This race is bonkers. 14 miles along city roads, through shopping arcades and up forgotten closes. Scrambling 600m up hills and bouncing down the other side, always wondering if you are going in the right direction. Avoiding cars, buses, pedestrians and, for the first time, trams. Across the fairway of a public golf course, up and over a 3m stone wall and a steep climb or two thrown in. No road closures, no fixed route, no stewarding and very few rules. Just find the hill, stamp your bib, then find the next hill. I loved it.

Seven Hills in 3.5 mins. Well, 6 hills really as my battery ran out at the top of Blackford. 3s time lapsed.

I had done some homework before the race, covering most of the hills in various training runs. I found trails I didn’t know existed, a couple of miles away from where I live, and got lost many times. I was reasonably confident I could get around, but not confident that I could do it in an efficient way. My race plan was to pick the person who most looked like they knew where they were going and follow them. Plan B, if they got away, was to use the GPS in my phone. As it happened there were always enough runners around and groups formed, dissipated and reformed through the race.

With Rachel at the start - "that's the big one, over there" (Photo: Alex Oliver)

With Rachel at the start – “that’s the big one, over there” (Photo: Alex Oliver)

The event started on Calton Hill, and comprised of two races. The “Race” with about 200 serious contenders, each capable of running a half marathon in sub 1:40 according to the guidance; and the “Challenge” with about 200 slightly-less serious runners, like me. The Challenge kicked off at 9.45, with the Race starting half an hour later. Before the off it was my pleasure to bump into Rachel and Ronnie for the first time. They seemed about as confident in the route as I was.

Punctually, runners were called to gather at the start point, in the the middle of a grassy field at the top of Calton Hill. I was trying to convince my body that this was not the time to start hay-fevering-up, and after a thankfully-short briefing we were on our way.

Straight down a flight of steps leading right on to Waterloo Place. Fortunately someone had convinced the traffic to stop, as 200 runners ran straight across the road in blatant disregard. At the left turn along the bridges I saw another runner flirt with the traffic before abandoning the aggressive route and following the crowd. I cut through the arcade on North Bridge and up Fleshmarket Close saving a whole 5 seconds on the posse, then made my way up to the Castle Esplanade. Tourists who had arrived early for the season looked both startled and bemused as runners-with-intent made their way in and around them.

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Waterloo Place

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West EndAt the castle gates we were directed down onto Johnston Terrace as the path to Princes Street Gardens was out of bounds. I was lucky with traffic at the top of Lothian Road and the West End, with no stopping required, and made my way up Queensferry street and left along Belford Road, past the Gallery of Modern Art to Ravelston Dykes.  The long run along the ‘Dykes spread the group out somewhat. I was careful not to get carried away this early, and was passed by several folks. Just past the entrance to Mary Erskine school we made a left turn up the path towards Corstorphine Hill, bisecting Murrayfield Golf Course. Someone had left out a sign “7 Hills Runners do not cross the golf course”. I obeyed.

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: Race

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: Race

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: Race

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: RaceThe path up to Corstorphine Hill seemed to go on for ages. Just when it was reaching stop-for-a-break point, we burst out into a meadow and into bright sunshine, to be presented by water, juice, oranges and jelly babies. If I had happened to be carrying a portable barbecue and a six-pack, that would have been the the race done for me. Alas no. A further 100m or so through the trees brought us to the trig point and onwards. There seemed to be two routes of choice here – back towards the water stop or head right. I went right, which I think is the best route. With only one brief stop, when everyone simultaneously wondered if we were going the right way, we burst out of the trees, past the top of the zoo and back onto the road.

Corstorphine Water Stop

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Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: Race

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: RaceRunning down Kaimes Road I found myself changing my stride pattern. I think I have been putting the brakes on a bit going downhill, and tried to lean back more and give myself to the slope. It seemed smoother. I probably won another 5 seconds.

