Saturday, 18 May 2013

Muckle Toon Monster

Langholm Trail Half Marathon 18/05/13

Well that was the hardest half marathon I've ever done. The weather was inclement but it was the course that was tough. Really full on. Which is a good thing. At around 4 miles I was thinking how can this go on for another 9 – we're done for! However, back to the start.

wonder who travels in here?

I had an entry for Goatfell Hill Race but for various reasons (bad weather, transportation, SHR champs, etc.) I cancelled my place and opted for the borders trails instead.

Graham Henry drew this to our attention a couple of weeks ago. Langholm, the Muckle Toon, Dumfriesshire, was putting on the Muckle Toon Adventure Festival. Featuring a trail half marathon. Promising a huge climb in the first mile or two and lots of bike trails and mud. He signed up, as did Mary and Amanda but by the time I'd finished my recent work and “banked the cheque” as it were, the inaugural event was SOLD OUT. I was gutted and emailed and phoned the organisers as usually in such events there is a waiting list or someone might drop out. It was unclear how many places were up for grabs initially for the Half and 10k, but judging by the number of runners today (allowing for a rainy no show percentage) it wasn't a huge crowd. It looked to be around 150 on the start line maybe, but difficult to tell. 

Anyway after keeping me on tenterhooks all week (wtf is a tenterhook?), the marvellous Eve phoned on Friday to say a withdrawal meant I had a place. I was beginning to think I was on marshalling/photo duties. A long way to go (2hr+ drive) for a stand in the rain. Friday was lovely weather – the first day of warmth and summer. However the forecast for Saturday was a low sky full of bad news and sadly for the lovely organisers all that and more came true. Really they had gone to great lengths to put on a big field of entertainment and attractions and mountain bikey events and 2 running races. It may have been a little too ambitious to have it all at the same time but you can see why they would. Sadly the rain fell, the field turned to swamp and spirits did their best not to fall. It was a long way to travel for a race but if it had been sunny this would have been absolutely spectacular. It still was, really. Just damper.

It was good to meet Greig G on the start line. He had a brilliant London Marathon but was disappointed with a measly 2.40! He probably still had it in his legs, and as we set off down the road to Langholm we chatted about this and that, bracing ourselves for the advertised climb up and out of the town. (A profile of the race route on the website was the only clue to where we were going.) A crowd had gathered in the town centre and as we turned the corner they cheered and there was a Pipe Band that blasted the top of your head off. They stood either side of the narrow street and the noise was tremendous. Such that I only just heard the guy with the megaphone say 10k-ers right, Half Marathoners left. The five in front went right and I would have followed such was the effect of the Pipe Band, except Greig went left and I followed him instead. He was now first and I was in second place. As the street rose up to near vertical I bade him farewell. It turned from paving stone to dirt trail and out the back of the small town, rising quickly and turning into a hill race. About the dimensions of Dumyat or Gypsy Glen, except when you got to the top of the 1,000' climb you had another 11 or 12 testing miles of running left.

As we went up the long slog of a climb the guy overtaking me threw his long sleeved top to the marshal and put his vest back on. It was warm enough alright and happily I had worked this out in the car park and returned my helly to the car before we started. It was the rain making the day seem unpleasant, but once you got going it was warm enough. I was overtaken by around 5 guys and at various points I slowed to a walk with hands on knees. I was pacing this like the 2 short hill runs recently hoping my endurance would last longer than a handful of miles. Eventually (after a long and very hellish stomp up paths running with water) a monument loomed out the mist, round which we ran then turned onto a quad bike cinder/gravel path which went off into the gloom.

