Saturday 23 September 2023
I‘ve run for years but I’ve never thought it’s really possible, or that interesting, for me to put into words the experience of running a big race. Hence having never previously written a race report. All those sense impressions, inner moments and personal details… I like to enjoy a run afterwards in conversation or replayed in my own head, and even if I could convert a run into something readable who’s going to be interested in it? After the Two Breweries I’m changing my mind about having a go, as the agreeable ache in the thighs lingers along with memories of post-race soup, sandwiches and socialising, the delicious muscular beers from Traquair and Broughton, and the slow processing of the run and what it involved. Maybe I’ll write something after all, not least as a reflection of the respect one can’t help but feel for everyone who took on the race, plus the organisers, marshals and mountain rescue personnel on standby for these events. Writing it out might also convey my strange satisfaction both of completing a serious physical challenge and being properly schooled by it. Content advisory: this report goes on and on almost as long as the race itself.
As with many of the best/worst decisions in life, I decided to enter the race because I fancied having a go. Niall kindly gave the race a big endorsement when I checked with him that entering wasn’t an entirely idiotic idea. The lure of the post-race spread was also strong, along with the guarantee of epic scenery and banking the fitness of a 30K hill race whatever time I managed. I admit I did a double take when I first looked at the website and saw an advertised ascent of 1,500m. Is that a typo? Maybe some of the route is taken by cable car?
I don’t generally fixate on target times, and pinning the tail of a predicted time on the bucking bronco of a race like this seemed tricky if not impossible, given all the variables. My approach in training was to taper in to more elevation, without pretending I could replicate the full effect of the Two Breweries in even a week of training. During the summer in France I got in some off-road hills going up and down various terrils (mounds generally around 100-200m+ formed of leftover shale and other mining residue, now being landscaped or simply overgrown, with butterflies, wildflowers, quiet, and stunning panoramas at the top). At a Bastille Day trail 10K, egged on with comedy violence by volunteers dressed as 18th-century revolutionaries, I got a vet (first Master 2) goody bag (who doesn’t love a prize 5m tape measure along with t-shirts for local metalworks and artisanal beer?). Another time there’s a report to be written about the ultimate international test of endurance: acquiring a certificat médical for racing in France.
Back in Scotland I cobbled together a few hundred metres of ascent per run bumbling round and round Ruchill Park, washed down with Queens Parkrun, the August 3K on the Green (questionably flat as training for a hill race), and the 3000m (er…) at the Shettleston Open. I wasn’t (yet?) feeling the extra fitness I’d hoped for from training, but I was continuing my long-time practice of not getting slower while continuing to get older. At the start of September I ran a leg (#3) of the Comrie relays, intended as a mini dress-rehearsal for the Two Breweries. Comrie was more uncomfortable than I’d have liked but I got through the terrain and the navigation, the scenery was spectacular, and it was a great day out. So. I’ve been running consistently and without injury for a good while. But I’m not a hill runner, and this is a different scale of race altogether. How about some Runbritain-Power of 10 cross-referencing? OK… so she ran that time at that event, and he ran this time at this event, so I should run in the range… I decide that my aims are to complete the race in one piece, and that I’ll be doing very well I can get under 4:15 and/or into the top 40.
I ask for people interested in car sharing and am surprised at how much earlier I can get myself ready when other people are potentially at mercy of my eleventh-hour incompetence. One of the first to come forward for the car is Di, due to marshal at Checkpoint 5 (of 8) and admirably prepared with folding chair, binoculars, and book. I recall John’s earlier call for marshals and thinking that I must volunteer for a future Westies run sometime. Along with Di, I’ll be driving with Scott, David, and Greg.
Due to an administrative error on my part, however, Greg turns out to be George. George is very understanding about having (not) been Greg, and turns out to be an outstanding athlete. I know Scott’s back well from seeing it disappear ahead of me at various previous races. When asked, David modestly reveals he holds an extraordinary Two Breweries PB of 3:02 (like a giant, barely climbable hill in the Scottish Borders, the scale of this achievement only grows larger the deeper into the course I get).
Guided by David, we park easily at Broughton village hall and make the short walk to the 10am bus opposite the finish line at Broughton brewery. The bus ride to the start at Traquair House has the air of a school trip about it, and the scenery is wonderful. I have researched the world of taped seams and my kit passes the inspection at the start at midday. Jenn’s ‘Red is in the shed’ from Comrie sticks in the mind as a handy tip for compassing if I need it later. My tread is probably a little on the shallow side, but I have applied suncream and brought gloves, and will be glad of both at different points. I look over the map again. Huddleston Heights, Ratchill Farm… it sounds a bit like the map from the cartoon violence of Fortnite. In a way, the race IS Fortnite.
