The Devil and The Craven

Today I passed another milestone in my journey of new running experiences: I took part in my inaugural mountain/fell race. I should have guessed from the name of the race, “Devil’s Burden”, that I’d be in for a heated experience; but little did I know that I was about to take part in one of the biggest mountain races in Scotland. Despite infernal weather, a record 111 relay teams lined up on the start line on this not-so-fine morning, meaning that there were a grand total of 666 bedevilled runners blazing around the Lomond Hills. Really, I couldn’t make this up. I have therefore come to the conclusion that I must have been temporarily possessed when I readily agreed to join them.

The reality is that I run in these mountains a lot and am familiar with the terrain and routes. However, the reality is also that apart from a number of trail races, I tend to only seriously race on the roads. I therefore had no idea how I would fare when unleashed amongst the human equivalent of a herd of mountain goats.

My task was simple: start on the very muddy banks of a reservoir and run in a more or less straight line to the next village. Oh, and there’s also a 1500 foot hill in the way.

I was positively surprised by not embarrassing myself completely with my ability to tackle the mud, surefootedness and speedy uphill climbing. Unlike some other runners, I never once fell over or got caught in barbed wire fences. Hey, for the first 5 kilometres or so I actually deluded myself into thinking that I could pass for a fell runner. Before I knew it, I found myself standing amongst the howling winds at the top of the world (or summit of East Lomond), with only the 450m descend into the abyss separating me from the finish line. There were no paths – just a steep, slippery slope consisting of bog and heather with some pointy rocks thrown in for good measure.

That’s when… well… I’m still trying to come to terms with that happened next. I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, blazing past me – a trick of the light? An infernal apparition? No, wait… a runner! It made sense, but wh… how? Then more came flying past me, sometimes in groups of two. They weren’t just passing me; they were disappearing beyond the horizon. On a hill. Going down. How’s that even possible? Witnessing the infernal downhill speed of fellrunners was a sight to behold and one that left me utterly dumbfounded.

downhill running(This is what was happening in my head.)

Great. My already slow descend was further stalled by the fact that my mind was now preoccupied with trying to make sense of the madness that surrounded me and no longer paying attention to where my feet were going. Was I really not as fit as I thought? – Always a possibility. Were my shoes not up for the job? – Maybe a contributing factor, as I was wearing trail, not fell shoes. Did all of these runners have no regard for personal safety? Or an active deathwish? – Perhaps, although it would be one hell of a feat to just happen to run into 665 suicidal individuals on a mountain top in Scotland. Then, the truth dawned on me… The real reason why they were hares going down the mountain and I was a tortoise (and in the real world tortoises don’t win races against hares), is that this tortoise is also a phenomenally gigantic whimp.

That’s right – the truth is that they were all much braver than me. I was haunted by visions of falling flat on my face and slithering down the hill with only my teeth digging into the mud to slow my momentum. Meanwhile, the other runners were heading for the finish line, evidently not bothered by what their brains – or quads – had to say about the matter.

I made my way downhill as fast as I could, which wasn’t fast at all given that it was all I could do to resist nervously chewing on my fingernails or curling up in the foetal position. And as I was descending, looking supremely comfortable, graceful and sublimely in my element (*cough*), who should I run into but the official race photographer? (Don’t even bother asking… the answer is NO!).

Another fantastic new experience, another lesson learned, another thing to add to my ever-growing to-do list!

I loved everything about the day and the race. The mountain runners are wonderfully friendly people and wicked athletes. I, on the other hand, have learned a lot about myself as a runner, including that I am a first class pansie. My next mission: wrestle the heart from a lion and then run as though my life depended on it (away from the angry beast) and down the steepest of hills.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge “thank you” to the other members of my relay team for giving me a chance to run with them. It was a truely fantastic experience and one which I most certainly hope I’ll get to repeat in the future – only faster! I tip my hat to you crazy downhill runners!

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