In a short distance I could see the guy ahead. The route appeared to be marked quite well although when it began to descend on a zig zag path the 2 ahead stopped and searched for the next marker and we all wandered for a few seconds while Keith from Teviotdale and another couple threatened to catch us up. Cursing, a young dude with backpack tried to squeak back through to what was evidently the correct route and I followed him. People had been trying to be too clever taking a direct line rather than the switch back and a bit of this was evident as we proceeded, but quickly we settled into a rhythm with Greig out front, Backpack behind by a hundred yards and me slightly closer to Backpack. I enjoyed the next section which contoured along the hill, slightly dropping but on off-cambered grassy paths often running with streams of water. It took a considerable effort to maintain a speed but shortly I could no longer hear anyone behind and if anything I was catching Backpack. I have no idea why anyone would carry a backpack – even a small empty one – in a half marathon.

We saw Grieg way below head all the way out and down to a fence which then zagged back in the direction we had come. Backpack dropped directly towards Greig cutting off corners. Now the route here was well marked with yellow tape on pegs every 100 yards following a quad bike trail and I felt if it was a hill race or adventure race maybe it was acceptable to cut corners within 10m of the tapes, but a half marathon you should follow the course. I ran to the end of the turnaround in order to show a better example to the runners following. We then hit a series of nice descents on gravelly paths where I had to work to keep Backpack in sight. I would occasionally see Greig on longer straights but felt it would be good to keep Backpack in sight as there was huge potential for getting lost. I wasn't sure about his navigation skills but at least it gave me some input. At this point I believed I was in 3rd place, though not absolutely certain. A few shuffles had taken place but also I lost count of everyone who had gone past on the first hill. Notably on the Ochils runner who had nipped ahead of Greig and was currently in first. He must have had a substantial lead as I didn't see him after the first hill.

From there, there were twists and turns, road crossings, muddy stepped descents, a climb up to a marshal at six miles, some fast muddy single track, gravelly wider bits, small lakes to jump over, big puddles to run through. All manner of heavy going. Bike trails were involved though I didn't see any bikes on the trails. Some were spectacular; cutting a thin muddy line along a big drop off to the left (near 9 miles) other bits of long straight road (10miles) quite tiresome!

We passed lots of 10k-ers, who were doing a condensed version of our route. I said well done to each one and got many a well done back. The atmosphere was very jolly and I tried not to take my potential podium place too seriously. (While all the time keeping an eye on the progress of the next dude behind, who was wearing a non-running-club top. Happily he seemed to be falling back.)

Backpack picked it up along the 9~10mile riverside bike trails. He was good on the off-road stuff but I caught him up on the tiresome road at 10. A marshal directed the halfers left and 10k-ers right. We could hear the PA system of the start/finish area but since the Garmin said 10miles I thought we would possibly be going on a wild goose chase for 2 or 3 miles. Sure enough along the tarmac road. I wished for the comfort of Hokas but the superior grip of the Inov8s was a must for today more than half being on VERY muddy trails. Eve, when I spoke on the phone to confirm my place, had, after a think about it, suggested hill shoes over trail shoes. No doubt about it that was the correct answer. I would have been down on the ground several times today if I had worn the Hokas. My left foot felt a bit sore around 8 miles but no pain since then and I'm hoping it was just a passing ouch.

Corpse feet

So along to the riverside paths and we come upon a junction with a black arrow (white b/g) pointing left and a black arrow (green background) pointing right/straight on. I wished I had been paying attention when they said (if they said) which were our arrows and which were the bike event arrows. I saw Backpack had gone left and noticed yellow tape hanging from branches in that direction and so followed. I suspected the combination of very taxing terrain and so many junctions would result in a few wrong turns. I did my best to keep Backpack in view. Although I reminded myself to not accept his route blindly. Every marshal we passed I asked for clues as to what was coming up next. They were almost all really helpful. Towards the end a girl with an umbrella directed me correctly along the path. At the end of that there was another junction leading up or down. An arrow pointed up but I felt we had already been up that way, so I went down. Eventually there was a gloriously fast tarmac descent to the 10k/half split and I knew we were into the last section – back along the road to the finish. The descent had taken me closer to Backpack though I worried he would get wind of this from the cheers and applause of the folk who a moment before, had been cheering him. I got close but never close enough to make a dash for it and shortly we were steered into the field in which it all started, to do a victory lap before the finish. I did not particularly enjoy the 3 sides of the soggy grass field although I was deeply relieved to finish and retain what I felt was a podium place. (I hadn't seen the dude behind for quite some while.) Then the Ochils runner went past and I asked was he Half or 10k. He told me he was lead half and had got ahead of Greig on the initial climb. But where was Greig? He appeared around the 2hr mark having taken the wrong turn (possibly the uphill after the umbrella girl), run for a bit then realised he was lost and slowly made his way to a damp and regretful finish. So he ran in 2nd place till 12.5miles he reckoned. Bummer. He took it in very good grace – it could easily have been any of us. I moved back up onto the podium. Result!

