You think you’ve seen the best of the best when you watch, eagle-eyed, the London Marathon or stand on the sidelines ringing your cowbell and cheer on your team mates at a local cross country, but there’s something pretty darn special about a Scottish Hill Race.
On Saturday I travelled up to Strathyre, a small town in Stirlingshire within the bounds of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, with Nigel and two fellow Carnethy – Edinburgh’s hill running club – runners, Matt and Simon. We were heading to the Stuc a’ Chroin 5000 Hill Race in its 29th year and for the first time a UK Championship Race. It’s the only hill race in Britain not organised by a hill or fell running club, but rather by the Strathyre community for runners from all over Scotland and beyond. With 5000 feet of ascent, or 1500m, over 20km, it’s known to be one of the most arduous races in Britain, even for experienced fell and hill runners, and with near perfect conditions for a great day out I was excited to see how the afternoon would unfold.
With a laid back 1 o’clock start but a strict closing of race bib pick up at 12 o’clock, we arrived early and Matt, on photographer duty for the day, and I ran-hiked ahead of the pack along the marked route. The first few miles are along beautiful forest tracks which were a mix of dry and sandy, hidden under dense trees, and wet and boggy. We passed the first marshal and water stop and continued on heather-heavy dry trails to Tom na Moine with incredible views over Loch Lubnaig and the Laggan Estate. Expecting the leaders of the race to arrive shortly we set up stations and got the cameras ready as there was a nice long stretch of downhill to watch them traverse before a longer steady climb and a nice water feature obstacle (a burn) to contend with.
With most of the runners through, looking strong and steady, we followed them along a deer fence past Meall Mor to the Bealach, which looks directly across Glen Ample and towards the rest of the course, including the tortuous climb up Beinn Each at 813m followed by the summit of Stuc a’ Chroin. The descents looked incredibly fun but nothing would make up for the slog of those seemingly impossible climbs, although the line of tiny ants slowly moving up the mountain in the distance was a fabulous sight and I couldn’t help thinking that one day one of those moving ants might be me. Like a live episode of Where’s Wally we looked across the valley to spot the tiny moving dots of runners as the sun shone on our backs and eventually they appeared on the hillside, quickly making their descent, weaving down into Glen Ample again before the final big climb up towards us.
The techniques used to make this tough ascent varied greatly between the runners, some choosing the common hands-on-knees approach, while others were more gorilla-like, literally clambering up and using their hands and feet to pull themselves up the steep gradient. Through smiles, or grimaces, everyone reached the top, armed themselves with jelly babies or a sugary equivalent and set off for home, retracing their steps on the forested tracks to the finish line. Rachel, another Carnethy member, joined me on the run back to the start/finish to congratulate the finishers and cheer in awe at the winners during the prize giving. First home was Findlay Wild in 2:08:44, just 11 seconds shy of the course record, and for the ladies, Georgia Tindley of Edinburgh club HBT in 2:37:48, a shiny new women’s course record.
Congratulations to all the runners that conquered this epic hill race, you are all heroes!