Last year I went to Aberdeenshire and ran “The Illuminator” – 15 miles through glorious scenery in the pitch dark which, while fun, did seem a bit ironic, given the scenery I hadn’t seen.
So we signed up for “Run Balmoral Trac 15 Mile Trail Race” which was during the day, so that we could run through glorious scenery and see it.
The Illuminator had taken me three hours and twenty minutes, so I figured the RunBalmoral 15 miles would be about the same – given that both races were all about elevation.
Imagine my horror and faint panic when I read on the instructions a few days before setting out to Deeside:
“There is a cut off time of 3 hours for the event.”
“If you are out on the course after three hours, you will be given the option to either stop and be transported back to the finish area or if you continue, you will be made aware that the marshals will be removed and you will have to make your own way back.”
How stressful! I was consumed with visions of a sweeper Land Rover snapping at my heels as I failed to eat up those now oh-so-necessary 12-minute-miles. But to cut 20 minutes off my time-for-distance was a tall order. Much as I didn’t want to arrive at the finish line in a Land Rover, I also didn’t much fancy being left out in the foothills of Lochnagar with nothing more than a dwindling supply of water and three jelly babies.
I was going to have to run faster. (I wasn’t even entertaining the other option that they gave; you could ask for a head start. Just no.)
I have a problem with speed – but I had done some research… and was told to take more steps and lean forward. Other people said I needed to… move more quickly. That kind of thing.
I did an uncharacteristic amount of number crunching in my head, figuring out what I would hope would be on my FitBit at various points in the run. I don’t have a head for numbers; it was quite a challenge. But twelve-minute miles would be good, so ten-minute miles would be better, and I could save up some minutes to use at tricky bits. So that was the plan.
After a full Scottish breakfast and the donning of optimised kit (including the last formal outing of my soon-to-be-retired-NorthFace trail shoes, ancient but very reliable non-chafing shorts, my orange-therefore-easy-to-spot-in-race-photos Deerstalker t-shirt, my Tweed Tunnel Trail run buff, my invincibility gloves and my hydration system and jelly babies… all good and ready to go) we arrived at Balmoral and trekked in to the event village toting our post-race tote bags.
The morning had been beautiful, but the temperature was dropping and there was plenty of chittering to be done until we got going. With the fear of very possible failure giving this race a bit more of an edge than other races, I resolved to “go faster”.
The first mile was dull tarmac – far too bangy for my shins; the second mile was similar. I think it went to hard packed track after that. At the 3 mile water stop, I cruised on through, saving valuable seconds, I hoped, by wrestling with my own hydration system. The path improved to a more trail run terrain – but pretty much the whole race was on hard packed surfaces.
As usual, I was being overtaken by everyone – I just hoped there were some people left behind me. I was doing my slow-and-steady-completes-the-race-in-three-hours pace – but there were others around me that weren’t. Two girls stopped for selfies all the time. When they stopped for a selfie, I overtook them; when they finished with the selfies, they overtook me. Repeat to fade. There was also a couple with big backpacks (I have no idea what they thought might be useful beyond water and jelly babies – but there must have been something) who I kept overtaking because they were WALKING TWO ABREAST ON A NARROW PATH – but I overtook them about five times, so they must have overtaken me about five times. They must have been doing walk/sprint intervals or something. With their rocket booster packs maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know why people walk on races unless the incline is insane. It’s very annoying when you are tortoising along like me.
So the three mile water stop was also the eight mile water stop at the end of the forest loop. I passed the eight mile marker at an hour and a half which was ideal. This meant that I had a mile’s worth of minutes to spread out over the second half of the race which was a mile shorter, as it were.
The first eight miles felt like a bit of a necessary evil to get to the bit I was interested in running – above the tree line. It was good. We punched up out of the trees to an open landscape with a middle-of-nowhere vibe about it – where you can imagine Queen Victoria and her various descendants getting away from it all with dogs, horses and John Brown etc, making up “The Old Man of Lochnagar” and avoiding the paparazzi. Of course, there was a photographer there for us, with Lochnagar looking a bit moody and atmospheric in the background…
At the ten mile marker my FitBit said 1hr 57 minutes – so it was still possible. Five miles an hour. So I reprogrammed my brain away from twelve minute miles into ‘just go faster’. I was plodding along keeping going, keeping going, while everyone else was walking – and then this girl was about to overtake me WHILE WALKING, which does your psychology no good at all – so I caved in and walked with her for a bit. I took the risk of taking a few pictures at the eleven mile mark which I think was the high point literally and metaphorically with great moody views one way and bright blue sky the other.
Then it was downhill. My neck went into cramp which I could have done without, and my legs were beginning to struggle but I kept going and kept going. The descent was good – long and gradual, until the infamous “last hill” that was absolutely fine. I think, had there been worse weather on the run up to the race, this might have been a more challenging feature – but I liked it, as it gave me soft terrain for a sharp descent to the end of the race.
I knew that the three hours was possible, so I mountain-goated my way down out of the trail section, back onto a few hundred yards of the tarmac and across the line.
My Fitbit gave me the good news: 2 hours 59 minutes 56 seconds. Phew! I was absolutely delighted with my time and my medal and my t-shirt, although when I went to pick up my post-race-tote bag, there were only about three left!
The event village was all being packed away – the burger vans had gone, but there were free sandwiches – and the hot chocolate van was still there. We quickly got changed, half expecting the changing marquee to get taken down while we were in it – the place was deserted as all the fast folk had gone home…
Balmoral Castle was looking beautiful and the estate looking glorious. I wonder if the Queen would have preferred to watch Aberdeenshire’s fittest speeding by her window to celebrate her 92nd birthday rather than being down in London watching a variety show. I know where I’d rather be.
In comparison to other races, this was the least inclusive fitness/ability wise; the field was very… elite. Normally in large events I am exactly average – coming pretty much precisely half way in placings. This event – I was in the bottom ten percent, I think. One didn’t get the impression that there were people running primarily for charities or for someone’s birthday or stag-do or anything. These people were runners. The keenest runners were the “Devil of the Deeside” entrants – who were doing four events over two days – 5k, 10k, a running and cycling duathlon and then the 15 mile race I was doing. I had hoped/ suspected that the Devils would be … tired… on our race, but no. Fresh as daisies.
Overall we had a great time – as I had hoped – it was very beautiful and to have made it under the finish line with seconds to spare was great. I would have been very annoyed with myself for taking pics on the course if I hadn’t made it in on time!