As I drove towards Innerleithen in the Borders on Saturday my thoughts on the impending Mighty Deerstalker race were disturbed by the blizzard I was driving through. I was worried enough to contact a friend who turned meteorologist and concluded that the weather was to be biblical. “Heavy snow” that evening, she warned. “Turn back” she said like the Grim Reaper, “it really isn’t worth it”. Yeah right.
There is a masochistic side of me which actually relished the prospect of the twist the extreme weather would add to the event. I already knew that with the low temperatures there was going to be snow above 300ft. This would just mean that the blanket of snow would be a little more universal. Due to my dreadful circulation I’d put a lot of thought into my kit for sub zero temperatures and had some quality traction for my feet.
Soon, however, I broke through to the other side which became my mantra for the day. Thank you Jim Morrison.
With the snow disappearing and getting closer to my destination I started to feel the familiar tingle which turns into a wave of emotion the closer I get to a start line. Sometimes I struggle to keep this in check. I just think of it as trying to prevent all the stuff I’m going to use in the race from bubbling to the surface. It’s hard to describe exactly. But it’s like a big ball of adrenalin, fear, trepidation and excitement all rolled into one. I’ve even been known to shed a tear. But keep that to yourself.
As my shiny Peugeot (trust me it was less than sparkling on the trip home) aquaplaned into the car park I knew the going was clearly going to be soft underfoot. As I sorted out my registration I met a handful of friends. We bantered about footwear, kit and strategy – everyone bemoaning the fact that because it was a waved start this year it was going to be awkward running through the first runners. There’s a few sections of mountain which are pretty much single file. One friend Jack Arnold later confided that he managed to get stuck behind ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ at the wrong part of the hill in the first wave.
I kitted up – full length skins top and bottom, knee length compression socks under the skins – a Nora Batty look half-way round is not good as I discovered last year. A light tech T-shirt over the skins and running shorts. Modesty darlings! Nobody wants to see the Lindford. Wind and waterproof Gore jacket, a pair of semi waterproof gloves, a fluorescent hat with Petzl head torch slapped over the top, SpeedCross 3s on my feet and lastly my Garmin.
I wouldn’t normally wear it but as ever I need to log my 5km for the day. I was also intrigued because the Deerstalker is billed as being around 10km. In fact the actual distance is about 14.5km.
As I’ve said before I’m pretty quiet before an event. I internalise and focus and keep the demons at bay. Have I trained enough, done enough hills, done enough to repair my system from the gastric flu bug, what if I fall, what if my circulation fails?
I’d taken a pair of carrier bags and elastic bands to tie over my hands so that I could get over the stinky bog before the first mountain with dry hands. Dear God what was I thinking? My ‘genius’ idea remained in my pocket.
We were away. It was 6pm and just beginning to lose light. I moved my body forward as my mind switched from insecurity to race mode, my most valuable asset; it’s the one which drives me. There’s no need to sprint off, there’s a long way to go. The hills are coming and I’ll catch you.
The bog was horrific this year. A field of porridge to wade through before and after the stinky bog. I heard an angry exclamation as it claimed a competitor’s shoe. Rule number one: tie your gutties on tight, the best advice I ever had for Deerstalker.
First obstacle in the bag and heading up the mountain I’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm. Surely this can’t be the first wave already? Usually the first couple of kilometres in any race will let me know how things are going to go. I felt good. The legs felt strong, my stomach was settled and I was passing people. The previous week’s illness was not going to be an issue. Getting through the first wave, however, was. As the tracks narrowed and people had slowed to a walk forcing myself and others to go off piste and choose riskier routes.
As I became stuck behind some runners, some struggling, I tried to motivate them up the mountain, shouting, cajoling and sometimes even with a helping hand. There was snow underfoot and the higher we climbed the more it became hard and crunchy. Going downhill was going to be interesting. I had to keep the negative thoughts at bay and keep forging ahead but by now rather than making good time down the first hill, I’d encountered the mid pack of the first wave. Nightmare. People tend to be more difficult to avoid than trees, in particular when they’re about to fall. There was a lot of falling this year.
Descending down the first mountain I knew it was river time. I felt in control and my circulation was functioning well. What sets the Deerstaker apart is that other than a couple of cargo nets and the wall at the end, every obstacle is just part of the natural terrain. I knew that two of the worst were still to come. The first being the half kilometre river run upstream. Harder than it looks, the cold saps the energy and the calves seize up.
A girl close to me fell arms flailing almost taking me with her. Further along a soul had dragged himself out onto a ledge, knees tucked into chest. I shouted at him to get moving. Climbing out of the water and up the riverbank, I couldn’t feel my toes and my calves were like ice and on the verge of cramp . Only moving would help. My mind had plenty to focus on as the terrain was heading straight up through the trees. Finally the field was thinning. I try to judge when to take the caffeine gel in my pocket.
For the first time I noticed how incredibly dark it was and that the rest of the field appeared to be here scrambling up the scree which makes up this particular mountain. There’s genuine fear with some people finding it difficult to move forward, others are running out of energy with a few of us powering up. This is where my daily 5km challenge has paid off. It didn’t feel as gruelling as last year. I felt energised at the top. There was a few kilometres left but I knew that the race was in the bag and I was moving well. There’s a great quote from the legendary 100-mile ultra marathon in America called the Western States Endurance Run.
“If you feel good during Western States, don’t worry. You’ll get over it.” – Gene Thibeault
Although the Deerstalker is a micro race by comparison, the spirit of the quote is applicable to any race. As I was to discover. With the sub-zero conditions and hurtling down the hill I noticed that my torch was useless this year – perhaps it was equally useless last year and I’m just a lunatic. Made worse by the fact that my breath quickly misted up the light. I had become my own fog machine. I was running blind.
Next came the riverbank. Conditions underfoot combined with the dark made staying upright a real challenge. Suddenly I was in the air. It was bound to happen at some point. I noted with displeasure that the remainder of the race was going to have to be done through porridge. The grinch in my head grumbled about health and safety. I dismissed it. If it was too contrived like Tough Mudder and Riverside Rat Race I wouldn’t be here. Finally I recognised the final stretch before Traquair House and spot a man running in a deer suit. I wasn’t about to be beaten by someone dressed as venison!
Now where did I leave the car?
All the events and training I do all contribute to my well being. I’ve discovered that as my 5km’s become part of my daily fabric, they are a natural time out. They give me valuable space to think and mull over ideas. They refresh me and clear my mind.
I also know that if I’m busy and can’t manage to get to CrossFit then my run will happen. CrossFit and events challenge me in so many other ways. With CrossFit it’s about constant self improvement and learning new skills while eventing and racing is an inner challenge. Character building I suppose you could say.
This really is my church. It’s about the fight to keep on giving all I’ve got, a constant learning curve about myself and my limits, about feeling alive and even then that barely scratches the surface.