Summer in Scotland signals the arrival of highland games, a day of festivities held on a local estate, celebrating all things Scottish: Highland dancing, pipe bands, and highland games events themselves, like tossing the caber. Last weekend was the Drumtochty Highland Games, at Drumtochty Castle.
Drumtochty is one of my favourite places to run: it’s got huge hills with landrover tracks cut through the forest by the Forestry Commission. There are miles upon miles of trails and tracks that will take you all the way to Stonehaven, 20 miles away. Drumtochty is also where I trained for my big Balmoral Challenge. And Drumtochty is where I ran the Finella Hill Race, a 6 mile up-and-down hill race, through the thick South Drumtochty forest.
Rather than do my last ‘long’ run of 6 miles to wind down half marathon training, I decided to enter this local race. I learned about it last year, and always being up for a new challenge and needing to run some hills in preparation for next weekend’s race, I entered. I did have visions of last year’s Johnston Tower Race last place finish, and with a field of only 19 runners altogether, I knew I had some hard work ahead of me.
The race started at 3pm sharp, with an initial lap around the games ring (about 400m?), before leaving the field, running across the grassy parking lot, across the road and right onto thick, forest trails. We started climbing immediately, albeit a nice gradual climb through mud wet from rain the night before.
The trail continued onto landrover track, which flattened out a bit, then join another gradual, uphill trail. We met landrover track again, taking a left and beginning a long, steeper climb. This climb didn’t stop for 2 miles! We wound our way further up into the forest, first along a few switchback tracks, then joining a very long, steep hill. Initially, I tried to run up the steep hill only to stop and walk once I realised it was never-ending. And because everybody else was doing it. Yes, I love my hill running and conquering new hills, but I also wanted to save my legs and energy because I didn’t know the route. So I continued to walk briskly ahead, climbing through the woods and mud.
Every now and then, the woods would clear and we’d get beautiful views of the surrounding hills and farm land of Aberdeenshire, where I live. We were also treated to the continuous sound of flies buzzing overhead, stereo quality no less. The trail flattened out just enough to be able to run again, which I did, only to take a sharp right and be met with another steep, uphill climb through the woods. This climb was fortunately shorter and to the highest point of the race, and I met a race marshal at the top with a large case of Evian water for all competitors to share. I was also still surrounded by flies.
After a quick refreshing swig, I hopped a short fence and proceeded to haphazardly run across and down a large hill, with no actual path marked. To this point, the race was all very well laid out with cute, metal cutout signs of a runner, pointing in the direction we were to go. I was told to run towards the white pile on, which I didn’t see, and instead followed the very tall man who had been running ahead of me the entire race. By now, I was in second last place (18th), with a woman behind me.
I ran down hill, through the heather, the very bumpy grass (possibly from cows trudging through), through a surprise muddy bog at the bottom, and then hopped over another fence, held down by the nice man, to whom I had caught up. We continued on to landrover track once more, where I briefly felt compelled to run with the man, as he was so kind and chivalrous to me. That lasted for a few minutes before the course turned into a steeper downhill, of which I took advantage!
The last three miles of the race were downhill, at times undulating, track that wound its way back towards the Highland games. In the distance you could hear the announcer, and I knew I just wanted to get back.
From the half way point, each mile was under 8 minutes. My hill running, especially attacking on the downhill, has seriously improved since I joined Stonehaven, and this was very evident in the last section of the race. I ran down those hills HARD, but my legs didn’t tire at all and my stamina allowed me to keep going. At one point, with about a mile to go, still running downhill, I looked down at my Garmin which had me at sub-7 minute pace…. Again, this is huge.
I left the landrover track to join the initial muddy trail, then crossed the main road, ran through the parking lot, and back into the games ring. My race culminated with the announcer calling my name and my town, as I ran a final lap around the ring, to the cheers of the crowd. Unfortunately, my Garmin died during my ‘victory lap,’ but the organisers still kept time. I had run a 6 mile race with an 987 feet elevation gain in 63:04, coming in 17th place out of 19. And I didn’t come in dead last place.
The only post-race treat we received was a 1L bottle of Evian, which I downed immediately. I hung around a bit, chatting with another runner from my club, and with a fellow Manitoban who was traveling around Scotland! Small world!
The point of this race was to get some final hilly miles and for the experience. I had some great achievements in terms of pace and downhill stamina, both good signs for tomorrow’s anticipated sub-2 hour half marathon finish.