53 mile ultra marathon along the West Highland Way here in Scotland), and of course, the big race weekend at Balmoral Castle. My race weekend.
As you may or may not know, I set myself a wee challenge this year. Not only would I run the Stena Drilling Tartan 10km (aka Balmoral 10km), but I also really wanted to up my game and enter the Glacier Energy 15 mile trail race. So, instead of entering one this year, one next year, I decided to enter both. I decided I would take on a big race challenge. My first.
I have a long-standing score to settle with the 10km in particular. I’ve run it twice before and both times, I set personal worsts for a 10km race. I’ve never actually specifically trained for this race and its big hill, because I arrogantly thought I could easily conquer it. I never have. In 2013, I ran almost all the way up that hill, but stopped short of the top to walk the rest of the way – my time then was 1:01:45. Last year was even worse. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I ran the race with glycogen-void legs, and couldn’t even manage half way up the hill; that time was 1:05:xx, the worst 10km time I’ve ever recorded. This year, I was determined, come hell or high water, to run a far better race.
This time around, I trained for this race, the hill and the conditions. The big Balmoral hill is a 393 feet elevation gain on landrover track; I trained on hills that were over 800 feet in elevation, on landrover track. This race features an undulating downhill section with a surprising uphill section towards the end; again, I trained in these conditions, running hard on the long downhill to simulate race day. The big hill is steep; so were my training hills. While I had to train for both the 10km and 15 mile race, all my focus was on the 10km and conquering that hill.
And I did. Read on.
Initially, I was going to be running this race along with two friends, but due to various reasons, they had to pull out of the race. This left me by myself again, until I found out a new friend would be running the race. As well, Pat decided to take our friend’s entry and join me in so I wouldn’t be alone. Brownie points for the husband!
We drove up to Ballater late Saturday morning and joined the hundreds of cars in the many car parks on the Balmoral estate. The 10km was the big race that day, and as we walked in, we watched the first runners of the 5km cross the finish line. It was a cool and breezy day, and we were wearing layers to keep warm.
As race time approached, we changed into our race clothes (capri tights, a technical tshirt and hat for me), did one last toilet break, then joined the mass of people huddling together in the time-staggered pens at the start line. I climbed into the 50 minutes pen in hopes of walking back to 55 minutes, but was basically stuck due to the sheer number of people. I made small talk with some guys next to me, and then the gun went off. The race had started.
I had two goals for this race: run all the way up that hill and finish in under 55 minutes. Although another personal best would be great, I wasn’t going to aim for one because of the hill.
The first two miles of the race take you along tarmac road, parallel to the River Dee. The first two miles are also full of people, and I weaved my way in and out, finding my pace along the way. I had planned to run these first miles very conservatively, just under 9 minute pace, to save my energy for the hill.
Mile 1: 8:59
Mile 2: 8:51
Underfoot changed from tarmac to landrover track, and we came to a large deer fence, which signalled the start of the hill. The route takes a sharp left turn, and then you’re faced with the big challenge of the race: the big, steep, winding hill through the forest. I obeyed the sign saying ‘Runners Right’ and stuck to the right of the track as I began my running ascent of the hill. This not a straight-up type of hill; it’s the type that curves, and the type that is steep, then levels off a bit, back to steep, then levels off….etc.. I saw each level bit as a rest between the steep. As I climbed, the hill became more difficult cardiovascularly because I was racing, but all the way through, my legs felt great. We continued to climb and curve, climb and curve, until that tell-tale sound of bagpipers could be heard at the top. I had been listening out for them. A big smile came across my face and I clenched my fist: I had run up that entire hill without much difficulty at all! And at a faster pace than the steeper, longer hills on which I had trained.
Mile 3: 10:32
The race then turns into downhill undulations. From previous years, I knew to not bomb it down these hills because I didn’t want to kill my legs. I knew that by simply running downhill my pace would quicken, so I held back and just let gravity take its course. I was waiting for the second smaller hill because it was then that I would make my move. I continued downhill through the forest, crossed the bridge in a single file, then left the landrover track for tarmac again.
Mile 4: 8:20
The route continued on and up ahead I saw the second, smaller hill. It was time to make my move. I increased my pace and made it up the hill easily. Then it was just a matter of holding this pace as I continued to run downhill again, towards the finish. Which I did.
There were a few distractions as I made my way to the finish though. First, it started sleeting so hard that it stung my face! At one point, I had to look to the left to keep from getting hit in the face. Then, once the sleet stopped, and we were close to the finish, spectators appeared along the route again. In previous years, I would’ve high-fived the many kids along the route, but this year, I was just focused on running fast to the finish.
Mile 5: 8:16
I rounded the final curve of the route and was in the home stretch. Again, I picked up the pace and glanced at my Garmin to see 7:45 – awesome. I crossed the finish line, breathless from my race efforts, and was congratulated by Pat immediately.
Mile 6: 8:15
I picked up my race tshirt, medal and bottle of water, and made it out of the finisher’s chute.
My 10km race was fantastic. I ran all the way up that hill, which after training on several larger, longer hills, was actually a piece of cake. I’m glad to cross that hill off my mental list. I also ran a sub-55 minute race, exactly what I wanted. My legs still felt great at the end, a result of much carb-loading all week with sweet potatoes and potatoes, and in retrospect, I probably could’ve run the race even harder than I did. I’m still extremely happy with my efforts though. Finally, I set a new personal course record, beating my 2013 Balmoral time by seven minutes. SEVEN minutes!
After stretching and changing, Pat and I headed to our car and eventually got on the road home. The rest of the night was spent doing our meal prep for the week, enjoying a delicious roast chicken dinner, then lying in bed watching BBC iPlayer. I was quite tired but happy, and looking forward to the next day and race #2.