The anniversary of the start of First World War has given rise to some interesting television programmes. Many readers may have seen Beppo’s aunt, Dame Mary Corsar, being interviewed after the Drumhead Commemoration. Two of her uncles fell in action. George Buchanan Smith was mortally wounded at Loos in September 1915. His brother, who was nicknamed ‘Beppo’, was ambushed in East Africa fighting with the Indian Army.
As a small boy I had a keen interest in the Second World War. This curiosity was fostered by playing with soldiers, Action Man and watching numerous war films (most frequently The Great Escape). It wasn’t until I was older that I read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, and had my mind opened to the horrendous conditions endured by both sides during the Great War.
Last week I took another look at some of George Buchanan Smith’s poetry. There is no doubt that my generation is made of less stern stuff. One clear piece of evidence is our recent showing in the Law Breakers (a Scottish hill race). Race results are now freely available on the internet but anyone interested in the performance of the Buchanan-Smiths in this year’s race can save some time by starting at the bottom of the results list! With these thoughts in mind I decided that it was time to remove my bottom from my armchair and get out and do something. So on Sunday I decided to drive over to the Lomonds of Fife Hill Race, which is a run I had not previously attempted.
Hill running, or fell running as it is often alternatively known, is a simple sport. You start at the bottom of a hill. You run to the top of the hill, and then you run back down the hill. Sometimes you run over several hills, but the format is more or less the same. Compared with many other sports you need very little equipment, as a minimum all you need is a pair of trainers, a pair of shorts and a t-shirt or vest. The logistics are also extremely simple and most of the time little organisation is required. You drive there, park in a lane, pay a few quid, get given a race number and four safety pins and you’re all set.
For many years I thought that you had to be either an Olympian or Royal Marine to participate in this sport, until a friend kindly encouraged me try it. Anyone who goes jogging occasionally can run a hill race. In fact anyone who can manage some brisk hillwalking can participate in a hill race. That said I would advise that your try a short race that isn’t too steep on your first attempt. I would also warn you not to be too surprised if the first half of the race takes much longer than the second half.
The hill running community is especially friendly and the organisers (usually local clubs) are always hospitable. The top-level runners and seasoned participants are always welcoming and encouraging. I had the pleasure of meeting Scottish legend Manny Gorman, who was signing copies of his book. Manny is an experienced hill runner and in 2009 he set out on a continuous unmotorised journey to run all of the Scottish mountains that are between 2,500 and 3,000 feet high (these hill are known as the Corbetts). On this expedition he covered a staggering 2,600 miles and 420,000 feet of ascent by foot, cycle and yacht in seventy days. I am looking forward to reading the account of this journey through the Scottish wilderness which I suspect involved fantastic stamina and determination, not to mention plenty of fresh Scottish weather.
Manny arrived at the start and said ‘I am just gonna jog around’. I noticed that he positioned himself at the front of the pack however, and by the time I got back to the village hall he had already got changed (the official results report him in 21st place). I positioned myself cautiously at the rear of the field. One couple from Edinburgh told me that they regularly run the Pentland Skyline Race. It is a race that I always fancy, but feel that it is a little beyond me. It occurred to me that if I could stay in front of them it might be a litmus test of my fitness. I also heard two fellas chatting about a 65km race that they were going to run in Scandinavia next week. They agreed that they would go slowly to ‘loosen themselves up’ but set off slightly more quickly than I expected. I decided that I would try to keep up with them in hope that I could put some distance between myself and the Edinburgh couple.
It was a relatively warm and sunny afternoon but there was a ferocious wind. Like many fell races the Lomonds route goes through some fantastic countryside. The run takes in two peaks, East and West Lomond, which are sometimes known as the Paps of Fife. As I approached East Lomond the South Fife coast and the Firth of Forth revealed itself. The view on the ascent of West Lomond exposed the rolling fields and flatter landscape of Fife. The race continues further west from the summit of West Lomond and takes in one of the steepest descents of any hill race in Scotland. Runners are forced to glissade as if descending a snow slope. There are three forms of glissade. They are the ‘standing glissade’, the ‘sitting glissade’ and the ‘out of control glissade’. This is also the order in which the runner finds themselves descending this slope!
There is a cruel sting in the tail as the descent from West Lomond is followed by a climb back up hill. I managed to stay ahead of the Edinburgh couple and on the final downhill section one of the two chaps destined for Scandinavia pulled a muscle which meant that I was able to pass them. The race was great fun and I can thoroughly recommend it. One of the pleasures of trying a new event is the reward of an inevitable personal best. The race is 16.2km (10 miles) and involves 800m of uphill. I arrived back in 2 hrs 18 mins 11 seconds, and was 137th out of a field of 197 runners. I was relieved to be some way off of the bottom of a results table this time. I also had a wry smile when I spied that a student that I taught last year came in over half an hour behind me!
Many runners and hillwalkers visit the Isle of Eriska Hotel each year and it is ideally located for a number of Scottish Hill Races. Most obviously the Beinn Lora Hill Race starts in Benderloch, but the hotel would also make a great base for the Lorne Highland Games Race which is only 3.2km. The Oban Games has a race as does the Taynuilt Games and the Appin Show. There is a much longer and tougher race between Creagan and the Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe (24km) after which the spa would be a fantastic location to recuperate.