I confess that I have a love-hate relationship with High Terrain Events’ races. They ‘whip my ass’ good and proper every time and involve a lot of bad language and general grumpiness. The race routes are beautiful, but loaded with ascent, technical sections, switch backs that just mess with your head. Finally, a fondness for bog hopping (or wading depending on the weather).
My first attempt at the Glentress Marathon saw me drop out half way, but I have subsequently completed it twice. I was last in the Kielder 50k. Tired, muddy and grumpy I was determined to throw in the towel halfway, but persuaded to continue. There had been and continued to be a lot of after stomping and strop. When I first ran the Tweed Valley 65k ultra I finished last (again) barely within the cut-off. My experiences have not exactly been covered in glory, but for some strangely masochistic reason I keep returning for more.
The Tweed Valley ultra starts on the Glentress bike trails then heads along the tweed to Cardrona. From there it climbs up through Cardrona forest, drops down to Traquair before a long ascent to Minch Moor which is the highest point. It then undulates over to the Three Brethen. Under the right conditions the views over this section and from the brethren can be stunning. The undulation continues through Traquair forest after which it flattens out. It skirts past Walkerburn and Innerleithen, back to Cardrona and Glentress. There is a final mile long climb on the tracks before dropping down through the woods to the finish. According to my watch the distance was a little over and the ascent was 5347 feet. It was a crisp dry day that showcased the route at its best. Even better, the areas often prone to being wet and muddy were relatively dry and frost hardened.
We gathered in the frosty darkness ready to start with the dawn; greetings and hushed conversations with faces known and unknown. A lovely moon hung in the brightening sky. It was a fast field that set out fast and my conservative start soon left me and a couple of others bringing up the rear. This did not concern me. My objectives for the day were to make a better job of the last section and a better time than on the previous attempt. As the route dropped down the track towards the road and river I was treated to a glorious sunrise which was worthy of a short stop.
I relaxed and kept to a steady pace along the flat to Cardrona reaching the checkpoint within my predicted time fifteen minutes ahead of the cut-off. During the climb up through the forest I was overtaken by a few runners. It was the front runners of the 50k and a couple of the 65k stragglers. This put me firmly in last place. That was OK. I was reconciled to that state of affairs.
Coming into Traquair I was slipping off schedule and having an early energy dip. I set a painfully slow pace up the long climb to Minch Moor. This is a section of trail that I often come and train on. I can normally bash up no bother. But that is when my start point is the bottom of the hill, not twelve plus miles in. I just had to remind myself of that.
At Minch Moor I was asked if I was good to continue on the 65k route. The answer was yes as long as I was Ok for the cut offs. I was. Steady, steady, I go, hoping for a sunny view from the Three Brethren. It was not to be. The sun ducked away behind the clouds. I don’t think I have ever had a clear sunny view from the brethren.
A quick chat and a thank-you to the marshal who waited so patiently. Then I was off down the back of the hill towards the third checkpoint and a much needed drop bag.
I reached the checkpoint twenty mins inside the cut-off but disappointingly off schedule by about thirty minutes. The time was gone. I was not going to make it up, so just press on and get the finish. After a short section of road I started to climb up through Traquair forest. I had forgotten about these climbs and switchbacks and could sense frustration building. It seemed to take forever to get to Walkerburn where I had a complete brain burp.
Firstly, I thought the checkpoint was there. Then I had a panic. The checkpoint was a further two miles on at Innerliethen. Secondly, I thought that the checkpoint cut off was eight hours. This put me into a complete spin because my watch was on seven hours forty. I would never make the checkpoint before the cut-off.
My runner’s tourettes kicked in. I turned the air blue with my language as I made the vain attempt to up the pace and meet the cut-off. Maybe if I was just a couple of minutes off they would let me continue. I spotted the checkpoint, glanced at my watch, unbelievably I had five minutes. I screeched in with three minutes to spare. Everyone wondered why I was so stressed and asking about the cut-off. The cut-off was eight and a half hours! I had half an hour to spare. I had made up ten minutes on my schedule.
Another runner, Michael, was still at the checkpoint. After a bit of a re-stock and re-fuel we agreed to buddy up over the last section. We set out at a walk, progressed to a shuffle and finally a run. The company helped us keep up a pace we had not expected and might not have achieved on our own. A pattern was set, walk a quarter mile then run three quarters of a mile. Sunset came, closely followed by dusk and darkness. Although our eyes became accustomed to the dark by the time we were leaving Cardrona the head torches were needed.
We had made good time and reached the water treatment plant a little over nine and half hours. Time for brain burp number two. I misread the distance on my watch, made a rough calculation and thought, ‘Woohoo! Going to be at the finish within my original schedule’. If I had been less tired and thinking straight, I would have factored in a number of things. It was dark and so we would be slow on the track and down through the woods; there was a long ascent coming up and there was going to be no running involved there. I would have realised there was no way I could have made up that amount of time over the distance since the last checkpoint and I should have double checked the distance on my watch.
The pair of us continued on, trudging very slowly up the hill desperately looking for the turn off into the woods. At times we wondered if we had missed it, trying not to panic. Eventually, we saw the marker and started to pick our way down through the woods. Now and again we paused to look for the flags and decide which fork in the path to take. A few more flags would have helped a lot. It was a fine line between speeding up on the decent but avoiding trips and falls. We could hear cow bells and cheers below; so not that far behind others and encouraging us press on. Finally it was our turn.
I finished a few minutes adrift of my revised estimate and about fifteen off my original plan. It was an improvement of twenty minutes on my previous outing. I achieved my objective of running a more consistent race and making a better job of the last section. Job well done. There is still a little niggle in my head that I could have been a little faster. But who knows, it was what it was and overall a grand day out. What more could I ask for.