A bemused group of Japanese tourists found themselves mingling with a few hundred runners on top of an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning on Calton Hill. As they took obligatory pictures of Arthur’s Seat I thought I would try out my pigeon Japanese and say hello. They asked me what we were doing. I pointed out a couple of hills ending in Arthur’s Seat and told them we we’re going to run up and down seven of them in a fixed order but with no predetermined route. Omae Baka ka? (are you crazy) they asked. A hard question to answer, in any language.
Let’s be honest, the race is completely bananas. No fixed route, just find your way to the top of seven hills in order. Urban running, hill running, climbing and the new sport of hill surfing. This was my second attempt, after injury deprived me of a starting place last year. The event has two start waves – the Challenge for less serious runners starting half an hour before the Race itself. As the Challenge runners were called to order I took up position on the footpath. A brief announcement from the race organiser, Alan Lawson, informed us that the “secret” turnstile at Pollock was now basically im-passable unless you fancied climbing a 7 foot wall covered with barbed wire. Then, a countdown from 5 and we were off.
Calton Hill to the Castle is straightforward. I shaved, oh, 5 seconds by taking a shortcut through the North Bridge arcade and arrived at the first checkpoint without fuss. This is where the first big decision must be taken. There are three basic routes from the Castle to Corsporphine Hill – through Princes Street Gardens and on via Ravelston, down Johnston Terrace and on via Ravelston, or down Johnston Terrace and on via Haymarket. The majority were heading Johnston Terrace/ Ravelston, which was my route choice for my first attempt. This time I went via Haymarket. I think the Haymarket route is marginally better as it allows for more even paced running. With a wave and a smile, at the base of Corstorphine I joined folks who had made a different choice.
Corstorphine Hill goes on forever, but I run it regularly and knew what I was doing here. There are three route choices off the top – go back to the meadow, cut through the woods or go immediately right. All on my own-e-o I headed immediately right. This is ignored by almost everyone as it is slightly longer, but the gradient allows you to push on and I definitely made up places.
From Corstorphine to Craiglockhart the challenge is to get the right risk-reward balance when crossing three busy roads. I got lucky, if you count lucky as running across while holding your hand up as if to say thanks in advance for not mowing me down. I chatted through some route observations with another runner as we entered Craiglockhart sports centre and approached “the wall”.
Tradition has it that superheroes go straight up the steep slope and others follow a path around it. Almost everyone was being a superhero today. Those on straight out road shoes were paying a slight penalty as tree produce made the ground a bit slippy. My Brooks Cascadias were just about grippy enough, but if I had gone with anything more aggressive I would have paid for it on the long road sections. You pays your money and takes your choice. I walked the final section up to the top of Craiglockhart, stamped my bib with hill #3 and headed down the other side.
Craiglockhart to Braids featured more street running with a detour down the bank of Braid Burn and up the other side. Reaching summit #4 my legs were beginning so say “hey, what’s going on here?” but I ploughed on. A long line of runners stretched ahead of me across a fairway of Braids gold course and I joined them as we entered a narrow path going down through gorse bushes towards Braid Hills Drive. I thought I was moving quickly down and was happy when someone going slower up ahead stopped to let a couple of us through, but I almost wet my pants when a runner wearing a HBT vest came cruising past on nothing but air. This gazelle, who turned out to be the eventual winner of the race, Tom Martyn, was going impossibly fast and passing folks on a path that was only wide enough for one. The laws of physics need to be re-checked.
Across the road and moving down the Lang Lin path there were again three choices – left and over the bridge, straight on across the river and up a steep bank, or right and off into I-don’t-know-where land. I went left. I would love to be able to confirm whether this was the best choice or not but I lost contact with the runners immediately around me. I joined the traffic at the bottom of the huge steps leading up to Blackford Hill and encouraged my legs on. Nobody was running here. Just moving was enough. What seemed like a long time later I was grabbing a cup of water, stamping my bib and heading off down Observatory Road.
Blackford to Arthur’s seat featured more street running with a brief detour through the allotments. At the Pollock Halls water station another decision was required. Through the halls and risk the high wall or play it safe and run the road past the Commonwealth pool? I had a cunning plan which involved neither. Through the halls but not as far as the wall, just cut back on to the road. Congratulating myself on my genius I entered Holyrood Park and contemplated the biggest one of all, Arthur’s Seat.
Last time round I went up the Gutted Haddie muttering “don’t look down” a lot. That was my plan this time, but everyone else was heading up the steps towards Nether Hill and I followed the crowd. This was where it really started to hurt. I lost track of the number of steps. I made a bad choice here and held on to the path all the way around Nether Hill, when I should have cut off and up left earlier. One for next time. After stamping my bib with #6, I launched myself off the other side. I am not brave enough to go the kamikaze route and took the Long Row, which still provided a challenge to my embryonic hill surfing skills.
Through the car park, across the roundabout and on to Calton Road I wanted the end to be in sight but it was refusing to put in an appearance. This section was torturous – I had nothing left in my legs but the road kept going up. Finally, after a sharp left turn, the finish line materialised and I jog-shuffled my way across it. Three whole minutes quicker than last time.What I gained in fine tuning the earlier sections I lost going up Arthur’s Seat. Does anyone ever hit the perfect route?
Position: 69 / 290 (Challenge)