I’m a bit better than I used to be about warming up, but I confess I didn’t do much for this apart from some foam rollering first thing, some brief jogging and stretching, and an extra coffee from the nice little cafe at Traquair House. The first 2K are a straightforward warm-up on the road, going by in under 10 minutes. Off road we go, up into the hills and through the bracken. I’m not sure if long compression socks guard against tics but I’ve worn them anyway and would definitely do so again.
The landscape is wonderfully atmospheric, all greens, browns, and layered mist. I see another runner’s lace has come undone. Is it bad form for me to shout to let them know? What if they fall because of a shoelace they didn’t know was flapping about? Mercifully I am rescued from such ethical dithering when the runner makes a well chosen pitstop to tie the lace. I feel pleased to have given both my laces a jolly good tightening before setting off. We get to Checkpoint 1. It’s hard to say, but so far I think I’m within the first 40 runners. I am working reasonably hard but it doesn’t feel excessive, and there is some extra gas if I need it.
The landscape opens up and the views down into Glensax Burn are extraoooooordinary, the sense of scale bringing me up sharp. I could be looking at the model for a filmset, except this is gloriously real. Most of the scenery has to stay in the camera of the mind, but pushing up the hill to Huddleston Heights I can’t help but take a few photographs. This feels a bit embarrassing, but if anyone thinks it a faux pas they don’t say anything.
Around Stob Law David and a couple of other runners come up behind me, and we run together briefly as we pass the checkpoint. ‘Fantastic!’, I say to myself, ‘I’m on for 3:02!’ David eases inexorably into the distance, and reality returns in the form of a fence (inner voice: ‘Take it slowly to avoid cramping up’) and then gives me a good slapping as the hill falls away below us again.
At Ruchill or Queens the descents are my friend, a place to stretch out the legs, enjoy the free energy, and take momentum back into the flat. But we are a very long way from Parkrun, Dorothy. The legs are OK but the thighs are starting to burn and lose responsiveness. I don’t mind a bit of discomfort but I’m aware that I’m losing the reactions and strength to safely handle a speedy descent. I make a mental note to train fast downhill as well as up, and to go back to Ross Edgley on fast reactive strength training (I think it’s in The Art of Resilience). I plough on, continually fascinated to observe the other runners and styles around me. Some seem to come out of nowhere from behind, with the conditioning, technique and pathfinding to make it look like light work. Just ahead, another runner seems as bemused as me by the terrain. I mentally applaud him as he deliberately rolls into the heather and pops up again.
Coming down into Glenrath Farm, a group of us realise we have gone somewhat off track and need to cover some extra distance to get back on course. At last – a road! After wall-to-wall elevation, heather, and wondering whether to run on this bit of track or that, we can start running. The legs do not share my enthusiasm but I am lifted as another Westies runner, Alex, comes up and we head into the farm for Checkpoint 4. I’m not thirsty but I take on some more water in case, and the joy of flat concrete continues a little longer. Then the course seems to disappear briefly into my own head, and I realise we’re entering a wooded section I’ve seen in photos posted by the race organisers. We round a bend and I involuntarily laugh out loud. Ahead is an absurd sight, looking a bit like chairs in a ski-lift moving slowly up a sheer slope towards a high summit. Except the ski-lift is other runners edging upwards in a line, and the slope is of course the route.
Some of the run data from the Two Breweries experience is very amusing. At split 10 I see I have set a new personal record for slowest ever 1K split, at 15 minutes. Only afterwards do I see this was blown out of the water at split 27, which took nearly as many minutes. As I slow march up the hills, the watch thinks I have stopped altogether and turns itself off for a break.
I am outraged by this mechanical rudeness, though it is both a revelation and a relief that many quick looking runners are choosing to walk up sharp inclines. My approach for steep sections has been to aim for marginal gains by setting a brisk walking pace without trying to run. I try it again here, but this time the gas isn’t there. If I were on a bike I’d be down in the low gears, with nowhere much to change down to without getting off and walking. Except that I am already walking, and the bargain basement metaphor, much like my chuntering thighs, is on the verge of collapse. To my chagrin, I pass the Whitelaw Hill checkpoint at the top and only realise later that I have entirely failed to spot Di.
In my job I sometimes teach classes on surrealism, that source of bizarre landscapes where people do crazy but real things, and where beauty and the grotesque wrap around each other. So too this course. The woodland path at the top of the death march is beautiful, and it has that unreal quiet of closely packed trees. The woods end too soon and we are back into open land. I can see Alex and a couple of other runners some way ahead, and my aim is to keep them in view as a marker. But they pull slowly away and then the cosmos intervenes to correct my earlier smugness, forcing me to stop to tie a shoelace.
