I’d never been to a race where the participants register in a banqueting hall before. Then again, until this week I’d never taken part in a race in which head torches are mandatory because participants are throwing themselves head first on to the trails in pitch darkness.
But doing that sounded like fun – and certainly something a bit different – so I was very keen to add this latest event to my list when it came to tackling 40 events this year. I was just sorry I hadn’t spotted the other two races (this was the third and final instalment) in the Trossachs Night Trail Race Series.
Organised by the legendary local hill runner Angela Mudge, I’d heard really good things about this series. I wasn’t to be disappointed. In fact, I was impressed the minute I walked into the Forth Inn in the village of Aberfoyle, which is to be found in the heart of the Trossachs in central Scotland, and into that incredible hall to pay the exorbitant entry fee of five whole pounds and pick up my race number.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought that rushing headlong into the inky night was a good way to spend the evening. A very healthy crowd had amassed in the car park upon the edge of which the race began.
After a few brief safety announcements and the warning of some boggy conditions awaiting us on the second half of the route, Angela set everyone off on what was to be a 5.9-mile mini adventure.
The properly sharp end of the field shot off ahead on what was a very straightforward opening section, the first 1.5km or so being run on a tarmac cycle path. It provided the chance to get loose, find a rhythm and, importantly, let your eyes adjust to being surrounded by the glow of head torches.
It all felt reasonably normal until we came to a sharp right turn, said goodbye to the tarmac and properly hit the trail. As the field of runners ventured into the trees and began to string out a little, where to point your gaze became crucial. The first section of trail was riddled with tree routes which meant that your focus had to be on every footstep rather than looking too far ahead.
It was hard work as we swooped round bends, through puddles, over bridges, crested rises – in the midst of the forest no two footsteps were the same and you absolutely needed to have full concentration. However, it also occurred to me that I was having a big bunch of fun in the process.
The first two events of this series had been particularly hilly and, by comparison, this was a pretty flat route. However, I did begin to wonder just what I’d let myself in for as we came through the 3km marker and I became aware that the beams of light I could see ahead of me were heading rather steeply upward.
We had reached Faerie Hill and a reasonably short, but hamstring-tighteningly sharp, climb. I tried to keep good form and get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible but there was no hiding the gasping for breath and my heart pounding in my head as we got back on to more level ground.
That ascent showed me again where I need to put more practice in and I tried to gather my thoughts – and possibly some semblance of consciousness – as what proved to be a chunky stretch of downhill began.
The main difference about racing in the dark is that you have no real concept of what’s coming, about how much longer a hill will rise up – or roll down – for. It really is more or less a case of run and hope…and it doesn’t half make life interesting.
It was on that downhill stretch where my Helensburgh clubmate Karl, who had driven us over to the race, came bounding past me with another runner. That group of three of us would remain just yards apart for much of the rest of the race and being part of a trio which was ebbing and flowing, stretching and contracting, really helped.
It was not getting any easier underfoot. That bog which Angela had promised us duly arrived around 5km and we all began to do our fair share of slipping, sliding and squelching. But the ever-changing terrain simply added to the atmosphere of the race and I realised that I felt reasonably strong.
Heading into the last 1.5km, with the silhouette of the hills and the appearance of a few stars on what was a surprisingly forgiving night in terms of the Scottish weather, and Karl and I began to move away from our fellow group member.
I was on Karl’s shoulder with around 500m to go but, as soon as he became aware of me, he put the foot down. I did too and finishing off such an excellent event with a good old-fashioned sprint finish, which Karl edged by a second, seemed fitting.
Fantastically appropriate as well, was the post-race soup being served up in the banqueting hall, where the post-race chat flowed with Karl and our other clubmate Michael.
The prizegiving revealed Karl was second in his age category, and ninth overall. That meant I had grabbed 10th spot and a bit of a confidence boost. If the rest of the events I take part in this year are as enjoyable at this – then 2017 is going to be a lot of fun!
- I have challenged myself to complete 40 events – involving running, swimming and triathlon – in 2017, the year I turn 40. I am raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. You can find my JustGiving page here. Thank you to everyone who has donated so far. It really is very much appreciated.