Ben Venue Hill Race

When I joined my running club, Bella, I was keen to try different types of running event. Largely that meant different distances, and a spot of cross country and trail running. But hill running just wasn’t something I’d thought I’d find myself including. Hill runners, to me, seemed one stop short of ultra-marathoners, and to be looked at a bit carefully…

But as time passed, I’ve got to know one or two, and rarely heard a bad thing said about the activity. Whilst on holiday, I also read a wonderful book “Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession” (highly recommended to any runner), which sowed a few seeds in my mind, and began to feel that perhaps it wasn’t quite so bad after all. After all, you don’t have to run up the hills – just do your best to get up and down again as quickly/safely as possible, and enjoy the experience.

So when my Road Running club decided to organise a hill run – The Bella Ben Venue Challenge – it seemed like a custom made opportunity to try it out. I knew there’d be plenty of hill-running newbies taking part, so I wouldn’t feel completely outpaced.

The weather forecast though, wasn’t too promising. High winds and rain seemed to be on the agenda, as a low-pressure decided to sit over the northern reaches of Scotland. The Forth road bridge was closed to high sided vehicles. 80mph winds. I’d been assured though that a run would happen, regardless of the forecast, so seemed rude not to go and see what it was all about. It was all in a good cause too, proceeds going to Lomond Mountain Rescue team, so despite a slightly concerned wife, and baffled comments from my Glasgow parkrun co-organisers, I set off up to Aberfoyle and into the Trossachs to run up a hill not that far from where I was married last year.

After parking up, I headed through the paths to the start area, and sorted out registration. £5 is incredibly good value for a race, particularly for such a good cause, and given the marshals had a heck of a way to go to get to their various points.

Given the high winds, the course was altered. Quite sensibly. That the marshals – Mountain rescue team members I should add – couldn’t stand up on the ridge, it was felt appropriate to adjust the course. Even though it looked delightful at the start, we were sheltered, and I’d seen how changeable the weather was.

After the start, we headed up through hard-packed forest paths, which were really quite delightful. For a road-runner like myself, quite a novelty, but the steep inclines were taken steadily, and it felt quite odd (for a road runner) to be “allowed” to walk as much as I did. I was also determined to enjoy the experience, and not push too hard. Nonetheless, I had perhaps set off a bit too fast, so deliberately eased off and let a few folk past.

The checkpoint at the edge of the forest marked the start of the ‘real’ hill running. We were out onto exposed hillside, which had a generally visible path up, but it was heavy going. Very muddy indeed, and quite disconcerting to place your feet into what looked like wet grass, only to sink knee deep into quite slurpy mud! Thankfully my shoes didn’t come off, but it was a close thing! I put the prospect of having to wash my clothes out of my mind and just enjoyed it: It’s not every day you’re able to get quite as muddy 🙂

It was tough going at points. A few scrambles required, and if not a scramble then a bog to navigate, but my legs seemed to hold their own, although I was very grateful to finally see the lead runners approaching in the opposite direction. Fellow club runner Matt Williamson was just in the lead, and haring downhill at quite a rate. Impressive stuff, but I knew I had nowhere near the confidence to do anything like the lead runners were managing!

The top was approaching, and I was passed by plenty more fellow club runners, one or two of whom warned about the winds at the top. And I was grateful for the warning, as no sooner as the cairn that marked the turning point came into sight, the winds hit, and it was quite something. I was blown in all directions, and it was everything I could do to get to the cairn and see the incredibly resilient marshal note down my number, before turning and struggling back down, passing on the warning about the wind to everybody I passed!

The descent was, at first, wonderful for the fact that I had my breath back and could enjoy the experience a bit more. But soon found focusing on finding a safe path at the higher speed I was travelling more than made up for it. A few slips and a nearly twisted ankle made me certain to be careful, but also not to think too much. Instinct felt more reliable than trying to rationalise which path seemed better. Just get on with it!

Getting to the bottom of the exposed hill and on to the hard-packed forest paths was a welcome relief, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable run down through the forest. Rather than belt it out, I decided to enjoy the run, and fell into an evenly paced run with another runner, and we had a lovely chat as we descended. Some absolutely stunning views out over the Trossachs, with Loch Achray in the distance. After a while though I felt strong enough to push on a bit harder, and set off in search of a needed cup of tea!

Crossing the finish line (a time of 1:22:09, the winner finishing in 51:17!) was a great relief, with an enormous sense of achievement, but nothing as compared to the wonderfully warming cups of tea the club had put on in abundance, and a marvellous spread of home baking. Plenty of post-run analysis with the many experienced (and newbies like myself) hill runners. All seemed to agree the decision to adjust the race the correct one, and all seemed to feel it was a great new addition to the hill running calendar.

Route

Looking at the course profile here (via Chris Upson), it seems there was 860m (1,800ft) of climb involved, over a 6.4 mile (just over 10k course). A few years ago I’d have felt that would be quite a decent achievement for a hill walk, but the idea of running up and down just not something to ever consider. Madness. Yet delighted to have felt able to have taken on the challenge, experienced hill running for the first time. Amusingly I even now find myself with an athletes entry on the Scottish Hill Racing website!

My legs aren’t too bad, two days afterwards. Much better than I expected to be honest: perhaps the hill work paid off! Whilst not a hill running convert just yet, I’m absolutely delighted to have taken part, and certainly going to try another hill run in the not too distant future. Living in Scotland means I have some of the best scenery in the world on my doorstep, and being able to combine seeing it and experiencing it through my passion for running, just seems an ideal combination.

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