I’m not sure how the Highland Games in Alva, Stirlingshire was on our radar but as neither of Nige and I had ever experienced a Highland Games we put it in the diary and on Saturday when I was in Edinburgh we drove up for the day.
A Highland Games is essentially a big sports day and an event that attracts thousands to a usually unknown, little Scottish town for one day of the year. We lucked out with the weather with the sun shining all day, but I’m not sure if we’d have felt the same about the games if it had been raining or cold. The Alva games were held in a large park at the end of the high street and around a well manicured 300m grass track were funfair rides and food trucks for all the family to enjoy. Coaches full of tourists even arrived as we were parking so it was obviously a well known annual event not just for locals.
The programme of events for the day included continuous Highland dancing heats and finals, field events including the famous tossing of the caber and lots of running and cycling races around the grass track. Unfortunately you had to pre-enter for most of the races before the day but we were able to enter the hill race, which was also part of the British Open Fell Race championships. So of course we both entered – free with entry to the games! – and watched the games unfold while we waited for our race at 4.15pm.
Although we were ready and raring to go at 4pm the race didn’t get going til about 4.45pm, after being let into the ring and introduced to the crowd before being counted and allowed to line up on the start line. Nige and I were both a little confused by other runners wearing gardening-like gloves – was the path really rocky and sharp? would we be scrambling up the hillside using our hands? – but we hadn’t come prepared so we were going naked and would just have to do our best.
Eighty four runners lined up and with a blow of the official’s whistle we were off, around the grassy track and out onto a short stretch of tarmac before hitting both the trail and incline. Almost in time, everyone slowed to a quick walk, hands on knees, climbing up the hill. We reached a corner of golf course and for a short time the trail was runnable, weaving through spiky gorse bushes, the ground dry and sandy underfoot.
The flat trail ran out.
I looked up from my feet.
All I could see ahead was a train of runners moving slowly up ahead. UP. Vertically.
A supporter on the sidelines shouted “just keep moving” and I made it my mantra for the next few minutes, determined to keep going until I reached the top.
I was doing ok, copying runners ahead of me who were on all fours, heaving themselves up the climb. I passed people who had stopped to rest and was feeling good until I realised that I was dreading the descent. How the hell was I getting down?!
I’ve never moved so fast up a hill that steep, because I’ve never raced a route that steep! and when I reached the summit my calves were burning and I was relieved the climb was over. That feeling lasted a few seconds until I realised he tougher part of the race was ahead. Downhill.
I love a descent. If it’s runnable and you can just let go and go for it. This was not one of those. I started to dig my heels in and slowly walk down the hill but I was angry at runners passing me, ambling down and even sliding on their bums. I decided to give in and go for it, squatted down and tried to slide down the hillside on my bum. It worked! It was fast. Sore but I just had to swallow any pride and get on with it.
Two ladies passed me and I got a little annoyed I couldn’t go any faster but put it down to experience and as soon as the steep descent ended and it was runnable again I went for it, legs like jelly and quads nearing cramp. The last few hundred metres took us on what felt like a victory lap of the games and I crossed the line feeling strong. I stopped my watch and was handed an envelope by an official dressed in a white coat – I’d finished 6th lady and won £10! So worth it!
If you’re ever at a Highland Games and fancy a challenge, check out the events and sign up for the hill race! I didn’t enjoy all of it at the time, it was bloody hard work, but the runners high was worth the effort. Oh, and the gloves – to protect against those pesky thorny bushes you have to grab on to to heave yourself up the hill and have your hands amongst when you’re flying down – maybe worth packing next time.