Once a year, Innerleithen, a small tranquil town in the Scottish boarders plays host to the Mighty Deerstalker Race. Since signing up for the event many months ago, I had received several conflicting descriptions of what the race actually entailed. Firstly, my friends at bootcamp (who persuaded me to do it) described it as a 10k night run with a beer tent at the end. I was sold, obviously. Then I consulted the website, where it was pitched as a trail run of “around” 10km and “probably” the hardest off-road-Tweed-clad-headtorch-wearing run that exists. Ok, a slight discrepancy, but still manageable. The third description came a couple of weeks before the race in the ‘race info pack’ which described the distance as “quite a lot longer than 10k but not a half marathon”… I also noticed that they were going to enforce a cut off time – “runners will have 3 hours to get to the start of the second hill”. WHAT?! They were giving us 3 hours to run up the first one – what was it – a mountain?!! Oh dear I thought (excuse the pun), what have I let myself in for.
The race began at 6.15pm with a nice downhill stretch on a lovely tarmac road. It was still light at this point, spirits were good and the scenery was beautiful. Then the “lovelyness” abruptly stopped. We entered a field that was so muddy it made the notorious Aykley Heads XC seem tame. Within minutes I was absolutely caked in mud up to my knees. The weight of the mud on my trail shoes made it feel like I was running with lumps of lead on my feet. This was not a good way to be feeling only five minutes in… Luckily, at the end of the field there was a knee deep river crossing which soon dealt with the mud. My feet were now cold and wet but the water drained out of my trail shoes pretty quickly and I felt relieved.
I had been running for about 10 minutes when the first hill began… We headed skyward zigzagging up a mountain bike track. It was steep. I was still “running” but there was some serious heavy breathing going on. Just as the gradient started to ease, the arrows pointed away from the track into the forest, completely off anything that resembled an actual route. I thought the track was steep but this was something else. Quickly the woodland became very dense. I switched my headtorch on and literally pushed my way through the trees. It went on and on. I was thankful that I had opted for long sleeves and leggings at this point otherwise I would have been cut to shreds. Somehow we ended up back on the track. Instead of doing a zigzag I think we had just took the “as the crow flies” option. Running on the track didn’t last long. Once again the arrows pointed back off the track up a steep rocky gully, heading upwards across a clear-felled moor. Footing was distinctly dodgy here, weather beaten out-crops of heather, roots, rocks, tree stumps. Light was fading fast. More climbing, more dense forest and then the darkness came. It was eerily dark. The forest was still and silent apart from the sound of heavy breathing and the footsteps of runners trying to concentrate on their little patches of light. Eventually we reached the top only to be greeted by obstacles – balance beams and cargo nets should have been easy, but by this point my legs were on fire and in no fit state for any tasks requiring co-ordination. I scrambled through them and continued running. Suddenly we emerged in a clearing and the view was incredible. After all that climbing this was the first time I could actually see what I had achieved. It was dark now and the lights of the town shone in the distance below. We were high. I would have loved to have stopped for a moment to take it all in, but after a couple of minutes on the flat the descent had begun! And boy was it the mother of all descents!! It was very steep, narrow and densely wooded. I had no control of my legs I was careering recklessly at full pelt trying to grab on to trees to slow down and avoid hitting the sensible people that had chosen to walk. It scared the living daylight out of me. Those who know me well, know that when I get nervous I start to laugh uncontrollably. Therefore, much to the amusement of the lads I was running with, I was in hysterics, squealing and giggling to myself whilst legging it down the hill. How I managed to get down without a twisted ankle is beyond me.
Eventually we reached the flat of the village. By now normal flat running felt very strange. Not to worry, the running was soon replaced by wading, waist deep, against the current, in glorious Scottish river water (i.e. bloody freezing). At this point of the course all the local folk had lined the river and were cheering everyone on. This helped me to block out the messages from my brain asking my body what on earth it was doing. After about 5-10min of wading (any concept of time had become pretty blurred by this point) we climbed out the river straight onto another horrible steep slope. At this point my body had a total melt down. My legs were frozen from the river and didn’t feel like my own. I just couldn’t run. As much as I tried I could only manage a strange sort of stagger so I decided it was better to walk this hill. And I NEVER stop and walk…ever!! I had my emergency gel that I’d brought just in case and then off I went again, up and up, roots, rocks, trees. I felt better now, the second hill couldn’t be much worse than the first could it?! I was wrong. Very wrong.
I had overheard other runners talking about “the scree” during registration… And now here it was in front of me. The only way to describe this part of the course would be “the straight up” bit, there’s no other way to describe it, you have to see it to believe it. I estimate about 550 – 650 ft of hands and feet, vertical ascent, climbing over scree of all sizes (from stones as big as golf balls to massive boulders, all loose and it moved, constantly!). Oh and did I mention it was pitch black!? I think it was at this point that I could see the full extent of what lay ahead as the head torches of the runners illuminated the mountain above – staggeringly beautiful, but intimidating at the same time, the sheer steepness of the trail of little lights draped over the mountain cannot be described or photographed, it can only be experienced. I have no idea how long it took. It felt like forever. At one point I looked back over my shoulder – I didn’t dare do it again! It was truly, ridiculously steep, it made me feel sick, but then I was also weirdly enjoying it – not quite worked that one out! People were cheering when they reached the top. Me and the lads had a group hug to celebrate that we were still alive and then you guess it – descent number two began! By this point I felt amazing!! I went fast – down and down, reckless abandon, laughing my head off, hoping that my head torch would pick out suitable spots of ground in time for my feet to land. Suddenly we were forced to an abrupt halt, in front was a steep overhang. Ropes had been tied to trees above us that we were supposed to hang onto and go down in an abseil-like fashion. All fine, apart from the rope I ended up with was tied to a tree that was much too high for me to reach. I took a leap of faith and jumped off the edge to grab the rope. I had all good intentions of turning around to abseil, apart from when I grabbed the rope my gloves were so slippy that I ended up flying down it like a zip wire doing a weird Tarzan impression. It’s a good job there was no one below me or I would have wiped them clean out. Off I went again, hysterical, uncontrolled, arm flinging madness down the hill, apart from this time it became very slippy and before long my feet had been replaced by my backside and I was sliding my way down. By this point I didn’t care, I think I was delirious.
Eventually I was back on the flat. I can categorically tell you that I was pretty relieved at this stage, knowing that I would now be heading back through the town to the finish, although there was the small matter of another river crossing, some fences, mud and a storm water tunnel. Throughout the race the marshals took great joy in not revealing any distances. I kept asking each marshal “How much further?” to get a typical response of (in my best Scottish accent) “Just a wee dip in the river and a romantic stroll through the woods”. Not funny. Eventually I could see the finish – another hill to climb but this hill was worth every last ounce of energy I had left, as at the top was a giant water slide to the finish line! I ran, took a dive and flew over the line feeling like superwoman in a time of 2h15. I was exhausted but elated and I felt massively proud of myself.
I can definitely say that this was physically the hardest race I have done, it was brutal but it was a total adventure and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who likes things that are a bit on the wild side! Notes for the record: (1) My Garmin recorded the actual distance as 9.16miles with an elevation gain of 1946ft. (2) Doing three long runs on the Quayside and one run around Chopwell woods does not pass as suitable deerstalker training. (3) I look far too happy and clean on the photos to reflect the pain that I actually endured!!