Monday, 28 September 2015

Two Breweries and Two Heart Attacks - OR - A Ridge Too Far

I want to be a hill runner.  Spending hours on top of the world, hopping and skipping along interesting paths and trails, far from the madding crowd, far from traffic and fumes, with glorious views for miles in all directions.  I often stare out of the window at work and long to be in the Pentlands, especially on sunny cloudless days.  And I have a notion that I should be some kind of renaissance runner - an all-rounder able to turn his hand to just about any type and length of race.  As a result, I keep signing up for hill races, convinced that I am going to enjoy them.

The reality is somewhat different.  The Two Breweries on Saturday was a good example.  A long-established race over a classic point-to-point route, in the fabulous Scottish Borders, with plentiful free delicious beer in a village hall at the finish.  What's not to love?  Well, quite a lot, if all of the dire warnings I heard beforehand were anything to go by.  Anne described coming across a chap sprawled on the ground near the foot of Trahenna, and being sure that he was dead.  Just resting apparently.  Brian admitted to a similar need to lie down and gather himself before that final climb.  And Stuart said that the mere sight of Trahenna, whilst in a car on the way to Ian S's stag weekend in April, was sufficient to produce an involuntary shudder!

Peter summed it up nicely in a blog from 2013 when he said, "if you haven't put in the hill miles it can be a crash and burn affair with wall to wall cramp and some of the harshest miles in the running calendar".  And there's the rub - I want to be a hill runner without actually putting in the effort.  It's a mystery why I do the bulk of my running near the coast in East Lothian, and can't skip up sheer inclines like the lean lithe mountain goats who do well at hill races!

Running a marathon only six days before was an additional self-imposed handicap of course.  I'd done nothing in the meantime other than a light interval session on Thursday night, and the legs hadn't felt too bad at that.  Ach, I've paid for the entry so I might as well give the Two Breweries a go!  I'll take a big picnic, plenty of fluid, walk all of the climbs, take loads of photos, and just treat it as s fun day out with no pressure!

Porties - Peter, Craig, Richard and Andrew

Fellow Dunbar - Dave

Workmate Anna, with her boyfriend Gareth and friend Angie

Youngest daughter, hound, and Wife

Not sure if this was intended as "art", but it was outside the gallery

The Gruffalo

Traipsing through rough terrain - I think she was trying to warn me

Race briefing - he distinctly said 18 miles

The start

And the first mile on flat tarmac was indeed fun.  I clocked a 6:30 and my legs felt great.  Things would never be remotel;y so good again until the finish.  

A hill, but one of the few we didn't climb

We'll be going up to the left

My plan of walking up the hills was quickly revealed to be a very false sense of security that should have been obvious to even a complete halfwit such as myself.  I suddenly remembered that I ALWAYS walk up the hills anyway, and it ALWAYS bloody hurts - no matter how slowly I'm going.  How on earth did I forget that vitally important detail?!  I had just stepped into the lion enclosure and heard the slam of the door behind me.

The last I saw of Peter until the Village Hall

My spirits were not helped by the steady stream of people overtaking me.  It's one thing to tell yourself before the race that you'll just take it easy, and quite another to pull your vest on, take to the start line, and then usher everyone past.  The following scene from Pulp Fiction comes to mind:

Marsellus:  In the fifth, your ass goes down. Say it.
Butch: In the fifth, may ass goes down.
Marsellus: The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting.  That's pride fucking with you.  Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps.

Birks Hill (I think)

The first section up to the summit of Birkscairn Hill is really one long climb, split into three chunks - up, flat, up, flat, up.  Ok, done, after a fashion.

Friendly neighbourhood marshals at Birkscairn summit

There then followed a precipitous descent down to Glensax over thick heather.  Pride was still floating around in my head, and I have the idea that I am reasonable at going down again, so I attacked it in the hope that I'd gain back a few of the places lost.  Bounding down on the springy, grippy vegetation, I remembered that these are the bits about hill runs that I really enjoy.  I got into a rhythm and even allowed myself a grin.  Which started to slip off of my face as we kept going down and down and down.  Ok, I've had enough descent now thanks.  No, really, that's plenty!

First steep descent. Next steep climb laid out before us as well

Auto-adjust wrongly assumes that is a "horizon" and wants to fix it

A quick splash through the stream at the bottom momentarily soothed my burning blistered feet, but left them wet for the rest of the race, and did nothing for my burning thighs.  With the Hundleshope Heights looming large right above me, I comforted myself with an isotonic pork pie and settled in for a long trudge.

"The Blair Witch Project" was filmed on location at Glensax

Hundleshope Heights

Contouring round towards Stob Law provided some dramatic scenery, but devilishly tricky running - there was a path but it was off-camber and had so much mud that tumbles were an inevitability.  The chap in front of me only had road shoes on (versus my Fellraisers) so he won by three falls to one.

