40 for 40 event 3: Running with the Devil

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West Lomond looms over those finishing leg 2 and the runners getting ready to take on leg 3

The Devil’s Burdens. Just the name sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

This is an event which comes with a reputation for providing a properly stern test to those runners who choose to take part. It certainly lives up to that reputation.

It’s hugely popular too, though, and what I wasn’t expecting was to be quite so captivated and impressed by this tremendous hill running event which takes place in the east of Scotland.

I’ll give you a little background. ‘The Burdens’ is an off-road relay race in which teams have to complete four stages over a route that travels a combined distance of 34.5km, starting and finishing in the beautiful village of Falkland in Fife. There’s the small matter of  the Lomond Hills in the way, too, and between them each team will climb a total height of 1510m. Stages 1 and 4 are completed by solo runners while 2 and 3 need to be run in pairs.

This is an event cemented into the Scottish hill running calendar. It’s one that I’d heard my clubmates at Helensburgh AAC speak of regularly and, most importantly, fondly. I’d never had the chance to join in the fun before now but, having set myself this challenge of completing 40 events in 2017 and hoping to sample some new experiences in the process, I was keen to get my name down for the team.

I was so glad I did. From the moment I arrived at registration in the village hall I knew I was going to the like the Burdens. For a start the place was bursting at the seams with enthusiastic runners (147 teams of six people  and supporters makes for a decent crowd). Friendliness, informality and a sense of general wellbeing seemed to be emanating from just about everyone in view. This felt like a different kind of pre-race hubub than I’d perhaps experienced before.

In running terms, all human life was there. From those who were  using it as a chance to blow off some New Year cobwebs, to catch up with friends and enjoy more of a social challenge right up to some serious club athletes with their coaches in tow. Notably – and this is perhaps one of the greatest beauties of the sport – a few of the very best hill and mountain runners on the face of the planet had also turned up.

Jasmin Paris, who spent much of 2016 breaking new ground and rewriting some rather famous hill running record books (you can read my interview with her for Running Monthly here), and Team Salomon member Tom Owens – my first interviewee on this very blog (you can read that article here), were out in force and simply doing their bit for their clubs. It might not surprise you to learn that Tom’s Shettleston Harriers team took the top prize…

When it came to my team, I had been assigned leg 1 and was getting our mission under way. It turned out mine was one of the easier jobs of the day, yet still it was a real challenge. The level of tiredness I can feel in my legs on a recovery run the day after a race is usually a good gauge of how much effort I’ve really put in. By that measure, come Sunday morning, I knew I hadn’t left much in the tank in Fife.

I am spending more and more of my running time off road an up hills but still my experience and technique is limited when it comes to hitting the trails and trying to cover the ground quickly. I’m improving but there’s still plenty of work to be done so the more practice I can get, the better.

It’s fair to say there was a fair degree of trepidation on my part when I edged my way towards the start line among a group of people who looked like they had already been there, seen it and done it many times over. Off we set and the varied terrain, inclines and surfaces soon made their presence felt in my creaking calf muscles. ‘It’s doing me good, it’s doing me good, it’s doing me good,’ I kept telling myself.

There was no time for the mind to drift or concentration to drop,  with no two footsteps the same, yet my legs just wouldn’t wake up. The cold air meant I was wide awake and alert but there was little response when I tried to get my limbs to respond.

It wasn’t until after the checkpoint at around halfway through my 7.5km leg that I started to feel a rhythm, aided somewhat by a downhill stretch. I was soon given a demonstration of what good running ACTUALLY looks like, though. Entering the latter stages of my section, the aforementioned Tom Owens and his team-mate bounded past me in the other direction, setting off on leg 2 and already devouring the ground that stretched out in front of them.

I was reasonably positioned in the field when I ploughed my way down the last stretch to hand over to my team-mates Maddie and Campbell. It didn’t take long for the ‘after-run glow’ to kick in – it felt good to be out there – but there was no time to hang around. The Burdens is almost as much logistical challenge as it is physical, with runners needing transported to and from the various handover points, so I quickly jumped into the car with our leg 3 runners Iain and Karl to get them in position.

It was walking up to the foot of West Lomond – the location for the next handover – that I got a proper impression of the REALLY  hard part of the race, though. A low mist had covered everything for much of the day but, every so often the sun poked through – as did the top of one of the peaks the runners were having to scale.

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The reward for the runners who punched their way through the cloud (photo stolen from my team-mate Maddie)

I immediately felt enormous respect for the those tackling the seriously chunky parts of the run. Curiously, I also felt a surprising pang of jealousy at not being able to have a go this time round. I was struck again, too, by the sheer volume of people who were outside, enjoying the landscape and challenging themselves for little more than some free soup at the end. (The soup is incredible, I might add).

Maddie and Campbell did a great job on leg 2, Iain and Karl smashed leg 3 and our final team member, Helen, flew her way around leg 4. That soup – as well as the catch-up chat and note comparing with the second Helensburgh team of Laura, the two Gordons, Becky and Amanda which followed – brought a fitting end to a tremendous day.

It was a real eye-opener to me. Don’t be surprised if 40 for 40 happens to take in a few more hill races this year!

  • I have challenged myself to complete 40 events – involving running, swimming and triathlon – in the year I turn 40. I am raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can find my JustGiving page here. Thank you
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