Road! It is over too soon and I am into Checkpoint 6 at Stobo Home Farm. ‘Straight up?’, I ask a marshal, ready to understand the complexity of the route and absorb as many details as possible. ‘Aye.’ The brevity and simplicity of this response are exactly what I need. Moreover, the kindly marshal offers me some sweeties. I head off up the track chewing the sweets, amazed at how much I wanted them without realising it. Bugger it, I’ll finish the rest of that Snickers now, too. And why ARE they so much smaller than they used to be?
I leave the farm area, go through a gate, and head up towards a glen. I am pretty sure I should continue ahead, but two spray-painted signs with arrows are hung tantalisingly close by, pointing in a different direction. The signs are marked ‘SR’, nothing to do with ‘TBHR’ and at no point mentioned in any of the impeccable race instructions. Clearly I should ignore them but in my suggestive state I start to wonder if the signs and arrows are a chance presence (‘Syllogism Riddle?), or if I am seeing what I want to see (‘Scottish Running’??). The enfeebled mind associates freely. ‘Stephen’s Route?’ I find myself thinking of the farmer in Withnail and I – ‘Shut thy gate!’ – and other classic parts of the film about being lost in a wilderness. I am musing on what psychologists call ‘confirmation bias’ when another runner appears from behind and kindly confirms that we should not follow the painted signs. Serendipitous rescue.
I have decided to deal with my troublesome legs by ignoring them, focusing instead on the loveliness of the forest track and the runner ahead of me. By this point I have accepted the long-obvious fact that 4:15 is beyond me, but I want to give myself localised goals so I decide to dial in to a 7-minute-per-kilometre pace and plug away up the track. As often, lyrics from some guitar-based song waft into consciousness. ‘Always put one foot in front of the other.’ This is decadence alright, of a very masochistic kind. Perhaps I could have made a deal with God, if I’d done some actual running.
Another runner comes into view ahead, walks for a bit, resumes running, and then disappears out of sight. The track is empty now but there’s a sudden shout from behind. In road racing my state of mind is a lot looser, aware of what I’m doing and what my aims are but also not spending any more mental energy than I need to on inconveniences like large rocks or directions. In a classic newbie error, I’ve drifted off and missed the turn left down over the weir, despite having seen it on the map only recently. I turn round and retrace my steps. It’s probably only 400m or so of extra distance but I am now annoyed with myself, and very grateful that others have saved me from heading endlessly out into Hammer Rig, even as I see have been passed by another clump of runners.
We slog up towards Trahenna (surely ‘trepanning’?). Although the legs are ravaged and I have been heading backwards in the placings for a long time, I’m interested that I haven’t remotely felt like hitting the wall. I decide to keep it that way and have the second of two gels as we inch our way upwards, taking it in slowly after a cautionary tale from Scott in the car earlier. As we come over Trahenna the legs refuse to do anything much beyond a walk, despite the start of a descent. Following the contour lines towards Ratchill Hill (isn’t one hill enough? Even the cartographers round here are sadists), I also struggle to find a comfortable way of angling my feet against the gradient. I think of Running Punk Jimmy Watkins, the irresistibly energetic GB runner-musician-poet-comedian-karma beam, and his ethos about adapting and enjoying the moment, whatever that is. Eventually I come to the top of the final descent, and I am rewarded not only with yet further magnificent views but also with a stoic supporter blasting a recording of bagpipes from a portable speaker.
The scenery is staggering, and so am I. I pick my way down the hill, passed by more runners but able to see them take the route onto the road into Broughton. I come onto the final stretch, and the encouragement of people who have already finished takes me home.
I wander around the finish area, and gratefully take a bottle of Broughton ale from John for drinking at home later. The bum bag looks a lot better with a bottle of beer in it. In the excitement of having finished, I break two habits of a lifetime: taking a selfie, and sending it to my family as a sign of life. I walk some of the way back to the hall with another runner, until now a stranger but with whom I have unknowingly shared the last five hours and 30K. I might see him again at a Parkrun next week, or at a cross country in a few months, or never again. I walk back to the village hall, enjoying the chance solidarity of running.
I’d been looking forward to hearing how the others had done, and there is big news. George who wasn’t Greg has run phenomenally, finishing in 2nd place. Scott and David have also done brilliantly, both comfortably breaking 4 hours. And Di is safely back from the checkpoint, without anyone having needed to be rescued.
For £20 we’ve had an all-you-can-eat buffet of hill running, and now there’s an actual buffet with beer on tap in a village hall in friendly company. I’ve brought an empty ale bottle in the hope I can take my beer home with me – a nice man with a vat of beer kindly obliges. It’s a triumph for Westerlands organisation and conviviality. I don’t have any plans for next races, but on the way back to Glasgow Scott is a very effective one-man marketing campaign for the coming cross country season. I think I’ll sign up.
As for the race: it all went swimmingly, apart from the hills. I finished in 4:45, placing 101st. I ran 30.9K and climbed just over 1,600m. I am agreeably battered, flushed to have finished, and I know I’ll be back to beat myself another time.