I was lucky with the traffic again crossing Corstorphine Road as we entered what is probably the least interesting part of the race, along nondescript streets to Colinton Road and Craiglockhart. Runners were equally spaced at about 40m intervals here and I went into the zone. I was jerked out of the zone as we approached a crossing and I spied one of Edinburgh’s 3-week old trams off to the left, heading towards the same crossing. Luckily there was plenty of time to get across.

Then across Colinton Road and into Craiglockhart Tennis Centre. Here there is a choice of two routes – the first goes straight up the mud-and-tree slope; the second follows a footpath that winds its way round the slope. The weather was warm and dry and in these conditions the slope is not that difficult, so it was straight up for me. I think I benefitted a little from the marginally better grip my Cascadia’s provided versus pure road shoes, and I made up a couple of places on the slope. After reaching the top, we made our way through a gap in the wall, into a meadow and the incline up to the trig point at Craiglockhart Hill. I walked this bit, as did many others. A friendly marshall shouted out that this was the most difficult one! I knew he was lying. He knew that I knew he was lying. He smiled.

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: Race

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: Race

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: Race

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: RaceAt the top I stopped to have some water and a gel, then watched in awe as the lead runners in the Race made their way up. They were not walking, and they did not stop long. Inspired, I headed off for the next one. A downhill run through trail paths led to the streets of Morningside, famous for Masie the cat and Ms Jean Brodie, neither of whom were out today. I had run this part on a training recce and remembered the Fly Walk cut into Braidburn. This is certainly the most direct route, but you do lose altitude that you have to make up again. Some other runners chose to continue along Greenbank Crescent, preserving their altitude but taking a longer route.

Across Braidburn more runners from the Race came past. The flood tide was about to begin. Along Riselaw Road and Braid Road the gradient was at that point of inflection where it is as about as speedy to walk quickly as to run slowly. I kept running. A left turn took us into a path towards Braid Hill. As we approached the hill, the track was just about wide enough for two, and some more runners from the Race came through. The atmosphere was great at this point and my fellow Challenge runners were politely making space and giving encouragement to the faster runners coming through.

After clocking in at Braid Hill, I headed out quickly towards the golf course. I decided to impress everybody with my new downhill technique, quickly picked up mega-speed before finding myself moving faster than I could get my legs to synch to, just before bottoming out. I probably need to work a little more on that. Then I ran straight across a fairway of the Braids public golf course. This is perfectly legitimate, and there were no golfers in evidence anyway. After crossing the course, the next bit was tricky. A single-file path through gorse bushes was clogged with Challenge Runners, to the obvious frustration of Race Runners arriving behind. One lady up ahead seemed a bit apprehensive of a downhill bit, risking more frustration for the growing queue behind, but fortunately we found a clearing, which allowed the traffic to sort itself out.

Across the golf course

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I emerged at Braid Hills Road right apposite Lang Linn Path, and made my way down. A Race Runner came past and headed left before getting to the burn. I had got completely lost here before and decided that he looked like he knew what he was doing and therefore met my criteria for stalking. I followed the path left, which emerged at a bridge followed by another hands-and-feet scramble up a slope. Fortunately it was dry. I really wonder how these scramble-slopes would stand up to wet weather – likely a mudslide. Maybe I will find out next year.

After getting to the top, a short field-crossing merged us with runners arriving from the right. I recognised a couple of guys who I think had gone up ahead of me, so this left-path bridge/slope may indeed be a good route choice.

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: Race

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: Race

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: Race

Created with OSnap! for iOS - Project: RaceAs we reached the base of the path up to Blackford Hill the race suddenly began to feel hard. The path is built on railway sleepers and the steps are just too big for comfort. It was impossible (for me) to run up, and each step took a huge effort. Everyone was walking up here, even the professionals. As we approached the top a non-race lady was struggling to reach it with her bike and one of my fellow runners carried it over the line for her. Fair play to you, dude. I was gasping.

I was very glad to reach the top, clip my bib and down some water with my second (and last) gel. As my heart rate settled back down towards pseudo-normal I admired the view, until I spotted Arthur’s Seat off in the distance. This race was not done yet.