Ochils and I (being hard as nails!) hosed ourselves down with the cold water bike cleaning hose, shunning the warmth of the rugby club showers (which I only saw after scrubbing the caked mud from my legs.) I got changed in the partly submerged car park field then chatted with Amanda, Graham and Alison till Mary came home looking good in her first race in ages. She chose just about as tough a race as you'll find for it but in some ways that worked well since the times for this Half don't relate to any other half I've ever done. I was so jiggered at the finish line I forgot to stop my stopwatch and Garmin but it seemed to have been about 1.37. I would imagine my road half time around the low 1.20s, and Forfar Multi was under 1.26.

As people came in there were, as anticipated, quite a few tales of extra miles and wrong turns. However nobody was seriously put out. And nobody said it wasn't hard enough. Top marks to Langholm for putting on such a bold race. I feel gutted for them that they got such bad weather, a real stinker of a day. They put a huge amount of energy into the route setting/marking, marshalling and organisation and we really appreciated it. Hopefully it will become a regular fixture.

Graham's smile said it all. Ear to ear. Himself and Amanda were in a similar part of the field, AGH getting ahead on the hilly stuff at the start, GH appearing on the flat at 10 miles cheering and shouting, goading Amanda on to a brilliant first place. I was sure Amanda would do well today as she is a great competitor at hill races and the cross country. Today's course was exactly that with a road 10k stirred in as well. If there had been a mixed team prize we may well have been in line for it.

After prizes we spent another couple of hours driving home. We were lucky to get the van out the sodden car park without pushing! It was a shame to turn down Scott's delightful invite to dinner but we'd a never got home or showered and I would be very drunk and it was best to get home and wash out shoes and muddy kit. As we drove home the skies darkened around Lauder and it looked like the end of the world was approaching. Just filthy weather. Glad to get home.

Route profile (and results may appear) here
Mary's Garmin map and report here

Horatio prepares for the apocalypse


  1. I may have been the guy behind you that you didn't see for some time in the latter stages of the half marathon as marshals and spectators told me I was in fourth from early stages up until around 8 or 9 miles and I was so over the moon having never podium'd before and I could see the second and third guys running about 1-200 metres in front of me and I was feeling strong. I'd ran to the top of Arthur's Seat regularly for three weeks prior to Saturday and felt I might have caught the two I could see in front. Alas, I followed the wrong arrows/tape and went off course by around 1.5 - 2 miles, encountering a deer fence straight across the forestry track I was following and had to about turn. I ended up running about 12.5 miles so I think I must have made up my own route for some time. It was brilliant though, loved just about every minute of it. No idea what position I came in but was just glad to get back on track a mile or two from the finish. Next year? I'll be back :-)

    1. Hi Youngy,
      I'll look out for you on Arthur's Seat - likewise say hello. You can't do better for training than there. My club (Portobello) use Holyrood for training on a Wednesday evening.
      Sorry to hear you got lost towards the end, you weren't the only one, and being such a tough course with many twists and turns it was not surprising.
      Have you tried the 7 Hills of Edinburgh race - it is similarly challenging but more tarmac. Online reg only this year.