Muddy slippery off-camber path - ankle-ruining stuff

Stob Law

The way down from Stob Law started off relatively gently, but then became more pronounced the closer you came to the valley floor at Glenrath.  I had the brakes almost full on, which gave a vivid reminder of how much I had struggled going down stairs earlier in the week.  I was only around half way done, and really starting to suffer.  My thoughts turned to opportunities to bail out.  In my over-confidence I hadn't thoroughly checked these out, but vaguely recalled Glenrath and Stobo as possibilities.  I figured I'd have to wait a while to be rescued though, so plodded on.

Just after Glenrath Farm

Next up was Whitelaw Hill, which didn't look like much on the map, and we didn't even need to go right to the top.  But it was really hard.  We were taken up a forest firebreak that reduced me to walking for 10 paces, then stopping for a few seconds to catch my breath, before moving on.  Each stop involved a couple of sips of liquid, and I had a Nakd bar for good measure.  I was becoming genuinely concerned about the state of my heart, which was beating out of my chest.  I also had the beginnings of a headache, possibly as a result of being bent almost double with blood rushing to my head.

Into the forest at the bottom of Whitelaw Hill

Can someone explain why I am here?

With the field thinning out and no-one in sight, I encountered the first bit of navigation of the day.  I came to a T-junction at the end of the forestry track along the ridge and had to consult my map to work out that left was the way to go.  Mushy brain was not conducive to fast accurate decision making though.

On the way down to Stobo, I again considered a bail out.  Near the hotel seemed like a good place to call and ask Jo and Jamie to come and collect me.  Not least because I'd exhausted the two litres of water I'd brought, with around 4 miles to go and Trahenna the final item on the menu.  The main reason for continuing was not a loss of face, but a loss of beer - maybe DNFers weren't allowed a pint?!

Richard joined me on the road at this point, and looked incredibly relaxed and comfortable - a complete contrast to the way I was feeling.  He was running for a start, whereas I was walking ad squeezing the last few drops out of a caffeine gel.  He kindly gave me a slug of his Lucozade.  He is doing the York Marathon on 11 October so was deliberately taking a conservative approach.  But the run was going well for him as against his target (he had more than 15 minutes in hand), so he walked and chatted with me for a bit.  Talking about what remained, I am positive that he said, "it's all runnable".

Lovely ladies at Stobo Home Farm who refilled my water reservoir

Richard, it turns out, is a pathological liar.  Unless he meant that it was all runnable, UP UNTIL THE POINT WHERE YOU REACH THE BLOODY GREAT HILL.  But that would be an odd way to describe the course.  Like saying that Siberian winters are fine APART FROM THE COLD.  Or that honey badgers make great pets APART FROM THE RAZOR SHARP CLAWS AND DETERMINATION TO RELIEVE YOU OF YOUR TESTICLES.

I had cause to check my map again on the approach to Trahenna.  Partly because I wasn't sure which of the hills Trahenna was (wishful thinking that it might not be the biggest one visible).  And partly because there was no obvious route through the heather, ferns and long grass.  Taking some time over making my decision, around five other runners caught up with me.  There was a bit of debate which saw a few head left along a fence line that looked to lead up another smaller hill, while a guy in a red vest motored though and took a decisive line to the right.  Convinced by his confident air, Mark from Hamilton and I followed him.  His strategy was a decent one as, although less direct, it made more use of defined trails, before petering out into the same kind of undergrowth (but less of it) that afflicted the left route.

Trahenna looming large

Mark from Hamilton - company for much of the second half

Trahenna proper was a very similar experience to Whitelaw, except longer.  Very slow, fragmented progress, with lots of pauses, and now with added crawling on hands and knees.  The red vest said. "terrible, isn't it?"  I agreed and said that I couldn't see myself coming back to repeat the experience again.  He said that he'd said the same thing five years ago, so maybe that was how long it took for the painful memories to fade.

A backwards glance to reassure myself I was actually making some progress

It took me 23 minutes to climb 230 vertical metres in around half a horizontal mile.  That makes for some pitiful reading.  And, it if had been possible before, completely blew my chances of a sub-4 and salvaging something from the day.

Another tricky off-camber path off the top (which involved a clamber over a fence that initiated cramp in my left foot) led to another steep descent down into Broughton.  The race director definitely said the course was 18 miles in his briefing, but Mr Garmin reckoned it was more like 19.7.  I'm not aware of having gone dramatically wrong at any point, so the extra distance was "disappointing".

Some consolation

There are two barrels of free delicious Broughton IPA in that hall :-D

The pain healed almost immediately after entering the village hall.  Great soup (two varieties - minestrone and Thai spinach), bread, cakes and the all important beer.  Peter remarked that this could be the reason that people come back for more - the fun in the hall puts a positive gloss on the day, and you forget the horrors that preceded it.  Well, I remember!

Minestrone seemed to be winning over the Thai Spinach
And that despite filling up my cup with a fourth beer on the way out of the hall, "for the trip home"...

The second time in a week I've muttered "never again" - at this rate I'm going to run out of races that I haven't fallen out with.