I headed down the slope and onto Observatory Road, where a resident had very kindly set up a shower spray. A short cut through the allotments brought us back out onto West Savile Terrace. Back on the road. Terra Firma. My comfort zone. I made the most of it.

Not me, but I was exactly in that position a few minutes later (Photo: David Allwood)

Not me, but I was exactly in that position a few minutes later (Photo: David Allwood)

Up Mayfield Road and along Duncan Street I arrived at a water station at Pollock Halls and a moment of indecision. Go straight on, round the Commonwealth Pool and into the park, or cut through Pollock Halls with its padlocked turnstile and big walls? Adventure won, and I headed through the Halls. Legend has it that you can squeeze through the padlocked turnstyle with a horizontal limbo. I took one look at it and knew I would be trying something else. I settled on using an iron railing a surrogate latter to climb up to the top of the wall. As I reached the top a lady Racer came straight through and practically dive-limboed through the turnstyle. If I had a piece of card with 10.0 on it, I would have used it then. I was brought back to earth from my vigil on the top of the wall by some other runners wanting to use the same route. I glanced down. Like Beecher’s Brook in the Grand National the drop on the other side seemed much bigger than the climb up. I remembered I was wearing my iPhone on my chest. Without dwelling on this too much, I launched myself forward in a drop-twist motion and landed on my feet. Cool.

Looking up at this point I could see snakes of runners climbing their way up Arthur’s Seat. This was the big one. There appeared to be two choices. The brave were heading left with what seemed to be a vertical climb in the middle of their ascent. The pragmatic were heading right up the staircase with a slightly-less vertical climb in prospect. Ever the pragmatist, I headed right. While there was nothing scary about this section, it was tough on the legs. I was using different muscles than normal and they were complaining. There was no prospect of running here. As the weather was a very pleasant 17 degrees, the top of Arthur’s Seat had an abundance of tourists expressing a mixture of shock and sympathy for the arriving runners. I was thirsty when I got to the top. I anticipated a water stop which, in retrospect, was kinda optimistic. No water. Just clip the final box and launch off the other side.

On the ascent of Arthur's Seat (Photo: Alan Oliver)

On the ascent of Arthur’s Seat (Photo: Alan Oliver)

When I say launch off it did seem like that. Brave folks were heading down really steep sections and some were using their assess as toboggans. I gingerly made my way down. Some runners came past here really quickly. Downhill running is obviously an acquired skill. I know the area well and took a well trodden path off to the right. This probably cost me some time and added a couple of hundred meters, but it did keep me moving on my legs.

Past the entrance to the Scottish Parliament I was lucky again with the traffic and entered Calton Road knowing the end was in sight. It was in sight, but there was still work do do as the gradient again hit that infection point between walking and running. I did a bit of both. After a final left hander I used all available energy in an uphill surge to the finish point and, as all the runners were getting, a great cheer from the assembled masses.

The awards ceremony took place 30 minutes later. I had to laugh when the award for the first Dutch runner was presented – a flat piece of rock to represent “the hills of Holland”! I was happy to say hello to Peter Buchanan, who won the M50 prize, and who’s 2013 Race Report was an invaluable reference. And then, the most important prize of all, the miniature whiskeys for runners who have completed “The Double” – the Edinburgh Marathon and the Seven Hills Race. I’ll have one of those!

Overall my route choice was OK. I clocked 14.49 miles on the Garmin, and could have shaved some of that with a more aggressive descent of Arthur’s Seat. As for shoes, in dry weather road shoes are the way to go. My Brook’s Cascadia’s helped on the scrambles but the fact is, you spend a lot of time on the tarmac. In wet weather I would definitely take the extra grip though.

I made my way home with my number still attached, which scored me a double scoop chocolate ice cream from one of the ice cream vans (“that sounds like a fun race, have this ice cream”), and a random lady calling out “that’s a tough race isn’t it? I did it a couple of years ago!”.

WhiskyFriendly race, friendly city. A definite for the calendar next year. I must remember to book it well in advance, it sold out this year.

Official Result (Challenge):

Time: 2:42:14

Position: 61 / 199

UPDATE: 2016 event race report now available here.